Intelligence: New Findings And Theoretical Developments

A conversation with Diane F. Halpern

Posted Jan 11, 2012

Recently, a group of authors decided that it was time to discuss empirical and theoretical developments that had occurred since the publication of the original article.  This article, Intelligence: New Findings and Theoretical Developments, was just published by the American Psychologist roughly 16 years later.  The authors on this new article are Richard E. Nisbett, Joshua Aronson, Clancy Blair, William Dickens, James Flynn, Diane F. Halpern, and Erik Turkheimer.  This paper can be found here.

If you look closely, there is one name that is linked to these two important papers: Diane F. Halpern.  Diane is the Trustee Professor of Psychology & Roberts Fellow at Claremont McKenna College and was the president of the American Psychological Association in 2004.  She has won multiple teaching and research awards, including the George A. Miller Award for "the outstanding journal article in psychology."  To me she is much more than a famous psychologist.  She is also a mentor and one of the main reasons why I decided to pursue a doctorate in psychology and got interested in the field of intelligence.

WAI: How did you get interested in studying intelligence?

HALPERN: It is so hard to think back in time to remember what sparked a life-long interest. I remember when I first studied cognitive psychology and, at the time, really wanting to become a better thinker. (I am still working toward that elusive goal.) When I was in graduate school a benefactor funded several sections of a course that we called a "practicum in thinking." I was hooked on the idea that everyone can improve in how they think, a topic that led me to think about the nature of intelligence and its relationship to good thinking. I sort of followed my nose and then studied how females and males are both similar and different in their cognitive abilities and now, decades later, I am still studying these "big" questions.

2. Why was it time to write a sequel to the original paper?

There have been many changes since the 1996 paper on intelligence. We have new research findings and new ways of thinking about those findings. Fifteen years is a long time in a field like intelligence.

3. You are the only person who was an author on the original paper in 1996 as well as an author on this update in 2012.  Could you talk about your experience working with these two groups?

The groups were very different. The committee that wrote the 1996 paper that was chaired by Dick Neisser was set up by the Science Directorate at the American Psychological Association in response to the controversies raised by Herrnstein and Murray in their book The Bell Curve. The first committee was deliberately created to represent diverse views on intelligence. It is a great credit to Dick Neisser that we were able to come together and agree on essential points in that paper. I learned a great deal about reaching consensus and handling conflict from him. Our recent paper was chaired by Dick Nisbett, who obtained funding from the Russell Sage Foundation so that we could get together and advance the field of intelligence research and convey our conclusions to the public. As we acknowledged in our paper, we differed from the earlier committee in that there was no deliberate attempt to include a variety of disparate views among the authors, which is interesting because we each have our own biases and understanding of this controversial field. I am very grateful to have been on both committees and sincerely thank both "Dicks-Neisser and Nisbett" for including me.

4. What are the most exciting empirical findings and theoretical developments regarding what we now know about intelligence that we didn't know back in 1996?

Our understanding of genetic contributions to intelligence has come a long way, but still has a long way to go. It seems safe to conclude that low socioeconomic status limits genetic contributions to intelligence, which means that poor children do not develop their full genetic potential, a finding that took me some time to accept and understand. Paradoxically, the biological revolution in psychology has made the role of the environment even more important because we now have a better understanding of the way that environmental variables alter the brain and other biological systems (e.g., hormones). Epigenesis is a virtual buzz word now-the environment influences which genetic processes are "turned on and turned off." There have been massive gains in IQ scores over time and around the world-for all parts of the intelligence distribution, reflecting the increasing cognitive demands of contemporary life. We have a much better appreciation for the role of nonconscious processes, such as stereotype threat, in the role of enhancing and suppressing performance on measures of intelligence. There are many more examples in our recent article.

5. What kinds of intelligence research do you think will be important for the future?

It is always risky to predict the future, but I will try. I expect that there will be much more work on interventions that can raise intelligence. We have reason to be optimistic about interventions for those at risk for extremely low levels of achievement, based on the positive findings regarding many life outcomes (e.g., reduced crime, higher graduation and employment rates). Investments that yield these sorts of long-term gains are an economic bargain. I also expect much more work in the area of cognitive aging, especially interventions that can delay or reduce Alzheimer's. Cognitive aging research is an imperative in an aging society. In addition, most of my students report that "they know someone" who has taken medication prescribed for someone else for Attention Deficit Disorder. This is another area where we need more research. We must understand the risks and benefits of drug use to enhance intelligent performance. I also expect more work on the role of stress and intelligence.

Intelligence is a controversial and fascinating area of study. I hope that our recent paper will create new interest in young investigators who will be part of the committee that writes the 2026 intelligence update.

© 2012 by Jonathan Wai

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