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Beliefs About Intelligence Can Influence Views On Inequality

2012 July 20

Another day, another interesting study about how people think from Carol Dweck’s lab at Stanford. Though much of the research done by Dweck and her students focuses on beliefs about general intelligence, the present study, which was led by Aneeta Rattan, investigated people’s beliefs about the ability to become highly intelligent.

After first establishing that these beliefs are influenced by cultural norms (Americans believe fewer people have the potential to become highly intelligent than Indians), Rattan and her team found that beliefs about extreme intelligence can also influence a person’s support for policies designed to combat inequality.

Merely exposing participants to the idea that most people have the potential to become highly intelligent significantly increased their support for policies that invest in the education of low-resource groups in the country. These were rather far-reaching proposals, such as distributing property taxes evenly across school districts and investing in the education of juvenile delinquents. These findings suggest that the belief that many individuals (especially those from worse-off groups) lack the potential for intelligence may play a role people’s support for policies that maintain an unequal distribution of educational resources across different groups in the United States.

Psychology studies that show how our decisions defy rational economic behavior tend to get the most attention, but here is a study where our psychological motivations smoothly align with basic economics. When low-income children are more likely to become highly intelligent, investing in their futures through social spending becomes a better idea.

Obviously policy preferences are the output of an impossibly complex psychological equation, but research likes this makes you wonder why progressives don’t attempt to make a more concrete case that social investments in our youth are important. Why not highlight the kids who used social programs to overcome serious odds? And I don’t mean kids who managed to learn a technical skill and lead a middle class life —  I mean kids who came through a failing inner-city public school and went on to found big companies or make important scientific discoveries. The pro-immigration crowd is beginning to make an effort to highlight entrepreneurs who were born outside the U.S., and I think it would be beneficial to do a similar thing with significant low-income success stories.
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Rattan, A., Savani, K. N, aidu, N. V. R., & Dweck, C.S. (2012). Can Everyone Become Highly Intelligent? Cultural Differences in and Societal Consequences of Beliefs About the Universal Potential for Intelligence Journal of Personality and Social Psychology DOI: 10.1037/a0029263

3 Responses leave one →
  1. July 21, 2012

    There is a remarkable parallel between the point of this post and that of a recent post on the Association For Psychological Science site about ‘wealth inequality and choice’ http://goo.gl/S515m. In both cases how we view inequality is connected to how we view individual agency (one in terms of ‘choice’ the other ‘intelligence’). What’s remarkable is that we seem to ignore the role of learning in the development of our intelligence (and capacity for choice) http://goo.gl/ksuII. This I think is the deeper issue. Our intelligence is to very significant degrees plastic and shaped by learning. Re economic policy, there are a number of economists including Nobel Prize winner James Heckman (http://goo.gl/MuPm8) and Fed VP Arthur Rolnick (http://goo.gl/QWsHt) who have been making solid economic ROI cases for investing in changing the learning trajectories of children.

  2. July 26, 2012

    While this study is illuminating, it does not tell us very much. The way in which ideas about intelligence and inequality are related are bidirectional and shaped by many different sequences of intermediate trains of thought.

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