As a regular reader of this blog, you know that IQ and similar measures are determined by a number of factors, and for most “normal” (modal?) individuals, one’s heritage (genes) is rarely important. Putting it another way, variation across individuals in IQ and other measures have been shown again and again to be determined by things like home environment, diet and nutrition, and even immediate social context. Here’s another finding supporting this:
Our cognitive abilities and decision-making skills can be dramatically hindered in social settings where we feel that we are being ranked or assigned a status level, such as classrooms and work environments, according to new findings from a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and four other institutions.
The study is called Implicit signals in small group settings and their impact on the expression of cognitive capacity and associated brain responses and here’s the abstract:
Measures of intelligence, when broadcast, serve as salient signals of social status, which may be used to unjustly reinforce low-status stereotypes about out-groups’ cultural norms. Herein, we investigate neurobehavioural signals manifest in small (n = 5) groups using functional magnetic resonance imaging and a ‘ranked group IQ task’ where implicit signals of social status are broadcast and differentiate individuals based on their expression of cognitive capacity. We report an initial overall decrease in the expression of cognitive capacity in the small group setting. However, the environment of the ‘ranked group IQ task’ eventually stratifies the population into two groups (‘high performers’, HP and ‘low performers’, LP) identifiable based on changes in estimated intelligence quotient and brain responses in the amygdala and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. In addition, we demonstrate signals in the nucleus accumbens consistent with prediction errors in expected changes in status regardless of group membership. Our results suggest that individuals express diminished cognitive capacity in small groups, an effect that is exacerbated by perceived lower status within the group and correlated with specific neurobehavioural responses. The impact these reactions have on intergroup divisions and conflict resolution requires further investigation, but suggests that low-status groups may develop diminished capacity to mitigate conflict using non-violent means.
There are two (main) interesting things about this study. First, as already mentioned, it shows that intelligence is an epiphenomenon of brain function in a broader context, including a social or cultural context. This is not a surprise considering that the intelligence-related stuff that happens in the brain occur in the parts of the brain that are only vaguely coded for by genetics and thus can’t really carry a heritable signal over generations. Second, and most interesting, is that what we call “intelligence” may (often) be a socio-cultural expression, or signal. This, measuring intelligence differences among people under the assumption that IQ is inherited would be like making a similar assumption while measuring happiness among people, but the people you are observing are all actors playing different roles in different plays. You are not measuring what is there. You are measuring what is being demonstrated.
Yet another nail in the coffin for the concept that intelligence is stable, inherited, and unchangeable.
Kishida, K., Yang, D., Quartz, K., Quartz, S., & Montague, P. (2012). Implicit signals in small group settings and their impact on the expression of cognitive capacity and associated brain responses Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367 (1589), 704-716 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0267