Modern Japan has very few of the world’s natural resources—oil, forests, precious metals. Yet this archipelago has given rise to the world’s third largest economy. Nigeria, by contrast, is blessed with ample natural resources, including lots of land, yet it is one of the planet’s poorer nations. Why is that? Why is there not a simple link between natural bounty and prosperity?
The short answer is national intelligence. A nation’s cognitive resources amplify its natural resources. That’s the view of University of Washington psychological scientist Earl Hunt, who argues that, given equal national intelligence, Nigeria would be richer than Japan. But where does national intelligence come from, and why does Nigeria lack it?
Hunt sketched out an answer to that question in his James McKeen Cattell Award address, delivered this week at the 23rd annual convention of the Association for Psychological Science. According to his model, intelligence is not what IQ tests measure, but rather the ability to solve social problems using “cultural artifacts”—computers, books, the scientific method and rule of law, for example. All countries start off with the same genetic potential for intelligence—there is no evidence otherwise—but this raw potential is developed much more effectively in some nations than in others, because of dramatic differences in physical and social environments.
A detrimental physical environment consists of malnutrition, disease and environment pollutants—all of which can directly affect the developing nervous system—and thus working memory and attention—and also create a social burden that interferes with education and learning. The social environment also shapes individual and national intelligence. This includes the sheer amount of schooling, because practicing thinking makes people better thinkers. It also includes the existence of a “cognitive elite”—people with enough advanced education to familiarize them with the cognitive artifacts needed for problem solving. And it includes family, which plays the role of motivator, encouraging children to learn things like trigonometry even when they can’t see the value. Small families are better; large families are associated with drops in both cognitive and economic well-being.
National intelligence also requires a national “willingness to listen,” Hunt argues. No nation can come up with all of its own cognitive tools, but nations can borrow if they are open to new cognitive advances elsewhere. When Japan’s leaders decided to isolate the country from the world in the 17th century, the intelligence of its people declined. It’s not that they were unaware of modernization; they rejected it. When the nation reopened its cultural borders in the 19th century, national intelligence bloomed.
The simple fact is, it’s good to be intelligent—for nations no less than individuals. Various studies have linked a country’s cognitive resources positively not only with economic prosperity, but also with rule of law, the quality of bureaucracy, and successful homicide prosecutions. The same studies have linked low national intelligence with HIV infection, fertility rate, homicide rate, and income inequality. What’s more, national intelligence and prosperity appear to interact and reinforce one another: In one study, national intelligence in the 1970s influenced wealth in the year 2000, and wealth in the 70s influenced intelligence in the year 2000. As Hunt concludes: “The smart got richer and the rich got smarter.”