Intelligence and IQ testing
Date: Sunday, December 19 @ 21:24:59 UTC
Topic: Psychology

By Reuben Albo

Psychologists have attempted to define, measure and understand the nature of intelligence for many years now. I will argue that intelligence is by no means a simple construct that can be simply measured by an IQ test, but rather it is a very complex and culturally-based concept as suggested by Robert Sternberg in his 2004 APA Presidential Address. Proponents of an excessively genetic understanding of intelligence often have racist agendas or are simply ignorant of the challenges facing the marginalized people of the world such as members of the African-American community. Herrnstein and Murray exemplify this ignorant bias in their articles from their controversial publication in 1994, The Bell Curve. We will examine intelligence with respect to these and other theorists and discuss some of the implications and changes that come with a broader understanding of intelligence.

Before we go any further we must first define intelligence. To pin down the abstract concept of intelligence with a single definition is a difficult task. Robert Sternberg loosely defines intelligence as the skills and knowledge one needs for success in life. Intelligence also has a strong information-processing component, it may involve generating new ideas and it operates within a specific cultural context. For our purposes, the model of intelligence we will use is the Triarchic theory of intelligence offered by Robert Sternberg comprised of componential, experiential, and contextual intelligence. Componential intelligence incorporates test-taking and analytical thinking, and it involves using acquired knowledge to solve familiar kinds of problems. Experiential intelligence incorporates creativity, and it is applied to relatively new tasks. Contextual intelligence involves "street-smarts," and it is a practical intelligence that uses experience for the purpose of adaptation.

Unlike inadequate intelligence theories such as intelligence simply being IQ or reaction time to stimuli, Sternberg's theory takes into account the different faces of intelligence and makes room for a more comprehensive understanding of intelligence in relation to culture. This is not to say that Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences should be discarded. Any theory acknowledging the existence of different types of intelligence can potentially be useful. However, Sternberg's theory is more basic, comprehensive and easier to work with for our purposes; Gardner's more complicated theory may arguably be either too broad or have room for even more intricate intelligence types, some being weighed more heavily than others depending on the context.

Herrnstein and Murray give a superficially convincing but subtly racist appraisal of intelligence hinting that blacks are less intelligent than whites as shown by scientific study and IQ testing. Their attempt to be impartial may be genuine or a disguise for their true agenda but they certainly are culturally biased. They admit to drawing on data from "classical tradition." This means utilizing Eurocentric methods to evaluate a non-European people. Hence they greatly overlook the relevance of culture to intelligence. This greatly weakens the validity of their arguments. Their cultural bias is also exposed by their heavy reliance on IQ testing to back up their arguments.

The history of IQ testing is rife with discrimination. Charles Darwin asserted that intelligence evolved and distinguished man from apes. IQ tests were developed by Alfred Binet, a European psychologist, to measure intelligence at a time when blacks were thought to be animals. More than help man, these tests upheld superiority complexes among whites by resorting to abstract and biased methods of intelligence testing rather than utilizing human potential in a more practical and useful way in relation to cultural contexts. IQ tests often failed to utilize a wealth of human talent by examining only the componential aspect of intelligence and being culturally inflexible. The very nature of such limited IQ tests is to discriminate against those who do not fit its model and surely more practical and useful ways of evaluating people can be formulated.

It is being realized in more modern times that IQ tests are often not fully reliable means of intelligence testing. They pay little attention to the intelligence of adaptation and practically; skills needed in the workplace that are not stressed in schools. For this reason many people with only academic smarts fail to be successful or make valuable contributions in the working world. To quote Sternberg, "There are plenty of people going around with high IQ's who don't do a damned thing." More recent study by Flynn, shows that IQ tests do not even really measure intelligence but rather a correlate with a weak casual link to intelligence. IQ tests therefore are tests that are often culturally biased and fail to examine intelligence properly. While they fit the vain and racist purposes of Herrnstein and Murray well, they have no universal claim on intelligence.

I will briefly sum up of the inadequacies Herrnstein and Murray to the extent needed to denounce their work. In addition to their pervasive European bias and their strong reliance on IQ testing, their experimental methods are up for question as they give little evidence of the validity and reliability of their work. Most interestingly, they also point out that the legacy of slavery may have disadvantaged African-Americans depressing their test scores, so a different sample of "unaffected" blacks is needed to determine their genetic disposition towards intelligence. Then as a demonstration of their ignorance they comparatively administer their biased tests on the "un-enslaved" African blacks as if the African continent has not also been divided, underdeveloped and colonized by Europeans too. Their combination of ignorance, bias and poor methodology has rendered their work little validity.

Before we go on to closer examine the relationship between culture and intelligence I must say something on the role of genetics. While the genetic make up of African-Americans and blacks cannot be proven--by the work of Herrnstein, Murray or any other--to be of inferior intelligence, this is not to say that genetics does not play a role in intelligence. Numerous studies have shown a strong link between intelligence and genetics. For example, Bouchard et. al., 1990, showed that monozygotic twins, even if reared apart, had similar IQs. Plomin et. al., 1997, also showed that children increasingly resembled their biological parents in cognitive ability from infancy through adolescence, even if they were adopted. Regardless of trivial controversies, these studies support the findings of other similar studies that point to a strong genetic component in intelligence. However, instead of using these genetic differences as a basis for unjust discrimination, biological interaction with culture and the environment should first be examined.

