Are Asians Smarter?

There’s a lot of talk in Western countries about the success of Asian students in schools and universities. This debate extends beyond mere culture to incorporate the idea of human intelligence. The question then becomes, are Asians simply smarter? Asians do tend to score slightly higher than Caucasians in IQ tests, and significantly higher than blacks.

This is a complex question, and here I’m just going to raise a couple of main points. I will focus upon Asian culture and schooling here. There are of course a host of related issues in Western education.

It is indisputable that environment has a significant effect on the expression of human intelligence. (The debate is over just how much).

The way that most intelligence tests are constructed favours pencil and paper type intelligence, and of course people who spend more time doing pencil and paper tests will do better. Most intelligence tests test favour verbal/linguistic, mathematical/logical intelligence and spatial awareness. Given the culture of most Asian societies – endless study and playing computer games – it’s only natural these facets of human intelligence will expand. It’s important to note that intelligence is very plastic, as The Flynn Effect clearly shows – at least in terms of measured IQ. (The Flynn Effect refers to the massive increase in measured Intelligence in developed countries since World War Two). Russian psychologist S Luria showed that Russian peasants early last century had almost no capacity for abstract conceptualisation. Now almost everybody is proficient, given the demands of modern society. This is just one facet of such intelligence expansion.

Consider how IQ scores might change if intelligence tests incorporated other variables not well-developed in Asian cultures.

  • Creativity.
  • Idea generation.
  • Question generation.
  • Lateral thinking.
  • Hypothesis formulation.
  • Self-reflective awareness.
  • Social intelligence.
  • Emotional and spiritual intelligence (includining what I call Integrated Intelligence).
  • Embodied intelligence…*

I suspect that if these factors were taken into consideration when assessing human intelligence, then Asians would then fall back considerably in the tests scores. Not because of innate lack of intelligence, but because of cultural delimitation.

Most notably, many of the attributes in the list above are present in the worlds great thought leaders. So why do they they not constitute a part of most intelligence testing?

If you look at the development of human civilisation it is hard to argue that Asians are smarter. In fact, given that there are far more Asians than any other race, they are under-represented in human design and creativity, especially in the past several centuries. Few Asians, for example, have been represented in the awarding of Nobel Prizes. Some suggest that this is due to the cultural bias of the awarding body. However, I don’t think this is the entire reason.

There’s no doubt that there were impressive cultures and societies built in centuries past. And there was a great deal of introspective wisdom in Buddhist, Taoist, Indic thought and so on.

I think we can assume that the same genetic pool was available in China during its years as “The Sick Man of Asia” as there is today – when we see China flourishing economically and technologically. Clearly then the same DNA can produce the gleaming skyscrapers and fast trains of twenty-first century China – but also the mind boggling stupidity of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, which led to China’s economic collapse and the deaths of perhaps fifty million people.

Intelligence is the capacity to solve problems. Where culture and society and behaviour promote any given cognitive capacity, then it will flourish – and whatever mental abilities are not valued will diminish. This is what is happening with the East Asian cultures at present – but only in certain cognitive domains. The reason why high IQ scores and scholastic aptitudes don’t necessarily translate into genius is because intelligence tests and schooling focus on a delimited range of human mental abilities. These abilities will get you good grades and into good universities and decent jobs, but the entire process is self-limiting. [sociallinkz]It often comes at the cost of the cognitive abilities which Asian parents do not value because they have little academic or social/financial value.

The entire East Asian social structure also creates a high degree of co-dependence, which means most people are unwilling to step outside the boundaries of what is socially approved of. I predict that this will eventually lead to social stagnation (as is happening in Japan), because ultimately there will be too many managers and not enough leaders (especially thought leaders).

There is an increasing awareness of this issue in Asia. Singapore in particular has incorporated creativity into its classrooms. In Hong Kong, the Education Department is attempting to do the same.

Ironically, the greatest hindrance to change is the social structure. Parents, administrators and teachers all want high test scores. But most are not willing to sacrifice upward social mobility for the sake of some abstract concepts like creativity or emotional intelligence. So parents keep drilling their kids and sending them to tutoring classes after school and on weekends. And students get good scores. But at what cost?


* No doubt you will be thinking this list is highly subjective. And you would be correct. These variables simply reflect my personal perception based on experience in East Asian cultures. I’m sure some might take offence at suggesting that, say, social intelligence is not well developed. This needs to be contextualised. There is a growing issue in many Asian countries with young people – especially males – becoming disengaged from society. For example, in China there is a derogatory term – “diaosi” – used to describe young men who have limited social skills, no girlfriend, and who spend most of their spare time playing computer games. This problem is not unique to China, but is exacerbated in China because young men with no connections to power or influence often have limited social and professional options.



8 thoughts on “Are Asians Smarter?

  1. Creativity?

    Look at the finalists of the Physics, Mathematics and Chemistry Olympiads. 60-70% of them are Chinese.

    • While there is no doubt an aspect of creativity, these are normally considered domains of abstract conceptualisation. They are heavily “left-brained” and defined by linear, sequential processing. These are precisely the domains you’d expect Asians to excel at given the way they are taught in school. Most people consider that a key component of creativity is novel thinking and the synthesis of disparate ideas and fields of enquiry.

  2. Hello Marcus:

    I agree with you 100% that the current IQ tests capture the quantifiable so called left brain activity. There is no place for creativity, EQ, leadership qualities etc.

