POLICY: Trading Places was right!


Every so often I read an article that (I hope) confirms what we know is right. Remember “Trading
”? Dan Akroyd is stripped of his upper-class environment and fails. Eddy Murphy is plucked form the gutter and succeeds, and the experiment “proves” that it’s “nurture not nature.”

In this op-ed, All Brains Are the Same Color, psychology professor Richard Nisbett shows that IQ scores are remarkably influenced by the environment in which kids are brought up, and race has basically nothing to do with it. After he demonstrates that fairly conclusively, Nisbett gets to the punchline:

What do we know about the effects of environment?

That environment can markedly influence I.Q. is demonstrated by the so-called Flynn Effect. James Flynn, a philosopher and I.Q. researcher in New Zealand, has established that in the Western world as a whole, I.Q. increased markedly from 1947 to 2002. In the United States alone, it went up by 18 points. Our genes could not have changed enough over such a brief period to account for the shift; it must have been the result of powerful social factors. And if such factors could produce changes over time for the population as a whole, they could also produce big differences between subpopulations at any given time.

In fact, we know that the I.Q. difference between black and white 12-year-olds has dropped to 9.5 points from 15 points in the last 30 years — a period that was more favorable for blacks in many ways than the preceding era. Black progress on the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows equivalent gains. Reading and math improvement has been modest for whites but substantial for blacks.

Most important, we know that interventions at every age from infancy to college can reduce racial gaps in both I.Q. and academic achievement, sometimes by substantial amounts in surprisingly little time. This mutability is further evidence that the I.Q. difference has environmental, not genetic, causes. And it should encourage us, as a society, to see that all children receive ample opportunity to develop their minds.

Health economists will tell you that the single best predictor of future health, as well as societal success in general, is education.

Last weekend I went to a party and talked with several San Francisco public school teachers. I knew that there were large variations between school districts, but I was fairly stunned to learn that within the one San Francisco Unified School District there are marked variations in resources between the schools in the nicer neighborhoods which have computers and smart boards in the classroom, and in those in the predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods. Apparently in some of those schools they don’t even have text books. Much of this difference is accounted for by the roles of the respective PTA’s in contributing resources — but not all.

Yet if Nisbett is correct, we can target this environmental problem and make a difference. This is really important for our society.

Why does this matter for health care? Because the resources we need to improve education and nurture are currently locked up in areas of waste in our society and economy. Whatever David Cutler says we’re spending too much on health care where it makes little difference, and not enough on education and nurture—where it can matter. And if we can do a better job on the “nurture” side it will show up in our society’s and our people’s health eventually.

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Bill YoungerPeterBarry CarolLeonard WashingtonBradley Flansbaum Recent comment authors
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Bill Younger

We had a teacher’s strike last year. It really made me think. Every day we entrust the most precious people in our lives, our children to these people. We’ll spend tons of money on fast food and big TV sets but nobody want’s to pay the teachers another nickle. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.


Barry, I agree, but what you say only confirms “environment” IS much larger than just school. The child has to come to school ready and eager to learn and understand that his learning will lead to success. The teacher has some control over helping the child be interested and receptive and for sure find how each child learns the best, but is the child coming to school from a poisoned neighborhood and home life and going home to the same. Hillary was right, “It takes a village to raise a child”. Should we then be spending more money on social… Read more »

Barry Carol
Barry Carol

With all due respect, I think there is a lot more to the word (and the importance of) “environment” than how much money we spend on education, how modern the facility is, the size of the class and whether or not they have text books and/or computers. As one small example, I can point to the town of Asbury Park, NJ where spending per pupil exceeds $22,000, which is the 4th highest in the entire country! Yet, results are still dismal. Why? People who focus on education spending and resources lose sight of or fail to recognize the fact that… Read more »

Leonard Washington

Why .. of course.
If Big Business would quit wasting money on idiotic things like Web 2.0 and the blood-sucking leeches involved, everyone could have free ice cream.

Bradley Flansbaum
Bradley Flansbaum

As a sidebar, related to this topic was a piece by Steve Schroeder in NEJM earlier this year. Frankly, I think it is the most memorable the journal published in quite some time. Worth reading: