IQ Varies with Context

ResearchBlogging.orgIn a very interesting way.

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


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I agree the idea of environment being very important for any pattern of answers we give to different and complex stimuli from our world. When the conditions of learning are similar to those of the reproduction, our answers certainly are qualitative higher. Though, I think our genes are important, too. If we carry a heritage that contains superior information, our intelligent performances have higher chances to manifest.

Years ago I remember IQ tests being ridiculed as measures of intelligence. An 'urban' IQ test was designed and suburban kids failed it miserably. One question was what is the total of a pair of dice thrown counting both visible top spots and hidden bottom spots. Stuff like that throws the idea of intelligence measurement out the window.


"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. "

Prithee, what parts of the brain are only vaguely coded for by genetics? What determines how they are formed?

John, the cortext is all about adapting to the environment and learning. The brain grows to suit the environment, starting with the body itself, it lives in. The cortext will grow the parts that deal with vision and audition only if the eyes and ears are present, working, and connected with signals coming in, for instance (to cite the most easily grasped and measured examples).

I can recommend some sources on the relevant neurobiology if you like.

Of course, there are pathological exceptions. However, it is clear than even the way on which the brain develops around exceptions is genetically determined.
The brain consumes 20-25% of the energy used by an average adult. As such it is under enormous selection pressure. Any organ under selective pressure will show hereditary differences.
There are *many* papers on genetic influence in cortex development. There are even papers looking at twin studies, see e.g, (,, which show a significant amount of heritability.

I used to work as an engineer in the graphics chip industry. (These are the specialized computer chips that render images onto your computer screen.) There are usually one or more (but never more than a few) Graphics Gurus at such places; these are people who know the entire top-level design of what, despite their relative cheapness, are very complicated chips. Times may have changed, but when I was in the industry every one of these people I ever met were jerks who liked to put "ordinary" engineers down.

Even knowing this all too well, I could get tongue-tied in their presence. I could walk into a Guru's office to ask a simple question and come out with my head handed to me on a platter for even asking such an obvious question. I could do a perfectly good analysis of a bug, be told by The Guru that it was a ridiculous analysis, and feel embarrassed at my existence. I was not alone. These people were all experts at making others feel stupid, and it's really, really hard to perform well when you feel stupid.

I wonder what this means regarding "geniuses". What makes an Einstein or a Hawking?

Post no. 4 rings so true, but this factor is being used by the study and the OP to muddy the waters.

The idea seems to be to conflate performance (in given situations) with ability, and then to pull the rabbit out of the hat: hey, there's no innate contribution to abilities.

The summary of the experiment is replete with subjective terminology, and gives no indication that any objective measurements were used: a typical soft science effort: flaky and tendentious.

By clausentum (not verified) on 26 Jan 2012 #permalink

clausentum: The way brains work, and develop, forces us to assume that in the absence of evidence to the contrary abilities and performance are both very context dependent.

Very often people have received the "knowledge" somewhere along the way that abilities really really and truly really innate, no kidding. Despite the fact that what we know about neurobiology contradicts this, it is the believe a lot of people come to the table with, and it is a strongly held belief.

This does not rule out innateness, it just requires that the assumption is that variation across humans in ability is not likely genetically determined (though it can be very "hard wired" if we allow for the term "hard wired" to mean things other than "your genes made it happen a certain way."

So, when folks with the received knowledge that "it must be innate" run into evidence that it is not, it seems to be a common thing to see the sort of argument you make pop up.

I don't like what I see so it is flaky. The waters are muddied. It is not objective. The science is soft.

Innatists are so predictable it actually is funny.

Greg Laden:
thanks for the reply. I'm happy to have contributed to the gaiety of nations with my note.

To rate your poo-pooing dismissal, innaters have obviously misunderstood something pretty fundamental, so perhaps you can enlighten me about the position of anti-innaters on evolution.
You state:

..variation across humans in ability is not likely genetically determined..

Have you allowed yourself weasel-room in the words "variation " and "determined"? Otherwise it looks like you negate any genetic component to ability.
Do the cognitive differences between us and chimpanzees have nothing to do with genetics?
Is intelligence not adaptive? If it is, how can evolution work on it if there are no genetically determined variations in it? If it isn't, how did it evolve?

I'm beginning to wonder if I've stumbled onto a blog of the Discovery Institute.

By clausentum (not verified) on 28 Jan 2012 #permalink

Call me crazy, but it seems useful to have an assessment that simultaneously screens for cognitive performance and the silly social anxieties that can interfere with it.

Clausentum, you need to learn how to ask your questions more intelligently.

Humans vary in strength. Within a sex, much of that strength is developmental and experiential.

However, chimpanzees and humans vary in strength by an ordre of magnitude greater than the variation among normal humans. This difference is not thought to be developmental.

