Is our society coming apart…and what should Psychology do about it?

A recently published book about American society, Coming Apart, by Charles Murray (2012), has drawn comments from such distinguished figures as David Brooks (NY Times, Jan. 30, 2012) and Arthur Samuelson (Washington Post, Feb. 24, 2012). Murray himself wrote an OP-ED in the NY Times (March 7, 2012) and was interviewed on the PBS Newshour (March 20, 2012). His thesis is that class divisions amongst White Americans have increased sharply over the past fifty years, and that this poses a major problem for American society.

Murray’s argument also poses a number of questions for those who are interested in individual differences in cognitive skill, i.e. intelligence. To explain why I shall try to summarize a bit of history, then present Murray’s findings, and finally discuss the questions they raise for psychology.

The fact that there are social classes in the United States is hardly news. A classic study in sociology (Lynd & Lynd, 1929. described class distinctions before the Great Depression. It has also been argued that class distinctions are a necessary part of the historical evolution of society from tribalism into nation-states (Fukuyama, 2011). The issue is not about the existence of classes, it is how these classes fit together to form a society. This is what concerns Murray. He claims that the growth of class differences greatly accelerated from 1960 to 2010, and that the differentiation goes well beyond economic disparity. Why might this have happened? Here is my own analysis, which is slightly different from Murray’s.

During the second part of the 20th century two technological developments had profound “unintended side effects” on American society. The first, beginning in the 1950s, was a spectacular change in transportation. The expansion of the highway/road system and improvements in vehicle quality made the move to the suburbs feasible. Paradoxically, the move to the suburbs was accompanied by a decrease in public transportation systems. (The opposite was true in Europe.) At the same time, income inequality increased. Those who were wealthy enough to take advantage of these trends were able to create neighborhoods where people could live with “other people like them.”

The second technological revolution was the much talked about revolution in information technology; computers, electronic media, and telecommunication. Transmission and processing of vast amounts of information became feasible.

These developments influenced both the economics and social aspects of life. First let’s consider the economics.

The modern economy consists of a large number of interacting modules. To take a homily example, the day I wrote this paragraph I was in Michigan, had Mexican-grown strawberries for breakfast, and very well may have Chilean wine for dinner. Oh, yes. I drive a German-designed car that was built in Canada. At a grander scale, Boeing aircraft are assembled in the United States, but the components are built all over the world. This sort of economy only works if (a) material things can be shipped back and forth easily and at relatively low cost…the transportation revolution again, and (b) a high degree of centralized control can be exerted, to make sure that all the pieces are going to fit together. The computer/telecommunications revolution is what makes (b) possible. The two revolutions greatly enhanced what the military would call “command and control capability,” industries’ and governments’ ability to plan and monitor activity throughout the world. In addition, the activities being planned and monitored have themselves been automated, in large part because of the development of robotic machinery.

These trends have been documented in several prescient books. For those who want to trace the history, I particularly recommend Shoshana Zuboff’s (1988) Age of the Smart Machine, Robert Reich’s (1991) The Work of Nations, somewhat immodestly my own Will we be Smart Enough (Hunt, 1995), and Thomas Friedman’s influential The World is Flat series (Friedman, 2005, 2006, 2007). These authors stressed three things; the increasing globalization of economic and social exchanges, the shift away from ‘hands on manufacturing’ by skilled labor to manufacturing by smart machines, in co-ordination with rudimentary and not necessarily very skilled human attendants, and, in Reich’s apt term, the rise of the ‘symbol analyst,’ whose expertise is in the management of abstract reports, models of various aspects of society, and financial transactions. The authors, and many other social commentators, emphasized the need to ensure that the American workforce had the appropriate skills for the new society. As the term ‘symbol analyst’ suggests, these skills were largely cognitive rather than manual. Friedman and Reich, in particular, seem to have regarded the obtaining of the necessary skills as very largely a matter of institutional arrangements, ranging from expanding community college programs to reducing the cost of college and university tuition. (The opposite has happened. In the twenty years from 1986-87 to 2006-2007 the tuition and fees for full time attendance at four year universities approximately doubled (College Board, 2006, Figure 3). All the authors focused on how the potential workforce could be prepared to meet the demands of the workplace. What we did not consider is how changes in the relative marketability of cognitive and manual skills would influence the social conditions of the workforce, and by extension, the entire population.

