IQ arrives at the Times

An op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times states the forbidden. It says that inborn ability, including IQ, matters, and that a lack of the inborn ability needed to perform in certain cognitively demanding professions most likely cannot be overcome by lots of practice:

November 19, 2011
Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters

HOW do people acquire high levels of skill in science, business, music, the arts and sports? This has long been a topic of intense debate in psychology.

Research in recent decades has shown that a big part of the answer is simply practice—and a lot of it. In a pioneering study, the Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues asked violin students at a music academy to estimate the amount of time they had devoted to practice since they started playing. By age 20, the students whom the faculty nominated as the “best” players had accumulated an average of over 10,000 hours, compared with just under 8,000 hours for the “good” players and not even 5,000 hours for the least skilled.

Those findings have been enthusiastically championed, perhaps because of their meritocratic appeal: what seems to separate the great from the merely good is hard work, not intellectual ability. Summing up Mr. Ericsson’s research in his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell observes that practice isn’t “the thing you do once you’re good” but “the thing you do that makes you good.” He adds that intellectual ability—the trait that an I.Q. score reflects—turns out not to be that important. “Once someone has reached an I.Q. of somewhere around 120,” he writes, “having additional I.Q. points doesn’t seem to translate into any measureable real-world advantage.”

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, restates this idea in his book “The Social Animal,” while Geoff Colvin, in his book “Talent Is Overrated,” adds that “I.Q. is a decent predictor of performance on an unfamiliar task, but once a person has been at a job for a few years, I.Q. predicts little or nothing about performance.”

But this isn’t quite the story that science tells. Research has shown that intellectual ability matters for success in many fields—and not just up to a point.

Exhibit A is a landmark study of intellectually precocious youths directed by the Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They and their colleagues tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. (Scores on the SAT correlate so highly with I.Q. that the psychologist Howard Gardner described it as a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile—the profoundly gifted—were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.

In our own recent research, we have discovered that “working memory capacity,” a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities. In one study, we assessed the practice habits of pianists and then gauged their working memory capacity, which is measured by having a person try to remember information (like a list of random digits) while performing another task. We then had the pianists sight read pieces of music without preparation.

Not surprisingly, there was a strong positive correlation between practice habits and sight-reading performance. In fact, the total amount of practice the pianists had accumulated in their piano careers accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across participants. But working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about 7 percent, a medium-size effect). In other words, if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice, but different levels of working memory capacity, it’s likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task.

It would be nice if intellectual ability and the capacities that underlie it were important for success only up to a point. In fact, it would be nice if they weren’t important at all, because research shows that those factors are highly stable across an individual’s life span. But wishing doesn’t make it so.

None of this is to deny the power of practice. Nor is it to say that it’s impossible for a person with an average I.Q. to, say, earn a Ph.D. in physics. It’s just unlikely, relatively speaking. Sometimes the story that science tells us isn’t the story we want to hear. [LA replies: the authors chickened out on that last point. A person with average intelligence cannot be a physicist, period. Of course, a person with average IQ could “earn,” i.e., receive, a Ph.D in physics, through favoritism, of which we have a massive amount today for certain racial minorities, but that’s a different issue.]

David Z. Hambrick and Elizabeth J. Meinz are associate professors of psychology at Michigan State University and Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, respectively.

- end of initial entry -

November 22

Paul K. writes:

Apparently IQ is not too controversial subject for a Times op-ed piece as long as you don’t bring race into it. The authors quote Malcolm Gladwell: “Once someone has reached an IQ of somewhere around 120, having additional IQ points doesn’t seem to translate into any measurable real-world advantage.”

It is true that 120 is considered the floor at which one can compete successfully at an Ivy League school, and is sufficient for success in most, if not all fields. The problem is that that is too high a standard for all but an infinitesimal percentage of blacks to meet. According to Dinesh D’Souza in The End of Racism, in the chapter, “The Content of our Chromosomes”: “At very high thresholds of 120 and higher, whites continue to be represented while blacks are practically non-existent: about 13 percent of whites, compared with 0.32 percent of blacks, achieve in this outstanding bracket.”

Karl D. writes:

One of the things I thank my parents for is their honesty. Unlike most other parents who fill their children’s head with the myth that they can be whatever they want when they grow up, my parents told me that that was not necessarily true. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t being cynical or trying to make me feel bad. They were just realistic. They encouraged me to peruse what I was passionate about yet to weigh that passion with honesty about my inborn abilities. For example, I was diagnosed with a learning disability when I was quite young which made grammar and mathematics a tortuous, almost impossible, endeavor for me. My young dreams of being an astronaut or engineer were out of the question, and I was urged to build new dreams. It hurt at first but I moved on. And I am grateful for not having wasted years of my life on what most likely would have been a fruitless, frustrating, and heartbreaking quest. On the flip side however it seems like children today can be whatever they want to a certain degree (especially minorities), since standards have been lowered so much and replaced by self-esteem. They may wind up being astronauts and engineers but of very poor quality.

A reader writes:

You have avoided the obvious title … “NYT says IQ matters. Women and minorities hit hardest.” I am not sure if that is discretion on your part or just a desire to avoid the trite snark. Thanks for the link, in either case.

LA replies:

In fact, the article says nothing about race or sex.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 21, 2011 11:23 AM | Send

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