Social factors can have a powerful effect on our intelligence. Most of us feel intelligent and amusing when talking to a particular person and feel dumb and inarticulate when talking to someone else.
In the October 7th edition of the New York Times, Annie Murphy Paul quotes psychologist Joshua Aronson as saying that we shouldn’t think of our intelligence as just a "lump of something that’s in our heads," but as "a transaction among people."
Experiments have shown that members of groups believed to be academically inferior, such as African-American and Latino students enrolled in college or female students in math and science courses, score much lower on tests when reminded beforehand of their race or gender.
Paul writes: "In a 1995 article in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Professors Claude Steele and Aronson found that black students performed comparably with white students when told that the test they were taking was ‘a laboratory problem-solving task.’ Black students scored much lower, however, when they were instructed that the test was meant to measure their intellectual ability. In effect, the prospect of social evaluation suppressed these students’ intelligence."
This hasn’t changed: Just this year, a group of female high school students did worse on a test of spatial skills when told that males are better at solving spatial problems because of genetic differences between males and females.
Paul quotes Aronson as saying that "the doltishness induced by an uncomfortable social situation is ‘conditional stupidity,’" and that "we should use that insight to create the conditions for brilliance."