One person did consider these implications; Richard Herrnstein (1930-1994), a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. In a way, Herrnstein was an unlikely social commentator. His academic specialty was not human cognition, industrial organization or social psychology. He studied basic learning phenomenon in rats and pigeons, and was active in the development of mathematical models in psychology. Nevertheless, he maintained a keen interest in intelligence, although (insofar as I know) he did no research in the field. His book IQ in the Meritocracy (Herrnstein, 1973) presented a minor stir because he took the position that intelligence, as measured by conventional tests, was a trait that people had to have in order to be successful in a society where social rank is largely determined by ‘merit,’ i.e. by what one does rather than who one is. Herrnstein also took a fairly strong position on two other points; that intelligence is very largely determined by genetics and that it is a relatively stable trait of the individual. Both these positions were counter to the predominant 1970s beliefs that inequalities in social position arose from social advantage or disadvantage, and that such inequalities could be erased by social programs, especially educational ones. Herrnstein’s writing enjoyed a brief period of damnation by social scientists, and then was largely forgotten.

Twenty years later, just before his death, Herrnstein joined forces with Murray (a political scientist) to write the The Bell Curve (Herrnstein & Murray, 1994). This book generated great deal of controversy. The Bell Curve is (in)famous for the wrong reasons.

I wager that if you asked the typical social scientist or social commentator who had been active in the 1990s what The Bell Curve was about their reply would include the terms “discredited” and “racist.” However if you restricted your sample to people who had actually read the book (it is a formidable 912 pages long), and especially to those who had themselves done research on intelligence, you might get a more nuanced picture.

The Bell Curve reported an analysis of the 1979 National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY79) survey. This survey was noteworthy because it contained scores on the Armed Services Qualification Test (AFQT) for a representative sample of American teen-agers, together with data on their life status as young adults, some fifteen years later. Herrnstein and Murray showed that the AFQT scores were predictors of socioeconomic status more than ten years after the test had been taken. From this, they concluded that modern society is organized so that people with high levels of cognitive skills generally do well, and that those we do not have those skills do not do well. Herrnstein and Murray’s conclusion can be summarized in Gottfredson’s (1997) observation that “life is an intelligence test.”

This thesis, and the analyses supporting it, were largely lost sight of because of a single chapter, prophetically, chapter 13. There Herrnstein and Murray reported that African Americans tended to have lower AFQT scores than Whites, and also tended to have lower scores on the socioeconomic indicators. Taken together with the other data reported in The Bell Curve most readers (including myself) concluded that the authors believed that one of the reasons for the lower socioeconomic status of African-Americans, compared to White Americans, was a lack of the cognitive skills required for the modern world, i.e. a lack of intelligence, in the African-American population. Herrnstein and Murray also included a carefully worded statement saying that the differences could be either due to environmental or genetic differences, or both, and that the evidence available in 1994 did not provide any way of comparing the relative size of genetic and environmental contributions. That is still true today (Hunt (2011,2012).

The cautions were not enough. Academics and social commentators excoriated Herrnstein and Murray for suggesting that the African-American socioeconomic statistics were due to anything other than the effects of past or present prejudice in the majority (White) population. This sort of reaction on the part of academia was not new. Twenty-five years earlier Arthur Jensen had made a similar suggestion, along with a much stronger statement about probable genetic causes (Jensen, 1969). As a result, “Jensenism” had become a code word for racial prejudice. The only reason that “Herrnsteinism and Murrayism” did not replace “Jensenism” as the favorite swear word of the politically correct was that it was too hard to say.

And the major thesis of both The Bell Curve and IQ in the Meritocracy, that the world was being strongly tilted in favor of those with the needed cognitive skills, was lost in the confusion.

