Is There Cultural Bias in IQ Tests? Thesis

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IQ & Cultural Bias

IQ and Cultural Bias

The greater a person's mental ability, the greater their success. That's the view of psychologists in favor of IQ testing. They developed intelligence testing (IQ) as a way to measure the individual's mental ability and thus to predict an individual's probable success in school and in life. Nobody really challenges the assumption that a person with a high IQ will experience greater success, although everybody knows people that are very smart and for one reason or another are unsuccessful financially and/or socially. What is challenged is whether an IQ score really can identify the abilities of all individuals. Historically, minorities have scored low on IQ tests, yet it has become increasingly apparent over the years that minorities do not lack intelligence or talent. There must be some other reason for their low scores on these tests.

Many people have argued that the tests are written by members of the dominant middle class culture and thus are couched in the terms and language of that culture. People that take the tests who are from other cultures are therefore at a disadvantage because they do not understand the cultural assumptions that go with the language of the dominant culture.

I will argue that IQ is not all there is to intelligence. In this essay we will explore issues surrounding IQ and culture, what cross-cultural IQ studies have shown regarding cultural bias in the testing, the effects of environment on IQ scores, and how IQ has sometimes been perverted to support racism and discrimination.

What is IQ?

According to Holden (2003) IQ tests measure individuals for "g" or a general intelligence factor that supposedly is inborn. According to him, a debate has been going on for some time now among psychologists, the originators of IQ testing, as to the importance of the IQ score. "IQ scores predict a wider range of important social outcomes than perhaps any other psychological trait... bright people have a tail wind in virtually all aspects of life," (Gottfredson cited in Holden, 2003). According to Gottfredson, IQ affects almost every aspect of an individual's life from birth to death. As a small example, she describes the health care people get. If they cannot read and understand the directions on a medicine bottle, for instance, the level of care they get is likely to be diminished. If they cannot understand a basic consent form, they may sign for surgeries and treatments that a more well-informed patient would not consent to have done. Thus, this researcher correlates low IQ with "higher health costs, poorer health, and more frequent hospitalization" (p. 193). She claims that people with low IQ scores have more accidents as well. What she does not acknowledge, however, is that just because a person cannot read well, it does not necessarily follow that the person isn't bright. I know a man, for example, whose alcoholic mother neglected him severely and didn't send him to school until he was ten years old. The school asked his age when he registered. When he told them he was ten, they said, "Oh, then you should be in fourth grade." They assumed he had been in school all along. He missed being taught how to read and didn't learn until he was forty years old. His daughter taught him. Probably, the IQ tests he took in school showed him to have a low IQ. But it would be quite unfair (and inaccurate) to put that label on him, as he is really a very intelligent man.

In another study, Hendrix (1998, cited in Holden, 2003) used data from a longitudinal study (the 1998 National Longitudinal Study of Youth) and found that some children were "resilient." By that, is meant they showed no signs of "depression, delinquency, or school failure" (p. 193). The most resilient children were found to have the highest IQs. The least resilient children had the lowest IQs. Deary (cited in Holden, 2003) came to similar conclusions about older people. Those with higher IQs had better quality of life. They lived longer, were healthier, and functioned more effectively in daily life.

Multiple Intelligences

On the other hand, Howard Gardner's work sees intelligence more broadly than an IQ test score can express. His theory of multiple intelligences is based on what he calls "brain evidence for its existence in the nervous system" (Gardner, cited in Hogan, 2002). This implies evolutionary development of one or more combinations of intelligences in the individual, in response to experiences and challenges that have arisen over thousands for years. According to Gardner all individuals have at least 8 intelligences, but some may not be developed. These intelligences are linguistic, logical-mathematical, special, bodily kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intra-personal, and naturalist. They tend to develop unevenly in individuals. A person may have linguistic talent, for example, and do poorly in math. Take naturalist-intelligence, for example. My grandfather grew up on a farm and lived outdoors all of his life. He was skilled in the woods and knew all the wild animals and their habits. He could describe where something was by the curve of the land, the smell and sound of the area, and what was growing on it. He could predict a hard winter by observing the behavior and condition of the animals. If there were a test for this, he would score very high in naturalist-intelligence, but IQ testing doesn't touch on this kind of intelligence. IQ tests are limited. They test linguistic and logical-mathematical skills only. Someone like my grandfather, who did not speak standard English, didn't read much, and knew nothing of city or academic life, might well be judged as "low IQ." The same could be said about Native Americans and Australian Aborigines, both of whom score low on IQ tests.

IQ and Cultural Bias

The problem with IQ testing is that the people who devise the tests are generally familiar only with their own culture and its cultural assumptions, customs, habits, etc. The tests reflect their culture and not necessarily the culture of the person taking the test. For example, Michael Cole (cited in Nunley, 1995) did a cross-cultural study on children to determine at what age they learn "conservation." Conservation in terms of intelligence research is "the idea that when you pour all the water from a short glass into a tall glass, the same amount of water is still present, or if you take a fat ball of clay and roll it into a long narrow string of clay, the same amount of clay is there." He compared children that lived in a West Africa fishing village to children that lived in Mexico where pottery was the dominant occupation. When he used water for the test, the children of fisherman in West Africa had mastered the concept of conservation at an earlier age then the children of potters did. But when he used clay to test them, the children of potters had learned the concept of conservation at a younger age than the children of fishermen.

In another study, De Lacey in Australia (cited in Nunley, 1995) placed objects on a grid and asked children to remember their placement. White city children could quickly memorize the placement of mass produced objects such as scissors, safety pins, and nails and scored higher than aboriginal children that had no experience with such objects. The aboriginal children, however, scored higher than the white city children when the objects they were asked to memorize were stones of different shapes, sizes, and colors and other natural objects from nature. Both these studies clearly illustrate what is meant by "cultural bias." Looking at lists of numbers and finding a pattern (most IQ tests require this) is not a culture-free IQ test. Even familiarity with the test situation itself can have a big influence on the results and the scores obtained.

Even how the score is computed has become a topic for research. Coyle (2001), for example, did a study in which "worst performance" was shown to be a better predictor of IQ than "best performance." The researcher took a new look at data from earlier research in which elementary school children were tested for memory. The Wechsler Intelligence Scare for Children, Third Revision was used to obtain IQ scores. Then the researcher gave the children words on index cards which could be sorted into categories (for example, boat, car, bus TRANSPORTATION, apple, orange, banana FRUIT, cannon, gun, sword WEAPONS). The children were given time to study the words and later were asked to remember as many as they could. They were not told that the words could be placed in categories nor given any information about strategies for remembering them. After the tester presented the words one at a time, the child was given 10 minutes to "study the words and do whatever you want to remember them" (p. 3). After 10 minutes the words were covered and students took another different test that involved problem solving skills. After they… [END OF PREVIEW]

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