    And you are correct that the rigid social structures and culture prevalent in Asia, is limiting, as compared to the more individualistic Western culture.

  3. Scientists and engineers making exceptional contributions to the physical sciences. Regardless of benchmark date or indicator, we find the foreign-born to be disproportionately represented among those making exceptional contributions in the physical sciences (Table 6). For example, more than half (55.6%) of the outstanding authors in the physical sciences are foreign-born compared to just 20.4% of physical scientists in the scientific labor force as of 1980 (Table 1). We also find that the foreign-educated are disproportionately represented for a number of the indicators = among the most-cited and outstanding authors, as well as first authors of hot papers.

    Indicative of the future, the foreign-born made up over half of doctorate scientists and engineers under the age of 45 in 2000 and 57 percent of post-doctorate workers. Nearly 60 percent of the growth in the number of PhD scientists and engineers in the country in the 1990s came from the foreign-born

    >most of the foreign-born scientists are asian

  4. Joseph Renzulli’s (1978) “three ring” definition of giftedness is one frequently mentioned conceptualization of giftedness. Renzulli’s definition, which defines gifted behaviors rather than gifted individuals, is composed of three components as follows: Gifted behavior consists of behaviors that reflect an interaction among three basic clusters of human traits—above average ability, high levels of task commitment, and high levels of creativity.[10] Individuals capable of developing gifted behavior are those possessing or capable of developing this composite set of traits and applying them to any potentially valuable area of human performance. Persons who manifest or are capable of developing an interaction among the three clusters require a wide variety of educational opportunities and services that are not ordinarily provided through regular instructional programs.

    While White students represent the majority of students enrolled in gifted programs, Black and Hispanic students constitute a percentage less than their enrollment in school.[30] For example, statistics from 1993 indicate that in the U.S., Black students represented 16.2% of public school students, but only constituted 8.4% of students enrolled in gifted education programs. Similarly, while Hispanic students represented 9% of public school students, these students only represented 4.7% of those identified as gifted.[31] However, Asian students make up only 3.6% of the student body, yet constitute 14% in the gifted programs.

    In a plenary address at the annual Congress of the American National Association for Gifted Children in November 1985, Sternberg reported that the number of students of Asian background in American programmes for gifted children exceeded the normative expectations from population figures by a factor of five. Entrance to programmes for gifted children in the U.S. is usually set at a level to accommodate moderately gifted children rather than the highly or exceptionally gifted; thus an interesting pattern seems to be developing an over-representation of Asian children by a factor of five in the population of moderately gifted students and by a considerably greater factor-15 or over among the exceptionally gifted. A student has to be extremely gifted mathematically to score more than 700 on the SAT-M by the age of 13; only 4 per cent of college-bound 17 and 18 year olds in the U.S. attain such a score!

    To illustrate this point: in a normal population with a mean IQ of 100, and a standard deviation of 15, 228 children in every 10,000 would have an IQ score two standard deviations above the mean, that is, a score of IQ 130 or higher. However, with a mean shift upwards of half a standard deviation, as reported by Jensen for Asian Americans, no fewer than 668 children in 10,000 would score in the IQ 130+ range. Many American gifted programmes which employ an IQ criterion for entrance set their entry level at IQ 130; in this situation, 6.68 per cent of Asian children would be eligible to enter these programmes on the basis of IQ as opposed to only 2.28 per cent of Caucasian children-an overrepresentation by a factor of 2.93. Yet Sternberg reports an overrepresentation by a factor of 5! Why do American gifted programmes contain almost twice the number of Asians than could be statistically expected from Jensen’s projections. The children of this study have scored at or above IQ 160 on the Standford-Binet Intelligence Test L-M, an instrument with a mean of 100 and a standard deviation fo 16. Thus these children score at least 3.75 standard deviations above the mean. Fewer than 9 children in 100,000 score at or beyond this level. However, if we shift the mean upwards by 0.5 of a standard deviation, to investigate the implications of Jensen’s findings and if we assume the standard deviation for the Asian population to be the same as that for non-Asians, then the criterion score of IQ 160 for entrance to this study becomes only 3.25 standard deviations above the new mean. Beyond this point lie not 9, but 58, children in 100,000. If Jensen’s findings regarding a higher Asian mean are correct, and if they hold good for the Asian-Australian population as well as Asian-Americans, then we could expect to find Asian-Australians over-represented in the study by a factor of 6.5. Yet the over-representation actually found id an astonishing 15.6!

    • The problem is these statistics are descriptive of the situation. And they assume cognition is rigid, not malleable and plastic, the latter of which is indisputable. And even conservative materialists like Jensen concede environment plays a significant role in the expression of intelligence – nor do they allow for epigenetic variation. Jensen’s views on intelligence emerge from nineteenth century science.

      I have taught kids of all ages and numerous races in several different countries. The kids that do best are those with supportive parents and cultures which value education. I would estimate East Asian kids spend ten times as much time studying as Aboriginal kids, for example, on average. In fact, study is ALL many Asian kids do. And they spend much of that time studying maths, science and economics – the things their cultures value. It is hardly surprising these kids do better at school, and in pen and paper tests like IQ tests.

      If you go back 60 years China was a peasant society, with a high illiteracy rate. Public policy is what changed all that – not the human brain.

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