Feature

Americans are harming themselves and their institutions by placing undue emphasis on "innate" intelligence and giving lip service to the importance of hard work and experience, argued New Yorker science writer Malcolm Gladwell in a 2002 APA Annual Convention presentation.

Gladwell, who claims a "parasitical relationship with academic psychology," said what really continues to open academic and employment doors are high scores on standardized tests. By comparison, people with proven track records of effort and effectiveness are too seldom rewarded.

And that setup is a problem, Gladwell said, because it breeds today's Enrons and political scandals.

Gladwell draws on the work of such intelligence theorists as psychologist Carol Dweck, PhD, in fleshing out his "natural bias" theory. "On some fundamental level we believe that the closer something is to its original state, the less altered or adulterated it is, the more desirable it is," he explained. "We're intensely interested in how [a particular asset] was achieved."

An example, he said, is the nation's reliance on the SAT for college admission. "Everyone is obsessed with this bizarre and arbitrary test that is supposed to be massively predictive," said Gladwell. "Why? Because the SAT purports to measure 'innate' intelligence--intelligence in its natural state. And that's something we're more drawn to than any sort of measure that might be polluted by effort and hard work, like grades."

Gladwell called on psychologists to investigate why this damaging phenomenon persists and what can be done to counteract it.

To illustrate natural bias and its consequences, Gladwell pointed to what he calls "the quarterback problem." Each year, the National Football League (NFL) selects new recruits by testing college players physically and cognitively. The tests work fine for most player positions, but when it comes to quarterbacks, said Gladwell, "they do an absolutely terrible job of predicting who will do well."

Why? Largely because NFL leaders succumb to the natural bias, favoring quarterback candidates who are tall, fast and strong, rather than those who are slower or shorter, "and who have had...to compensate for those deficiencies with increased hard work, guile and intelligence."

Meanwhile, said Gladwell, the evidence suggests that, if anything, the latter group proves to be better quarterbacks. "It's about a particular cultural fascination with the idea of potential," he explained. "NFL teams think that these [natural athletes] have more room to improve than anybody else."

College admissions officials share the same belief, said Gladwell. They are less inclined to admit those they believe have already "reached the limits of their ability," forgetting that "the best way to predict how well you will perform in the future is how well you performed in the past." The truth, said Gladwell, is that "the kinds of people who start college with lots of unmet potential are generally the ones who leave college with lots of unmet potential. So, this whole potential thing is a trap."

Gladwell pointed to Enron as another real-world case study. The company cherry-picked its executives from the nation's top MBA programs and promoted people based on smarts, rather than experience. The result was the worst corporate meltdown in national history.

The irony, said Gladwell, is that our unconscious natural bias likely evolved to help us distinguish truth from deception. Yet, as Enron shows, the bias can deceive us more than anything else in judging people's fitness. Gladwell challenged psychologists to assess the unconscious processes underlying natural bias, and to help "erase it."

"Once we've discovered these things that are under our unconscious's control, are we supposed to just stand idly by? No. We should fight the unconscious," said Gladwell. "And let's not just do it with theory. Let's do it with corporate America, let's do it with college admissions, and let's do it on the football field....We have in this country a very powerful ideology--or more like mythology--that if you work hard, you will get ahead. Part of what we need to do is to take that mythology--which has been neglected--and to refurbish it. And to structure our social institutions so that they reflect that."