In the intervening years since The Bell Curve Murray, who is a member of the scientific staff at the American Enterprise Institute, an avowedly conservative think-tank, has become a respected and I believe influential commentator on political and social issues. He is not a political guru, who relies solely on his own opinions and personal observations. Murray analyzes data bases, tests models, and then reports his conclusions. For instance, his Human Accomplishment (Murray, 2003) analyzed the role of inventions and new ways of thinking in the historical development of modern society. The analysis was based on a statistical analysis of references to ideas and inventions. This is not to say that Murray is without opinions; he has strong ones. In the traditions of the social sciences he tries to substantiate them with data.

In, Coming Apart, Murray applies his statistical approach to return to the thesis that intelligence is really important in modern society. However he goes beyond The Bell Curve to investigate some of the dark sides of this fact.

Murray bases his argument on analyses of publicly available data bases. These include reports from the US Census Office, the General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago, the National Longitudinal Studies of the Department of Labor, and (for some of his data on the “New Upper Class”) alumni records of selected “elite” schools, largely in the Northeast. Coming Apart does not report any analyses of ethnic differences. Virtually all of the empirical studies in the book deal with 30-49 year old Whites, an age that Murray chose because he felt that it represents the prime working years, after most people have established a stable occupation and life style, but before they begin to aim for retirement.

The first part of Coming Apart deals with the Upper Class, which Murray defines in terms of education, influence and occupational status. Wealth usually follows, but not always. Murray points out that some people hold upper class status because they follow prestigious but not terribly highly paid occupations. Judges, high level government officials, and university faculty, (providing that they are faculty at elite, preferably Ivy League and similar Northeastern universities) can be non-wealthy Upper Classers. Murray’s New Upper Class contains within itself an even smaller group of the “true elite.” These are the people who make major corporate and government decisions, and who have the ear of the national media.

In economic terms the New Upper Class is amazingly productive. Symbol analysis generally pays well both in money and prestige. At this point conservatives will simply nod, saying that that is how it should be, for these are the leaders and innovators who drive society. Murray notes a more ominous trend. He concludes that over the past fifty years there has been a marked increase in social differentiation between those with wealth and influence and the average Joe and Jane, including those who are ‘only’ middle class. This trend has been well documented for economics. Many writers have commented on the fact that both earnings and wealth are more unequally distributed in the United States than in other post-industrial nations, and that the present inequalities are much greater than past inequalities. What Murray does is go beyond economics to look at social isolation.

Murray’s analysis of the distribution of wealth and education across zip codes (for European readers, postal districts) shows that New Upper Class increasingly lives apart from the less fortunate. Murray questions some fairly well established beliefs; especially the belief that wealthier, better educated people are markedly more politically and socially liberal than those of lower socioeconomic status. In general, he finds that the social and political attitudes of the super elite class mirror those of the ‘normal elite’ the comfortable 10%, as indicated by population surveys. However there is an important exception. The upper class members who live in zip codes near Washington DC, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The Super-Elites in these districts are much more liberally oriented than New Upper Class as a whole. This is important because many of the controlling offices in political, financial, and media circles are located in or near these cities.

As an interjection, I will cite a pair of statistics of my own, rather than Murray’s. Think of this next paragraph as a focus group assembled to illustrate Murray’s point.

At the present time (Spring, 2012) there are just under 200 American Bar Association accredited law schools in the United States. All nine of the members of the US Supreme Court hold degrees from either Yale or Harvard. From 1960 to 2010 the United States had ten presidents. Six of them had either graduate or undergraduate degrees from Yale or Harvard. Of the other four, Nixon held a law degree from Duke, which Murray would probably consider an elite private university if it was north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

If the decision makers are living apart from, and have different social values than, those whom the decisions affect, can we expect good decision making? Murray is a bit skeptical. The term “Overeducated intellectual snobs” occurs on page 84. Those in elite universities and intellectually oriented think tanks will know who he means.

