Home » Nature or Nurture? IQ or Hard Work? Do We Even Have a Clue?

Nature or Nurture? IQ or Hard Work? Do We Even Have a Clue?

by Louis J. Wasser

A chapter from my past made me think about what it means to be intelligent and what it takes to succeed.

Years ago, my high school physics teacher, in a moment of indiscretion, made a shocking remark to me outside class when I suggested that a certain classmate, DB, was smart.  I still remember his exact words, as though our conversation took place an hour ago.  “DB is not smart,” my teacher said.  “He has a low IQ, but high-IQ aspirations.  He’ll never make it to where he wants to go.”  The teacher based his argument on the fact that, although my classmate worked diligently, he couldn’t achieve higher than a C in physics.  He was also going by DB’s average IQ score.

As it turned out, not only did DB go on to do well in his chosen field of aeronautical engineering, but he became famous in the field of space exploration.

How do we know when someone is intelligent? What does an IQ test really tell us? How much does intelligence contribute to one’s success — as opposed to old-fashioned grit and hard work?

How do we know when someone is intelligent? What does an IQ test really tell us?

The classic  test for IQ (Intelligence Quotient) was developed by Frenchman Alfred Binet in 1905, and then modified by the American psychologist Lewis Terman at Stanford University.  The test came to be known as The Stanford-Binet Test, and has been used as a gold standard for measuring intelligence, particularly in grammar school and secondary school students.

The theory of IQ has been challenged for its validity on several counts.  The most notable challenge was expressed in the 1983 book, Frames of Mind:  The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, written by Howard Gardner of Harvard University.

The thesis of Gardner’s book is that the traditional discussion of intelligence (and hence the IQ test) focuses too narrowly on “logical and linguistic” intelligence.  He suggests that all of us have a set of “multiple intelligences.”  He identifies some of these as spatial, bodily, musical, and inter-personal intelligence, amongst others. Gardner’s thesis seems to work better in explaining outstanding achievements (intelligences) in certain fields.  For instance, how else could one account for the achievement of the jazz musician Erroll Garner, who rose to the top of his field without ever having learned to read music?

Another challenge to the traditional view of intelligence came with the 1995 publication of Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence – Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. The ability to identify, respond to, and manage emotions, according to Goleman, has a great deal of influence on one’s success.  Clearly we look for these qualities when we attempt to identify and choose leaders.

A recent and popular challenge to IQ as an ingredient to success comes from Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book OutliersThe Story of Success.  Gladwell puts forth the 10,000 hours formula as an ingredient for success.  The idea behind the formula is that any skill requires at least this number of hours for mastery.

If none of this works for us, why not consider brain scans?  And you thought I was joking.  In a 2012 article in Psychology Today, psychologist and research scientist Jonathan Wai suggests the utility and economy of brain scans over SATs as a means of evaluating students for college entry.

Where does this last proposal take us?  My guess is somewhere north of my high school physics teacher’s ability to predict his students’ success, but a lot closer to plain silly than we care to admit.

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