Differences in intelligence, or rather, in intelligence types, must be understood culturally as well as biologically. It has already been shown that most IQ tests focus predominantly on the componential aspect of intelligence and neglect the other aspects of intelligence. This points to the fact that different cultures emphasize different types of intelligence and one should be "culturally sensitive" when evaluating intelligence. Sternberg gives numerous examples of cultural differences. Brazilian street children, for one, display strong contextual intelligence in adapting to their harsh environment, but they would hardly be expected to perform well in school. Likewise, the Kpelle, who can be thought of as a genetically-linked group in Africa, would regard sorting taxonomically as a simple task, while it would seem sophisticated to North Americans because of cultural differences. These examples point to the need for intelligence to be understood relative to culture and not simply as a product of genetics.

These examples also demand that the problems facing the world's underprivileged be accounted for before these people are deemed less intelligent. Those living in inner cities, for example, face problems of poverty, poor schooling, violence and a lack of resources. Such unfavorable conditions make it difficult for these people to perform well in school and on IQ tests and to become successful in life. This is because IQ scores can be depressed or improved depending on environmental factors, as suggested by a study by Flynn in 1987. Because specific genetic or ethnic groups live specific lifestyles for whatever reason--because of an oppressive racist system or because of the need to adapt to their environment-- genetics inevitably gets tied in with environmental factors and one must be careful of how one distinguishes between the two. For example, African-Americans score lower on IQs tests such as the SATs not because their genetics renders them less intelligent. Rather, because of their genetics they face environmental difficulties brought on by historical and systematical racism. It is these difficulties, then, that cause their poor performance.

This is not an excuse for the supposed inferior intelligence of African-Americans since these people, like the Brazilian street children in the aforementioned study, display high levels of contextual intelligence by surviving through very difficult circumstances. Faced with little opportunity for academic pursuit, African-Americans have also displayed high levels on creative intelligence, for example, through the creation of numerous musical genres--rock and roll, rhythm and blues, hip-hop and jazz to name a few. In addition, those who do make it into the ranks of the academically intelligent have had to work twice as hard and be twice as intelligent in light of the pressure from environmental factors. Therefore, African-Americans are not of inferior intelligence and even suggesting this would not only be incorrect but it would be harmful.

More recent study by Claude Steele in 1997 has shown that negative stereotypes may actually depress the standardized test scores of women and African-Americans. This phenomenon, which he calls "stereotype threat," causes disidentification with the problematic area thus affecting performance and forming an achievement barrier for women in quantitative areas and African Americans in school. This theory also supports the notion of cultural differences in intelligence in that the disidentified area becomes excluded from the cultural model of the group in question, and therefore gaining intelligence in that particular area becomes culturally irrelevant. For this reason many intelligent African-Americans and other underprivileged people drop out of school early thinking that school will not get them far, or that college is not for them. This doubles the difficulties many of these people face in school by adding the problem of disidentification caused by stereotyping to the more basic problem of under-funded and neglected schools. These two problems also reinforce each other creating a deadlock and a lack of motivation.

What we have looked at is the link between cultural insensitivity, racism, stereotyping and poor academic performance focusing on African-Americans and other marginalized groups. Many of the problems discussed are a result of people's ignorance of the relevance of culture to intelligence. Therefore the first step to correct this ignorance would be to acknowledge that different cultures value different kinds of intelligences. That way, teachers can better recognize their students' strengths and weaknesses and maximize the students' talent rather than waste it. For example, a child may be weak in math but may be a very creative poet and this strength should not be overlooked just because the student is not good at math. Another common example is that many children who perform badly in academics in school possess a high amount of social intelligence, which can be thought of as a subgroup of contextual intelligence. Sternberg points out that African cultures often emphasize the social aspects of intelligence. This type of intelligence should also not be overlooked since it often makes the difference between those who succeed academically alone and those who succeed in the working world.

Another important change that this re-examining of intelligence calls for is for domain belongingness to be affirmed amongst stereotyped groups. Steele touches on this in his article on the stereotype threat. There are many different ways of affirming this domain belongingness. For example, in the African-American context, staying in school and going to college can be encouraged by highlighting predecessors who were recognized for their intellectual ability, as role models. Encouraging education that is more pertinent to one's culture is another way of fighting against stereotype threat. For example, teaching African history in predominantly black inner city schools will serve a more pertinent purpose than teaching Shakespeare and thus will encourage students to stay in school.

A review of the history of intelligence testing and Herrnstein and Murray's subtly racist The Bell Curve, points to the need for a broader understanding of intelligence in relation to different cultures. It has been shown that such an understanding of intelligence will ensure that the different talents of diverse people do not go unappreciated or wasted. This will lead to a more diverse and productive society. In addition, groups such as women or African-Americans that have been negatively stereotyped in specific domains must be encouraged to see beyond this barrier to achievement for their own progress as a group.


Bouchard (1990). Sources of Human Psychological Differences: The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart.

Flynn, James. (1987). Massive IQ Gains in 14 Nations: What IQ Tests Really Measure. Psychological Bulletin.101 (2). 171-191.

Gardner, Howard. "Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice." Basic Books.

Herrnstein, Richard & Murray, Charles. (1994). "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life." Excerpts from the Introduction and Ch. 13: Ethnic Differences in Cognitive Ability. The Free Press:NY.

Plomin et. al. (1997). Nature, Nurture, and Cognitive Development from 1to 16 years: AParent-Offspring Adoptuon Study. Psychological Science. 8(6).

Steele, Claude. (1997). A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Performance. American Psychologist. 52(6). 613-629.

Sternberg, Robert. (2004). Culture and Intelligence-APA Presidential Address. American Psychologist. 59(5). 325-338.

Sternberg, Robert. (1986). Three Heads are Better than One: The Triarchic Theory. Psychology Today.

This article comes from Rastafari Speaks

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