Intelligence in Everyday Life

Due December 12
Typed, double-spaced, stapled, and with pages numbered
1 copy

Length is flexible, but aim for 4-6 pages.





Systematic cognitive variation among humans is a biological fact. Within-species cognitive diversity, it now appears, is also a biological fact among other primates, perhaps in all mammals, and likely in many non-mammalian species too (Chabris, 2007). Moreover, the species examined to date seem to exhibit basically the same major continuum, or dominant dimension, of differences in cognitive aptitude—specifically, a general ability to learn and solve novel problems in everyday self-maintenance. Factor analytic studies reveal that the very same g factor emerges in all human groups tested thus far (ages, sexes, races, cultures, countries; Jensen, 1998).


To be sure, there are many different abilities, but g seems to constitute the central core of them all. The different broad abilities therefore tend to rise and fall in tandem over the life cycle when we take a telescopic look at human groups. Taking a more microscopic view, which is required for some purposes (such as educational and vocational counseling), we see important differences in people’s profiles of more specific abilities (Liz is unusually strong in spatial but not verbal ability, while Sally shows the opposite pattern).


When we take the telescopic view on human societies, we learn that relative standing along the g continuum (say, as measured by IQ) has pervasive social and economic consequences for their individual members. General intelligence is hardly the be-all-and-end-all of people’s strengths and talents, and it certainly does not represent a person’s moral worth, but it does affects their odds of good health, material success, and other valued life outcomes. Low IQ operates like a constant head wind, making everything a bit more difficult for individuals of below average intelligence.  


From adolescence on, at least in typical families in the developed world, an individual’s standing in g relative to age-mates (their IQ level) doesn’t seem to change much. Even in childhood, when IQ is only 40% heritable, we still don’t know which environmental influences might raise or depress a child’s IQ level, and we have no technology yet, educational or otherwise, for bumping up a person’s g level. (We can change specific kinds of achievement, but that is another matter.) Like all other organisms, human children need species-typical rearing environments to facilitate their genetically-anticipated course of development. Except for identical twins, all children are genetically and environmentally unique, and therefore their developmental outcomes tend to vary somewhat around the average.  However, no person, in a free society, is slave to either their genes or their social environments. Both may be the cards we are dealt in life, but we can choose how to play them. 


We may gain dignity and self-respect from how we play the cards we are dealt, but there is no getting around the fact that some of us get much better cards to play than do others, through no effort of our own. The US Declaration of Independence declares that all citizens are equal under God and law, and that all have the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But what does it mean for a democratic republic—or any human group, for that matter—when human cognitive diversity enables some citizens to prosper much more easily than others?


Human groups throughout the millennia have had to accommodate cognitive diversity. (Had there been no such diversity, humankind would never have been able to evolve its extraordinary level of intelligence.) Indeed, biological siblings are two-thirds as different in IQ, on average, as are unrelated strangers, which means that even families must accommodate sometimes large internal differences in cognitive ability. The biological fact of human cognitive diversity, especially in g level, creates a variety of social tradeoffs, or dilemmas, especially for large modern nations with egalitarian aspirations. For instance, equal treatment does not produce equal results, but we tend to want both. How do we deal with that? What should we?


Paper 3 will address this general topic. Namely, how might we, as a society, deal better with the social, ethical, and political dilemmas that cognitive differences create? Note that this is not a scientific judgment, though it does require some scientific knowledge and reasoning.  We know from the scientific research that g differences are real and pose some difficult choices, but how a society chooses to respond to them is fundamentally a political matter—that is, choices made by the body politic. As Rowe described, and as our final readings illustrate, people can take very different stances toward  the same facts. For example, some people argue that if racial differences in IQ are partly genetic, then we should end all racial preferences; others argue the exact opposite—that we should have more racial preferences and make them permanent. As the 25th item in the “Mainstream” reading said, scientific evidence can help us figure out the means to our preferred ends, but it cannot dictate those ends, our goals. 


As described in your last set of readings, large and persisting differences in cognitive ability force difficult tradeoffs upon us, as individuals, families, and societies. Whether we recognize it or not, we are constantly striking compromises between equally valued goals that conflict owing to cognitive diversity —for example, between equal treatment and equal outcomes. You have seen others already: how much should schools spend on special education vs. gifted and talented programs vs. the average student? When admitting students, should colleges give increasing importance to social diversity, life experience, and personality and less to GPA and SAT scores? What happens if employers deemphasize cognitive skills to get a more racially or gender diverse workforce or, conversely, select the best qualified job applicants without regard to race and gender? 


Paper topic


Please identify one dilemma or tradeoff that is created by human diversity in g, and then propose a better way to deal with it than we tend to now. Be sure to address all the following questions during the course of your paper.


a.       What is the dilemma? Explain the dilemma or tradeoff and how g diversity creates it. Be sure to describe the valued social goals that g differences are putting into conflict (liberty vs. equality, etc.).

b.      What is the typical approach or “solution,” today, to this dilemma/tradeoff? To the best of your knowledge, how is your chosen tradeoff usually depicted, explained, and dealt with by the individuals, institutions, or politicians involved? Do ability differences figure into their explanations and decisions, even if only in disavowals of their relevance? Is the dilemma or tradeoff even acknowledged, or is it denied?

c.       Why do we need a better approach? The current approach will have some plusses, but explain why it seems inadequate, flawed, or may even do more harm than good.  

d.      What would a better approach—your approach—look like?  Think about which social goals are most important to you (or to some fictional character), or what sorts of choices and tradeoffs you consider most ethical or “fair.” Then use your scientific knowledge about g differences to recommend a more effective means, or set of social practices (hiring or admissions policies, parental behavior, school funding, testing practices, charity work, religious principles, health care, etc.), to reach your preferred ends.  Include at least one specific, concrete example of how your approach would differ from current ones; it could be just one small element in a broader strategy.  Don’t forget to explain why you think your approach, if implemented, would be better—more effective, constructive, or just.

e.       What kinds of problems and complaints might it generate, and how would you deal with them? Don’t forget that a tradeoff is still a tradeoff, not a “solution”; compromises are still compromises, so you won’t make everyone happy. So you should say something about the likely reactions to your approach—the blowback. If your approach shifts the balance toward some goal preferences (say, equal outcomes) and away from others (say, equal treatment or freedom of choice), proponents of the latter will complain that other groups have gained at their expense—which may be true. Some might even claim that what you propose—or your explanation for it (if based on g differences)—might even be socially risky or harmful. How would you answer them? If you yourself perceive possible risks, how would you mitigate those risks?     

Evaluation criteria


·         The usual—clear thesis; organized line of argument; specific evidence and examples to support key points; and clear signs of your mind at work!

·         You can specify whatever balance in social goals you wish—from the political left to the political right.  I will grade them only on their clarity. 

·         Be careful not to change or deny any of the basic scientific conclusions about intelligence, for example, as listed in the “Mainstream Science on Intelligence” statement or in the APA Task Force report, “Intelligence: Knowns and Unknowns.” Likewise, do not posit implausible solutions, for example, eliminating differences in g or their value in learning and reasoning. (You just wrote that paper!) Recall that the aim in Paper 3 is to figure out how to work with the human reality we have, not the one we might wish for.  So, since we can’t eradicate cognitive differences (should that be our goal), can we find better ways—more effective, humane, constructive ways— to respect and accommodate them? 

·         Please contact me if you have any questions about this assignment.