I think the bite of Murray’s remark was meant for those upper class social leaders who restrict local problem solving by developing central government programs and regulations to match. The bite could equally well be directed at business and industrial leaders whose decisions make sense, from a strictly economic viewpoint, without considering, sometimes without realizing and sometimes without caring about, the disruptive effects their decisions may have upon people who “aren’t like them.”

Murray’s final concern about the New Upper Class is its ability to perpetuate itself. Although there have been a few exceptions, entry into the world of the symbol analyst, and certainly participation in a profession, requires at least a college degree. Cognitive tests are used as screening devices, and the fact is that scores on these tests are correlated with socioeconomic status. This is not a criticism of the tests. They do what they were intended to do, imperfectly, but significantly, measure the extent to which an examinee possesses some of the cognitive skills required in our society. And for our purposes here, we need not enter into a debate over whether or not this is because of a biological or social advantage. The point is just that the use of cognitive screening does act to the advantage of the children of the New Upper Class and Upper Middle Class.

Such screening is reinforced by money, and the New Upper Class is certainly willing to spend its money to give its children a leg up. Here is an example Murray would have loved to have, but the report surfaced too late for the book. According to the New York Times (April 14, 2012) a small New York City industry has developed in preparing preschoolers to take tests for entry into the better kindergartens. (One test preparation kit costs $300). According to one of the parents “These are the kinds of choices that make a difference in young kids’ lives.”

The same thing happens at the other end of the educational system. In 2010 the median household income in the United States was $50,000. That year the estimated cost of an undergraduate year at Harvard was $52,000. To be sure, there are a number of student loan programs, at Harvard and elsewhere, but these are loans, not gifts. The combination of cognitive screening and financial screening clearly act to favor the perpetuation of class differences over generations.

No wonder Murray regards the educational system as a cognitive sorting machine, highly biased toward the perpetuation of the New Upper Class on into the next generation.

In part 2 of this post, I will discuss the second half of Coming Apart and continue my analysis.



College Board (2006) Trends in College Pricing. New York: College Board Trends in Higher Education Series.

Devlin, B., Fienberg, S.E., Resnick, D.P., Roeder, K. (eds.) (1997) Intelligence, genes, and success: Scientists respond to The Bell Curve. New York: Springer-Verlag,

Friedman, T.L. (2005) The world is flat: A brief history of the 21st century. New York: Farrar, Strous, & Giroux

Friedman, T.L. (2006) The world is flat: A brief history of the 21st century 2nd edition.. New York: Farrar, Strous, & Giroux.

Friedman, T.L. (2007) The world is flat: A brief history of the 21st century 2nd edition (Further updated and expanded: Release 3.0).. New York: Farrar, Strous, & Giroux.

Fukuyama, F. (2011) The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Gottfredson, L.S. (1997) Why g matters: The complexity of everyday life. Intelligence. 24(1): 79-132.

Herrnstein, R.J. (1973) I.Q. in the Meritocracy. Boston: Little, Brown.

Hunt, E (2011). Human Intelligence. New York: Cambridge U. Press.

Herrnstein, R.J. , Murray, C. (1994) The Bell Curve. Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: The Free Press.

Hunt, E. (1995) Will we be smart enough? A cognitive analysis of the coming workforce. New York: Russell Sage

Hunt, E. (2012) What makes nations intelligent? Perspectives on Psychological Science. (to be published May 2012).

Hunt, E., Madhyastha, T.M. (2012) Cognitive Demands of the Workplace. J. of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics. 5 (1) 18-37.

Jensen, A. R. (1969) How much can we boost IQ and scholastic achievement? Harvard Educational Review, 39(1), 1-123.

Lynd, Robert S. and Helen M. Lynd. Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1929

Murray, C. (200) Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950. New York: Harper Collin

Murray, C. (2012) Coming Apart: The state of White America 1960-2010. New York: Crown Forum.

Reich, R. (1991) The work of nations: Preparing ourselves for 21st century capitalism. New York: Knopf.

Zuboff, S. (1988) In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books.

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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