Humans and walruses vary within species as to how accustom they are to cold. Within humans, comfort level at cold vs warm conditions is known to be experiential. You "set" your range between birth and about age 5.

Walrus can handle much much colder condition than humans. The difference between humans and walrus is not developmental. According to your logic, either human variation IS GENETIC DAMMIT or the human-walrus difference IS NOT GENTIC DAMMIT

Are you starting to get this?

I'm beginning to wonder if I've stumbled onto a blog of the Discovery Institute.

There are no pre-qualifications for commenting on this blog. But if and when you come back with your response, in your case, it needs to be respectful, somewhat apologetic, and you need to demonstrate that you've learned something or your comments won't be appreciated.

"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."

This is so interesting to me. I recently worked with two groups of middle school students that attempted to address apathy in school. One issue we had was the group feeling of apathy. This study would help me show that IQ and in turn teacher perception, impacts how students do in school. Students that have high IQs but low belief of school ability, may show low IQs and in turn apathy at school. Thanks for sharing this study. As an educator I am always looking for ways to increase engagement and understand why students do what they do.

It is quite clear that all humans are absolutely and totally equal in their innate cognitive ability. Genes have absolutely NOTHING to do with it. If the population of the Congo tests a bit lower than the population of Switzerland on some sort of so-called "IQ test," it is only because they are inhibited by their surroundings. Or it's due to white racist capitalist imperialism.

The idea that group variations in biology can influence group variations in behavior should be made a thoughtcrime. (Except, of course, where conseratives are concerned, where we know that their diminished anterior cingulate cortexes are to blame for their backward views.)

What I find interesting, tin the light of the differences between species, is that human brain tissue seems to have evolved at the cost (energy) of the skeletal muscle tissue. There was an interesting paper on this by Katarzyna Bozek, et al: "Exceptional Evolutionary Divergence of Human Muscle and Brain Metabolomes Parallels Human Cognitive and Physical Uniqueness"…

What this suggests is a spies specific genetic change that privileged brain enlargement and increased complexity and energy use. The question is: why? I suspect that the answer to that question is both biological and cultural: it is because humans specialized in behavioural plasticity, not just on the part of individuals - each baby born being able to learn any one of - in fact more than one of - thousands of different cultures and languages. This is a pan-specific phenomenon in humans. And this means is that much of our cognition - and even measured things like IQ, is the product of development after conception. That is so is an evolved (and therefore biological) fact about human beings.

And that development is affected by nutrition deficiencies or sufficiencies, presence or absence of a vast array of toxins, the kinds of stressors that act on the organism both before and after birth, and the deficiencies or sufficiencies of nurturing and environmental stimulation.

You just have to look at that paper by Carpenter and Niven: "Environmental causes of violence" (Physiology & Behavior 99 (2010) 260–268) from back in 2010, where they document the relationship between lowered IQ and heightened levels of violence due to lead exposure: "...a number of environmental exposures are documented to result in a common pattern of neurobehavioral effects, including lowered IQ, shortened attention span, and increased frequency of antisocial behavior. This pattern is best described for children exposed to lead early in life, but a similar pattern is seen upon exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls and methyl mercury. Although not as extensively studied, similar decrements in IQ are seen upon exposure to arsenic and secondhand smoke (SHS) exposure. Prenatal and postnatal SHS exposure is also associated with increased rates of conduct disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity. Recent evidence suggests that temporal trends in rates of violent crime in many nations are consistent with earlier preschool blood lead trends, with a lag of about 20 years. These ecologic correlations are consistent with many controlled studies suggesting that lead- exposed children suffer irreversible brain alterations that make them more likely to commit violent crimes as young adults. If this pattern is true for lead and other contaminants, the most effective way to fight crime may be to prevent exposure to these contaminants...."

This is also relevant... what we are learning about the effects of epigenetics and plasticity of human health and behaviour
Scholars from the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University say they have detected a distinctive 'signature' in the DNA of children born in the aftermath of the massive Quebec ice storm. Five months after the event, researchers recruited women who had been pregnant during the disaster and assessed their degrees of hardship and distress in a study called Project Ice Storm. 

"..The researchers concluded for the first time that maternal hardship, predicted the degree of methylation of DNA in the T cells. The "epigenetic" signature plays a role in the way the genes express themselves. This study is the first to find both that and that the objective stress exposure (such as days without electricity) and not the degree of emotional distress in pregnant women causes long lasting changes in the epigenome of their babies.
The health impacts on these children is less clear, but changes in the family of genes related to immunity and sugar metabolism detected in these babies, now teenagers, may put them at a greater risk to develop asthma, diabetes or obesity....." 
(source Epigenetics Of Being Without Electricity For A Few Days…