Questionnaire

Want to be smarter? Heredity is not the barrier you might think it is, says University of Michigan social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett, PhD. After analyzing decades of intelligence research, Nisbett maintains that past studies give too much credit to heritability's role in intelligence. Culture, social class and education, he argues, matter more, and explain racial gaps in IQ.

With that in mind, Nisbett says, U.S. schools and society should be far more focused on finding ways to effectively nurture children's intelligence. Nisbett spoke to the Monitor about what parents and educators can do to help children reach their intellectual potential, as detailed in his new book, "Intelligence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Culture Count" (W.W. Norton, 2009).

What made you want to bring race, class and IQ back into the public eye?

There are still lots of misconceptions about intelligence, such as that blacks and whites differ in IQ because of genetics, and that Asians have higher IQs than whites. I wanted to refute that. The great paradox in intelligence research is that the analysis of the data relevant to heritability gives us the conclusion that family environment after adolescence has no impact on intelligence. That's always seemed completely impossible to me. We know, for example, middle-class children are much more likely to get a good education and go to college, and to think that this makes no difference in intelligence seems impossible. But accepting that conclusion was core to such books as "The Bell Curve" and "The Nurture Assumption."

Why doesn't the idea that heritability accounts for IQ hold up?

Genetics influences IQ. People with genes for high IQ pass them on to their children. Their children will be smarter than other children on average. The question is: How much of the variation in IQ in a given population is accounted for by genes? Estimates have run as high as 80 percent. This is not the same thing as saying that your IQ is 80 percent determined by genes. That's quite wrong. In any case, a number of errors of the kind I detail in my book have resulted in estimates of heritability that are too high.

For example, identical twins reared apart are very similar with respect to IQ, and the conclusion was that this indicates that genes are tremendously important and environments are not very important because being raised in different environments doesn't prevent IQs from being highly similar. But it turns out that identical twins reared apart aren't really raised in very different environments, in general. They typically are raised in the same town and often by relatives. So it is likely that their environments are making them similar and this similarity gets credited mistakenly to heredity.

You say parents can help their children boost their intelligence by simply teaching that it's malleable. What else can they do?

For one thing, parents should believe what they are saying, because if they believe it, they will convey it well to their kids. They should also convey that hard work counts. You don't want to praise for intelligence. Children take on less challenging tasks if they have been praised a lot for intelligence because they don't want to risk their reputation. In general, it's not great to praise your kids all that much. [Constant praise] establishes that you are evaluating and you don't want them to feel evaluated all the time. You want them to feel you are pleased with their hard work.

My book also has specific recommendations on the best ways for tutoring children. Effective tutors have an approach that resembles Japanese ways of teaching mathematics: When the kid makes a mistake in math, for example, a bad tutor would say, 'No, that's wrong, here is the rule.' That doesn't seem to be as effective as letting the kid continue to work and ask questions that make the kid try another strategy or realize what's wrong. Working your way out of a box you got into is a more effective way to learn.

Are today's parents making any mistakes in their efforts to shape their children's intelligence?

Upper-middle-class people are doing what makes sense with making kids brighter. Breastfeeding, reading, taking kids to museums, talking to them. But that is different from what lower socioeconomic status people are doing. They are not having conversations nearly as much or encouraging intellectual exploration as much. A wide body of research suggests blacks at every socioeconomic level are doing less [to] encourage intellectual development in their children.

Are you getting criticism from any groups or intelligence researchers?

No, and I was very worried what the reception of the book would be, and I have gotten remarkably little criticism. Blacks have read my book and heard me talk and they don't complain. I'm saying genetics plays no role in the race difference and that's a message people want to hear. And I don't think any thoughtful person believes that social structure differences, income and discrimination are enough to account for the differences in IQ and achievement.

Anybody who is paying attention knows that there are black subcultures that discourage academic achievement, in the ghetto and even in integrated middle-class schools. President Obama, Chris Rock and Bill Cosby are all saying versions of what I am saying.

What can adults do to boost their own IQs?

Keep active intellectually and socially. Keep working. Research from Europe shows the earlier the retirement, the bigger the drop in intellectual ability from the mid-50s to mid-60s. As people get older, there are lots of things you can do to sustain the fluid intelligence you've got. You can start exercising as late as your 60s and greatly reduce ... the likelihood of Alzheimer's.

You call today's education research situation "scandalous," noting that it has been mostly anecdotal and should be more rigorous and experimental. Has this begun to change at all?

I actually feel different about this now. I have been very impressed with some recent studies. I think the situation has changed dramatically and I think that it helps we have a new administration. President Obama believes in science. He's data-driven. The Department of Education now has the What Works Clearinghouse for education research, and it's a terrific idea. But I'd like to see it strengthened, not just serving as a repository for good research, but as a prescription. We need an FDA for education research.

How can schools do a better job of nurturing children's intelligence?

They need to get better teachers. Teachers constantly complain that they didn't get much experience in teaching in school or much feedback on what they are doing. In Japan, it's understood you aren't going to be a great teacher until you have done it for 10 or 12 years. They get constant criticism and feedback from colleagues, they sit in on each others' classes and get pointers. That's just not done much in American schools.

There ought to be better teacher training, and, it seems harsh to say it, but there needs to be a winnowing of teachers. If after two or three years they have results with kids that are less than to be expected, they should be let go. If we could let go of the bottom 2 percent or 3 percent each year, it would make a huge difference. I would also like to see teachers compensated more, in general.

What's next for you?

I want to show that family environments make a great deal of difference for adult intelligence. One way to do that is to show that the IQ gains for children of lower socioeconomic status adopted into middle-class families persist into adulthood. At the moment, that is in doubt. I also want to see if you can increase intelligence and academic performance by interventions intended to improve reasoning processes.