During the past 4 months I have been involved in collecting data, writing, and visiting various universities to talk about two topics: the extent to which different nations vary in their overall intelligence, and in the distribution of intelligence within their populations. (You can read up on the background for these studies by looking at my book Human Intelligence, Chapter 11. Surely your library has a copy!).

During the discussion period after one of these talks I received a very good question. I'd be most interested in the answers any readers of this blog may have.

The question was: "Suppose that the distribution of intelligence in a nation is fixed. How should that nation be organized to maximize the benefits gained from intelligence?"

Let us generalize this as bit, by saying "organized to maximize the benefits of current intelligence and to improve future intelligence in a way that will maximize future benefits?"

I think that answering this question requires pretty careful reasoning. Here are some facts that have to be considered.

Internationally, it has been shown that measures of economic well-being, such as wealth or income per capita, are better predicted by the abilities of the top 5% of the population, in terms of cognition, than by measures of average cognitive ability or the ability of the lowest 5% of the population. On the other hand, measures of social discord, such as crime rates or HIV/AIDS infection rates, are best predicted by the level of cognitive ability in the lowest 5%. Similar data has been found within the United States. Studies of people who, as early teen-agers, have extremely high test scores have shown that by the time they are 40 they have been extremely productive. These studies mirror similar findings, 50 years earlier, by Louis Terman and his colleagues at Stanford University. On the other hand, studies of disadvantaged children who receive intensive pre-school programs have shown that the social benefits show up 15 to 20 years later, and that these benefits are very largely due to the children in the programs not becoming "burdens on society" (e.g. by being incarcerated or being on welfare) when they grow up.

We also have to acknowledge that in this country there are strong feelings against the establishment of an "elite," either cognitive or otherwise. In spite of this public feeling, the fact of the matter is that we do have an educationally segregated society. By and large, college graduates associate with college graduates, and those who did not go to college associate with others who are not college graduates. This is probably because, to a greater extent than before, our economic roles define our social roles.

Nevertheless, anything that smacks of elitism bothers us. This has been shown in our education system. Educational spending on programs for gifted students is a tiny fraction of educational spending on various remedial programs.

And all this is compounded by demographic issues. Without taking any stand on "innate" differences in intelligence, the fact of the matter is that if, as of 2011, money were to be appropriated for the encouragement of people who are already high level educational performers that money would be disproportionately spent on Asian and European-derived Americans. If, as of 2011, money was appropriated to increase the performance of people at the bottom of the class, and to encourage them to go further, that money would be disproportionately spent on African-American and Latino students.

The upshot of all this is that spending on the development of high level cognitive performers is probably well justified if one's purpose is to increase economic well-being. However such spending could increase present inequities in the distribution of wealth. Spending on the improvement of low level performers would lower social costs (after a considerable time) and would decrease economic inequities, but would not do a great deal for national wealth.

So what would you do if you were running the society? When you are answering this, remember that "do both" implies "raise the money we are spending for education," which in turn implies "raise taxes!"

About the Author

Earl Hunt, Ph.D.

Earl Hunt, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus in psychology at the University of Washington.

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