Society and Intelligence

Intelligence tests have been constructed of three kinds. Verbal paper-and-pencil tests, non-verbal paper-and-pencil tests, where the tasks are presented by means of pictures and diagrams, and performance tests which require the manipulation of objects. Some, such as the Binet test and the performance tests, are given to subjects separately; most verbal and non-verbal tests can be done by a group of subjects writing at the same time.

The subjects are told to do their tasks within a certain time, their results are marked, and the result of each is compared with a scale indicating what may be expected of children of the same age, i.e. what marks are expected of the relatively few bright ones, what marks are expected of the few dull ones, and what marks are expected of the bulk of the population with whom the comparison is being made. This 'calibration' of the test has been made beforehand and we are not concerned with the methods employed. One thing, however, we have to notice, and that is that the assessment of the intelligence of any subject is essentially a comparative affair.

The results of assessment are expressed in various ways, the most familiar being in terms of what is called the Intelligence Quotient. For our purposes we need not consider how this has been devised, it is enough to say that an I.Q. round about 100 is 'average', while more than 105 or less than 95 are above or below the average respectively.

Now since the assessment of intelligence is a comparative matter we must be sure that the scale with which we are comparing our subjects provides a 'valid' or 'fair' comparison. It is here that some of the difficulties, which interest us, begin. Any test performed involves at least three factors: the intention to do one's best, the knowledge required for understanding what you have to do, and the intellectual ability to do it. The first two must be held equal for all who are being compared, if any comparison in terms of intelligence is to be made. In school populations in our culture these assumptions can be made with fair plausibility, and the value of intelligence testing has been proved up to the hilt. Its value lies, of course, in its providing a satisfactory basis for prediction. No one is in the least interested in the marks little Basil gets on his test, what we are interested in is whether we can infer from his mark on the test that Basil will do better or worse than other children of his age at other tasks which we think require 'general intelligence'. On the whole such inference can be made with a certain degree of confidence, but only if Basil can be assumed to have had the same attitude towards the test as the others with whom he is being compared, and only if he was not penalized by lack of relevant information which they possessed.

It is precisely here that the trouble begins when we use our tests for people from different cultures. If, as happens among the Dakota Indians, it is indelicate to ask a question if you think there is someone present who does not know the answer already, this means that a Dakota child's test result is not comparable with the results of children brought up in a less sensitive environment. Porteous found difficulty among the Australian aborigines. They were brought up to believe that all problems had to be discussed in the group, and they thought it very eccentric to be expected to solve one by oneself.

Supposing, however, a satisfactory attitude towards the test can be assumed, what about equality in relevant knowledge? In a society where children play with bricks, performance tests involving the manipulation of little cubes present an easier problem than they would in a society where such toys were unknown. Bartlett reports that a group of East African natives were unable to arrange coloured pegs in an alternating series, but they planted trees according to the same plan in everyday life.

Then there is the story of the little boy in Kentucky who was asked a test question: 'If you went to a store and bought six cents worth of candy and gave the clerk ten cents what change would you receive?' The boy replied: 'I never had ten cents and if I had I wouldn't spend it on candy and anyway candy is what mother makes.' The tester reformulated the question: 'If you had taken ten cows to pasture for your father and six of them strayed away, how many would you have left to drive home?' The boy replied: 'We don't have ten cows, but if we did and I lost six I wouldn't dare go home.' Undeterred the tester pressed his question: 'If there were ten children in your school and six of them were sick with the measles how many would there be in school?' The answer came: 'None, because the rest would be afraid of catching it too.'

Thus all intercultural comparisons of intelligence are vitiated by the lack of true comparability, and any generalizations about 'racial' differences in intellectual competence which do not take account of this are worthless. So are many comparisons which have been made between children of different social classes.

(From Social Psychology, by W. J. H. Sprott.)