Issue 30 / April - June 2000
On Intelligence, Effort, and Success
This article discusses the sources of differences on intelligence and their effects on desirable outcomes in people's lives. The questions of whether intelligence is hereditary and whether an individual's performance is determined by a general factor of intelligence are very controversial topics. The reason is that the answers given impact political and social programs. After surveying possible explanations of intelligence, the relationship between intelligence and success is analyzed. Arguments against the heredity of intelligence and the lack of conclusive evidence for the "intelligence determines success" motto follow. An emphasis on personal effort for achieving desired outcomes concludes the discussion.
If you find something hard to grasp, do you immediately conclude that you have reached the limit of your cognitive ability and give up? Do you usually associate successful outcomes with smartness and failures with lack of intelligence? Do you consider intellectual ability an indispensable component of every accomplishment, or it is the effort-plain, sweaty hard work-that brings about the desired outcome?
The above questions tackle the dilemma of effort versus ability. Although it can be relevant to more than one topic and domain, this article will elaborate on the dimension of intelligence. Is intelligence a fixed, innate talent bestowed by heredity? Is it an accumulated, cognitive reservoir constructed through such personal factors as effort and motivation, and such environmental factors as held in common by family and community members?
A Historical View
The effort/ability dilemma has been very controversial in the West. It has not been a mere academic debate, but one with political and social implications and a very eager public interest. The publication of Darwin's The Origin of Species (1859) had a major impact on biology and other fields.
Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, advocated applying Darwinian principles to human society and coined the term eugenics, from the Greek words of "good in birth." In his Hereditary Genius (1869),(1) he argued that mental features are as hereditary as physical features, and that a selective breeding of human beings (similar to horse breeding) could raise the proportion of people with a better-than-average genetic endowment. This new approach helped Darwin extend his evolution theory in The Descent of Man (1871).(2)
Galton believed that intelligence and ability are fixed, innate, and determined by heredity. This idea is proven by accomplishments in competitive careers.(3) He proposed the encouragement of good marriages as a way to create a superior human race, not so much as a way of "unwanted" ones. Gregor Mendel's work on genetically transmitted dominant and recessive traits increased interest in eugenics.
The first half of the twentieth century witnessed an overwhelming belief in eugenics in academia and among intellectuals, politicians, and businessmen.(4) It became "an established fact" that single-unit genes determined such traits as alcoholism and mental incompetence.
Such conclusions naturally had political and social implications. For example, beginning in 1911, the United States tested arriving immigrants to assess their "worthiness." Since many of those tested did not speak English and had just endured a long and difficult sea voyage, scores were low, and particularly lower for certain ethnic groups.(5) As a result, the US Congress passed the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924, which enforced quotas for unfit ethnic groups. Many American states also passed laws mandating sterilization of inmates judged to be genetically inferior.(6)
The fiercest implementation of eugenics happened in Nazi Germany. The 1933 Eugenic Sterilization Law required compulsory sterilization of all German citizens deemed to be suffering from presumably hereditary defects, including offensive physical deformities. Sterilization of the unfit was later transformed into many of the war crimes committed during World War II.
Eugenics' association with World War II era war crimes and genocide ruined its popularity and reputation. However, some parts of its principles are still considered valid by some scientists in various fields. Two examples are the nature and causes of difference in human intelligence, and whether intelligence is hereditary or not. In other words, people are not identical to each other in the areas of comprehending complicated material, reasoning, learning, and solving problems. Researchers do not agree on the sources of these differences, and hence ask: "Is there a general mental ability called 'intelligence' that causes these differences, or is the underlying cause something else?"
Theories about Intelligence
Presented below are some contemporary theories about intelligence and its determinants.
The Psychometric View: This view claims that individual differences in human cognition or mental ability can be measured adequately by intelligence tests.(7) Many widely used tests seek to measure some closely related criteria, such as scholastic aptitude and academic success-not intelligence itself. Examples of such tests in the Unites States are the SAT or ACT (college admission), GRE (graduate school), and GMAT (graduate business school) exams. Although test administrators try to distance themselves from testing one's actual intelligence (namely, one's I.Q.), it is generally accepted by the research community that one's IQ and the above tests are closely related.(8)
IQ tests are offered in many verbal and non-verbal forms. The general practice for IQ scores is to scale them around 100 in such a way that 95 percent of the population falls between 70 and 130.
Psychometricians assert that people are born with unequal intellectual potentials, just as they are born with different physical potentials, such as height and eye color. They also state that no amount of social engineering can make individuals with different mental competences into intellectual equals.(9)
One American social engineering program is Affirmative Action. This program encourages underrepresented minority groups in society to pursue education and business through required quotas. For example, state universities are required to accept a certain percentage of minority freshmen. If the psychometric view is true, these programs will fail and amount to discrimination against the capable. In their controversial book, Hernstein and Murray maintained this view together with the heredity of intelligence and genetic IQ differences between races.(10)
In short, this view states that a single factor known as "intelligence" can be measured with IQ tests and predict success in life.
The Cognitive-Psychology View: Adherents of this theory view intelligence as a process, not an innate ability. The process consists of creating a mental representation of problems encountered, retrieving apparently related information, and devising a solution. In short, it emphasizes experience for success in life, but does not completely eliminate the relation between general intelligence and experience.
Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory: In his Frames of Mind, Gardner argues that psychometric tests ignore several aspects of intelligence. He also claims that the tests' paper-and-pencil format rule out many kinds of intelligence performances that are important for success in life.