Society’s Perception: Is Intelligence All Genes?

pb-121108-freeschool-01.photoblog900There are many longstanding beliefs about intelligence, the most prevalent idea, dating far back in history and the crux on which aristocracy differentiated themselves from peasants, is the belief that intelligence is largely dependent on biology. Some people are simply born smart. Difficult to swallow? Many researchers and politicians would agree that this belief is far from reality, but based on the amount of fascination surrounding this one characteristic it seems people believe that society’s common definition of intelligence is more firmly rooted in genes than any amount of studying.

This belief can be revealed with a simple activity created based on the different intelligences in Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence (MI) Theory. Gardner advocated for 8 different types of intelligences, such as spatial and kinesthetic intelligence athletes would be ranked highly in. This little informal experiment could be done anywhere. Stop people walking on campus and have them rank various biographies of celebrities; athletes, scientists, writers, musicians, on whose biographies are the least to most impressive [1]. In the mix up of biographies, any athlete would usually end up on the bottom of the list while the Einsteins rank at the top, if not number one. If you ask participants why they ranked the biographies in this order you’ll find a general trend that their ranking also correlates with their perception of which intelligence exhibited in the biography is more difficult to attain. It may not be voiced, but it’s the idea that you can work on athletic ability, but you can’t flex the brain.

The truth is that some aspects are more important that genes. In a 2003 study done by Eric Turkheimer from the University of Virginia on the affect of socioeconomic status (SES), a variable of the environment, on IQ completely overturned the belief that biology is the major determinant of intelligence in every person. Turkheimer’s results revealed that as SES increases, the role that heritability of intelligence plays increases. In other words, no matter how biologically equipped a child is in a low SES environment those genes’ impact on IQ will be overshadowed by the less stimulating environment characterized in low SES communities [2]. In a similar study, conducted a decade earlier, it was revealed that by age 3, children born to wealthier parents hear words a million times more often than those born to less wealthy, educated parents. Both findings indicated that children born to high-income parents have a significant advantage in school, creating a push for prekindergarten funding by the government [3].

Is prekindergarten enough though? A follow-up study done by Anne Fernald, a psychologist at Stanford University, found that the language gap exists earlier than 3 years of age, in fact as early as 18 months. Her research, published this year in Developmental Science, fuels the debate on whether prekindergarten schooling should receive additional funding. President Obama has already indicated his beliefs by recently revising the federal budget to provide funds equal to the money the state provides to preschools for children from low or moderate-income families. The Southern Education Foundation further commented that investments in higher preschool enrollment will save from more public spending later on. Regardless, Congress has postponed negotiating on this budget change until later this year.

The reason for the delay is largely due to concerns with increasing the budget. Public policy’s focus is on increasing enrollment and funding for preschools while still attempting to monitor the budget [3], but what about the impact of attending locally funded schools in lower SES neighborhoods on children’s IQ? Even educational opportunities later on in life? There is the implication that by investing in preschool it will make the playing field more level between children from different SES backgrounds, but to completely take away the affect of SES on IQ locally-funded public schools would need to become nationally funded. With national funding there would be nationaleducation standards enforced. Some research collected on the difference between local school funding or national funding, already established in nearly all other developed countries, shows that the impact of heritability of intelligence is the same no matter SES value [2], but further testing is required for more solid results. Such an experiment alone would require its own funding.


  1. Gardner, H. (2011). The Theory of Multiple Intelligences: As Psychology, As Education, As Social Science. Retrieved from
  2. Turkheimer, E., Haley, A., Waldron, M., D’Onofrio, B., & Gottesman, I. (2003). Socioeconomic Status Modifies Heritability of IQ in Young Children. Psychological Science. Retrieved from
  3. Rich, M. (2013). Language Gap Bolsters a Push for Pre-K. New York Times. Retrieved from\

Image Credit: Altaf, Q. (Photographer). (2012, Nov 08). Free school under a bridge in India [Print Photo]. Retrieved from

Tiffany Nguyen is a first year student at Georgia Institute of Technology, majoring in psychology with a particular interest in the education system. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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  • Jm

    More light on this subject comes from the field of Positive Psychology. Dr. Angela Duckworth from the psyc dept at UPenn found that the two largest factors in determining high school graduation are grit and self-control. These two factors overshadow ses, teachers, and even intelligence.

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