Hearing the poor accuracy of intelligence tests, it’s tempting to find some other method of testing for giftedness—say, looking at a child’s emotional intelligence or behavior. Dozens of web sites ask, “Is Your Child Gifted?” and then offer a checklist of behaviors to look for. And this isn’t just for parents—we found schools that had adopted these checklists as part of their screening process. But are these behavioral guidelines any more valid?
Since the 1995 publication of Dr. Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, there has been widespread acceptance of the theory that temperament and interpersonal skills might be more important to success than cognitive intellect. In the ten-year anniversary edition of his book, Goleman praised the school districts that now mandate emotional intelligence materials be included in their curricula, and he suggested that for some students, emotional intelligence might be the linchpin to their academic success. Still other schools have incorporated the premise into their admission processes. It’s increasingly popular for private schools to send preschoolers into staged play groups—administrators use checklists to quickly assess children’s behavior, motivation, and personality.
So could the emotional side of children explain what IQ tests are missing?
In the last decade, several leading approaches to measuring emotional intelligence have emerged. One test, the MSCEIT, comes from the team that originally coined the term “emotional intelligence”—including Dr. Peter Salovey, Dean of Yale College. The other test, the EQ-i, comes from Dr. Reuven Bar-On, who coined the term “Emotional Quotient.” Researchers around the world have been using these scales, and the results have been a shock.
In a meta-analysis of these studies, scholars concluded that the correlation between emotional intelligence and academic achievement was only 10 percent. Those studies were all done on adolescents and college students—not on kids—but one study of a prison population showed that inmates have high EQ. So much for the theory that emotionally intelligent people make better life choices.
Salovey has repeatedly slammed Goleman for misrepresenting his team’s research and overstating its impact. He considers Goleman’s optimistic promises not just “unrealistic” but “misleading and unsupported by the research.”
In one test of emotional knowledge, kids are asked what someone would feel if his best friend moved away. The more verbal a child is, the more she’s able to score high on these tests—but verbal ability is also what drives early cognitive intelligence. (In a later chapter, we’ll talk about what drives that early language development.) So rather than triumphantly arguing that emotional intelligence supplants cognitive ability, one influential scholar is proving it’s the other way around: higher cognitive ability increases emotional functioning.
There’s also research into how children’s personalities correlate with academic success. But the problem is that, at every age, different personality traits seem to matter. One study determined that in kindergarten, the extraverts are the good students, but by second or third grade, extraversion is only half as important, while other scholars found that by sixth grade, extraversion is no longer an asset. Instead, it has an increasingly negative impact. By eighth grade, the best students are conscientious and often introverted.
In 2007, Dr. Greg Duncan published a massive analysis of 34,000 children, with no less than eleven other prominent co-authors. They combed through the data from six long-term population studies—four of which were from the United States, one from Canada, and one from the United Kingdom. Prior to kindergarten, the children participating all took some variety of intelligence test or achievement test. As well, mothers and teachers rated their social skills, attention skills, and behaviors—sometimes during preschool, sometimes in kindergarten. The scholars sought out data on every aspect of temperament and behavior we recognize can affect performance in school—acting out, anxiety, aggression, lack of interpersonal skills, hyperactivity, lack of focus, et cetera.
Duncan’s team had expected social skills to be a strong predictor of academic success, but, Duncan recalled, “It took us three years to do this analysis, as the pattern slowly emerged.” On the whole the IQ tests showed the degree of correlations as in Suen’s meta-analysis: combining math and reading together, early IQ had at best a 40% correlation with later achievement. The attention ratings, at best, showed a 20% correlation with later achievement, while the behavior ratings topped out at an 8% correlation. What this means is that many kids who turned out to be very good students were still fidgety and misbehaving at age five, while many of the kids who were well-behaved at age five didn’t turn into such good students. That social skills were such poor predictors was completely unexpected: “That is what surprised me the most,” confirmed Duncan.
It’s tempting to imagine one could start with the 40% correlation of IQ tests, add the 20% correlation of attention skill ratings, and top it off with a social skills measure to jack the total up to a 70% correlation. But that’s not how it works. The various measures end up identifying the same well-behaved, precocious children, missing the children who blossom a year or two later. For instance, motivation correlates with academic success almost as well as intelligence does. But it turns out that kids with higher IQs are more motivated, academically, so every analysis that controls for IQ shows that motivation can add only a few percentage points to the overall accuracy.
Almost every scholar has their own pet concoction of tests, like bartenders at a mixology competition. At best, these hybrids seem to be maxing out at around a 50% correlation when applied to young children.
In a later chapter of this book, we’ll discuss measures that get at the skill of concentrating amid distraction—how this may be the elusive additive factor scientists are looking for. And it could be that in a few years, a scholar will emerge with a hybrid test of IQ and impulsivity that will predict a five-year-old’s future performance. Until then, it needs to be recognized that no current test or teacher ratings system, whether used alone or in combination on such young kids, meets a reasonable standard of confidence to justify a long-term decision. Huge numbers of great kids simply can’t be “discovered” so young.
With IQ test authors warning that kids’ intelligence scores aren’t really reliable until a child is around 11 or 12, that raises a fascinating question. What’s going on in the brain that makes one person more intelligent than another? And are those mechanisms substantially in place at a young age—or do they come later?
Back in the 1990s, scientists were seeing a correlation between intelligence and the thickness of the cerebral cortex—the craterlike structure enveloping the interior of the brain. In every cubic millimeter of an adult brain, there’s an estimated 35 to 70 million neurons, and as many as 500 billion synapses. If the nerve fibers in a single cubic millimeter were stretched end to end, they would run for 20 miles. So even a slightly thicker cortex meant trillions more synapses and many additional miles of nerve fibers. Thicker was better.
In addition, the average child’s cortex peaked in thickness before the age of seven; the raw material of intelligence appeared to be already in place. (The entire brain at that age is over 95% of its final size.) On that basis, it could seem reasonable to make key decisions about a child’s future at that stage of development.
But this basic formula, thicker is better, was exploded by Drs. Jay Giedd and Philip Shaw of the National Institutes of Health in 2006. The average smart kid does have a bit thicker cortex at that age than the ordinary child; however, the very smartest kids, who proved to have superior intelligence, actually had much thinner cortices early on. From the age of 5 to 11 they added another half-millimeter of gray matter, and their cortices did not peak in thickness until the age of 11 or 12, about four years later than normal kids.
“If you get whisked off to a gifted class at an early age, that might not be the right thing,” Giedd commented. “It’s missing the late developers.”