Aren’t Some People Just Smarter Than Others?

Use the concept of intelligence intelligently.

Posted Sep 21, 2015

In the current climate of psychology, many people will give you a sour look if you suggest that one person is smarter than another. Psychology has a tendency to abandon concepts that have been put to ill use, rather than to reform their use. These include perversion (ill used against gay people), the double bind (ill used against the parents of schizophrenic children), and intelligence (ill used against poor people or black people). The problem with this practice is that, eventually, every concept is ill-used against a less powerful group, because every concept is deployed by the powerful, and within any system, the hegemony always drifts from concern about the system to concern about the hegemony.

The concept of intelligence has been used to limit the opportunities of poor (and therefore, in America, black) children, primarily by stratifying them, but also by not devoting adequate resources toward educating them. The desire to maximize children’s potential has led to minimizing the idea that they don’t all have the same abilities. In the suburbs, many parents believe that their child can be a surgeon or a rocket scientist if only they want it enough, and they disdain the concept of intelligence because it limits their children’s dreams.

1. Intelligence is how well your brain works (in my definition of it), analogous to dexterity, which is how well your hands work. It’s not clear that we even need a definition of intelligence, since you know what I mean by it. But statistically, it’s the common factor among tasks we describe as cognitive (versus physical). Those who would mock this definition would say it's merely what IQ tests measure, but that is actually a reasonable definition, analogous to saying that weight is what scales measure.

2. The expression of intelligence is culture-bound. My mother defined intelligence as “the extent to which other people agree with me,” which captures and lampoons this issue. But attractiveness is also largely culture-bound, and I don’t think anyone seriously argues that it therefore doesn’t exist. The whole point of having a big brain, apparently, is to succeed in one’s geographical situation by remembering things and solving problems and such, and to succeed among other people (including mating). The details of succeeding socially vary from tribe to tribe, but a superior brain is a good start (as is attractiveness or dexterity). The culture-bound nature of intelligence is a problem for test makers, who often ignore the culture-bound nature of test taking itself, and inadvertently disadvantage people who are not used to quizzes and puzzles.

3. Adult intelligence is inherited, about as much as height. Many people read this assertion as saying that environment doesn’t matter, but the opposite of “inherited” is not “environment,” it’s “randomness.” Anastasi (I think) noted that if you raise a generation of children in pickle barrels, feeding them through a hole with no other communication, they will become extremely unintelligent as a group, even if the variations among them that do occur are inherited. Parents trying to influence their children’s intelligence by playing Mozart and drilling them with vocabulary words have an effect that wears off in early adulthood. The one caveat has to do with the pickle-barrel analogy; if children are diseased, malnourished, beaten, or traumatized, it can affect their brains in a way that limits their intelligence. The only childhood interventions that might have a lasting impact would be to develop a secure attachment and to cultivate a fascination with the rewards of intellectual challenges, the gifts that keep on giving.

4. Intelligence is a personality factor. Cattell defined personality as person variables, as opposed to situation variables—whatever allows us to predict what a person will do in a given situation. In his factor analysis of the dictionary, which formed the basis of Big Five personality theory, he always discussed what might be called the Big Six, because he found that intelligence was one of the main things that people notice about each other. When intellect is banned as an explanatory concept, we develop twisted ideas about people’s behaviors when they are simply having trouble keeping up, or they’re bored, or they’re in over their heads, or they’re humiliated by not knowing something.

5. The stigma of looking less than completely intelligent is another source of psychologists’ reluctance to use the concept. I remember when Isaac Asimov appeared on the Dick Cavett show. Cavett, a comedian and talk-show host who acted erudite, used a big word and Asimov, the brilliant sci-fi novelist and science writer, asked him what it meant. Cavett said he was surprised that there was a word that the prolific and knowledgeable Asimov didn’t know. Asimov said, “You know, when you’re as smart as I am, you just ask.” I think embarrassment over looking less intelligent forces people to fake it. Imagine the extra difficulties that would attend short people if it were humiliating to acknowledge being short; having to pretend to dislike peanut butter or to be allergic to it rather than just saying they can’t reach it.

6. While the high heritability of intelligence has been used to justify unfair treatment of black people (claiming there’s no way to help them), it equally suggests the opposite. Heritability implies that black-white differences are environmentally caused, not genetically caused, because of the fact of our common heritage. The different races can be analogized to identical twins reared apart. Racial differences in intelligence would require that one racial group evolved under conditions where intelligence was a disadvantage or less of an advantage. It’s really hard to imagine how that could happen. This is not true for height, say, or skin color, other highly heritable traits. Presumably, when now-black tribes and now-white tribes split (not too long ago in evolutionary terms), those that remained (or became) black either lived in a place where melanin was a geographical advantage (mitigating exposure to sunshine, say) or a social advantage (people found it attractive, say). It’s easy to think of ways in which skin color or height could be a geographical or social disadvantage. It’s really hard to think of ways intelligence could be a disadvantage, or where social problem-solving would be less of an advantage. (If you want to know what it’s like to lose IQ points, visit another culture; they’re all really complicated.) Since the common ancestry among all humans is fairly recent, that means that all tribes are about equally intelligent. And that implies that environmental and political factors (and biased assessment) account for perceived differences. When a fact like heritability implies opposite inferences about, say, the cause of racial differences in test scores, then that is not relevant to the discussion of those inferences.

7. Intelligence is a source of privilege. Smart people are like tall people would be in a world where much of the good stuff is kept in the upper cabinets. In fact, we look up to tall people, and they look down on us, and one of the great privileges of maleness is the general state of being taller than average-sized women (and thus, less like children, because according to Erving Goffman, face-to-face social status is largely a function of being able to hide one’s childishness). Intelligence also allows people to look less like children: to be less confused, less ignorant, and less mistaken, and to show interest in things that bore children. Like many privilege holders, the intelligent are reluctant to acknowledge their advantages. They often make the mistake of treating everyone as intelligent, which seems like a nice enough thing to do until you draw the comparison to being white, where color-blindness also seems like a nice enough thing to do, but it ignores the actual disadvantages of being a person of color. Now, I know almost nothing about Dr. Ben Carson, but I have no reason to doubt that through hard work and religious devotion he went from inner city poverty to gifted neurosurgeon. But when his story is turned into a morality tale, implying that all inner city kids could do the same, I have to balk. Ben Carson was born with an enormous intellectual advantage that most people just don’t have.