What Makes a Nation Intelligent?

There were many outstanding presentations at the recent meeting of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). One of the best of these outstanding presentations was one by Earl Hunt with the title, “What Makes a Nation Intelligent?” This was his James McKeen Fellow Award Address. Hunt, who has a rich and diverse background in Physics, Business Administration, and Computer Science as well as Psychology, is currently a Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington.

One of his primary interests is intelligence, and he published a book last year on the topic titled, appropriately enough, Human Intelligence. The approach he takes to intelligence is that of a cognitive psychologist rather than the traditional psychometric approach to intelligence. The psychometric approach provides estimates of the percentage of intelligence that is inherited versus the percentage of intelligence that is a product of the environment. The psychometric approach is primarily descriptive and offers few ideas for improving intelligence with the exception of eugenic approaches. The cognitive approach is interested in the cognitive processes that underlie intelligence as well as artifacts and interventions that can improve intelligence.

That is not to say that the psychometric approach is useless. Hunt points out that the correlation between IQ and occupational success is about 0.5 (the coefficient ranges with 0.0, no relationship, to 1.0, a perfect relationship, with a positive or negative sign indicating whether the relationship is direct or inverse). He said that this relationship is about twice as high as various personality measures. IQ tests measure what IQ tests measure, which is what is easy to measure. They’re good at assessing tasks that require speed, but they tend to miss culturally important skills.

To return to the question “What Makes a Nation Intelligent?”, one of his responses is cognitive artifacts. One example of such a cognitive artifact would be written records (e.g., cuneiform tables, papyrus, paper), where both business transactions and ideas could be recorded. I would call these examples of technical transactive memory, he calls them explicit artifacts. Hunt also uses the term implicit artifacts to refer to communication systems and personal trust. I would call these examples of human transactive memory. Regardless of what they are called, they are essential to a Nation’s intelligence.

Nation’s also need to respond to and adopt beneficial new ideas. Ideas spread along the Silk Road Trade Route and countries along this trade route tended to benefit from this intelligence and prosper. However, their needed to be an openness to new ideas. Japan initially closed up and ignored new ideas in favor of their own traditions. This was also true of China and Korea. These countries did not prosper until they opened up to new ideas from foreign cultures. This increased their respective national intelligence and led to increasing prosperity.

So what contributes to a nation’s intelligence? Of course there are explicit and implicit cognitive artifacts, but factors such as nutrition and environmental pollution cannot be ignored. Nutrition is essential to the development of intelligence, whereas environmental pollution degrades intelligence. The family and a formal education system are important. As Diane Halpern noted, “You learn to do what you practice doing”

Cultures, such as the Jewish culture and Northeast Asian cultures, that place a heavy emphasis on education do well on intelligence tests. Although there are sleight differences in mathematical performance between males and females, this gender effect is overwhelmed by practice. In other words, females who work at mathematics to very well on mathematics.

Hunt noted that when three outlier countries were removed, they was a correlation of 0.65 between IQ and financial success. As he put it there is an interaction between intelligence and financial success, the rich get smarter and the smart get richer.

Hunt advocates the creation of a cognitive elite, which he defines as college graduates. But he lists the obstacles to fostering this cognitive elite such as:

Lack of trained teachers and equipment.

The economic costs of a college education (this needs to be affordable and not require the acquisition of heavy financial debts).

The opposition of education aimed at modern cognitive skills.

The opposition to scientific ideas such as the opposing to vaccination because it is not in the Koran (or in our society the opposition to vaccination based on faulty scientific evidence and reasoning).

His conclusion: It is possible, although difficulty, to create better interactive environments to improve national intelligence.

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One Response to “What Makes a Nation Intelligent?”

  1. Doug Griffith Says:

    An obvious question is whether the United States is an intelligent nation. Although there are indicators that it is, there is reason for caution. Consider the openness to new ideas. The United States was the last developed nation to abolish slavery. It is the only advanced nation that has not adopted the metric system. And it is the last advanced nation to adopt a program of national health care, and at the moment there are people working to abolish or radically change it. Then there is the cost of a college education. That is decreasing the entry for many to the cognitive elite. Clearly there are serious reasons for concern.

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