Effects of Heredity and Environment on Intelligence (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Evidence for Environmental Influences

Numerous sources of evidence converge to indicate that environment has a significant impact on IQ scores. We find some of this evidence in twin studies and adoption studies. Studies of the effects of nutrition, toxic substances, home environment, early intervention, and formal schooling provide additional support for the influence of environment. Also, a steady increase in performance on intelligence tests over the past several decades—known as the Flynn effect—is almost certainly attributable to environmental factors.

Twin studies and adoption studies revisited

Let’s look once again at the IQ correlations for identical twins raised in the same home versus in different homes. The median correlation for twins raised in different homes is .72, whereas that for twins raised in the same home is .86. In other words, twins raised in different homes have less similar IQs than twins raised in the same home. The distinct environments that different families provide do have some influence on intellectual development.

Adoption studies, too, indicate that intelligence is not determined entirely by heredity (Capron & Duyme, 1989; Devlin, Fienberg, Resnick, & Roeder, 1995; Waldman, Weinberg, & Scarr, 1994). For instance, in one study (Scarr & Weinberg, 1976), some children of poor parents (with unknown IQs) were adopted by middle-class parents with IQs averaging 118–121. Other children remained with their biological parents. IQ averages of the children in the two groups were as follows:

  Average IQs
Adopted children 105
Nonadopted children 90

Although the adopted children’s IQ scores were, on average, lower than those of their adoptive parents, they were about 15 points higher than the scores for the control group children, who were raised by their biological parents.

Effects of early nutrition

Severe malnutrition, either before birth or during the early years of life, can limit neurological development and have a long-term impact on cognitive development and intelligence (Ricciuti, 1993; S. A. Rose, 1994; Sigman & Whaley, 1998). Attention, memory, abstract reasoning, and general school achievement are all likely to suffer from inadequate nutrition. Children sometimes recover from short periods of poor nourishment (due, perhaps, to war or illness), but the adverse effects of long-term deprivation are more enduring (Sigman & Whaley, 1998).

Some research studies have examined the effects of providing medically approved food supplements and vitamins to infants and young children who would not otherwise have adequate nutrition. Such interventions are most likely to enhance children’s development of motor skills, but in some instances cognitive development is enhanced as well (Pollitt & Oh, 1994; Sigman & Whaley, 1998).

Effects of toxic substances

A variety of toxic substances, or teratogens, in children’s prenatal or early postnatal environments—for instance, alcohol, drugs, radiation, lead-based paint dust—affect neurological development and thus also affect children’s later IQ scores (e.g., Michel, 1989; Neisser et al., 1996; Streissguth, Barr, Sampson, & Bookstein, 1994; Vogel, 1997; Vorhees & Mollnow, 1987). An example of such effects is fetal alcohol syndrome, in which children whose mothers consumed large amounts of alcohol during pregnancy show poor motor coordination, delayed language, and mental retardation (Dorris, 1989).

Effects of home environment

One likely explanation for the beneficial effects of adoption is that adoptive parents, who typically have adequate financial resources and high levels of education, can provide a more stimulating home environment than the biological parents might have been able to offer. Correlational studies indicate that stimulating home environments—those in which parents interact frequently with their children, make numerous learning and reading materials available, encourage the development of new skills, use complex sentence structures in conversation, and so on—are associated with higher IQ scores in children (Bradley & Caldwell, 1984; Brooks-Gunn et al., 1996; McGowan & Johnson, 1984). Furthermore, when two biologically unrelated children of the same age are raised by the same parents (typically because one or both children are adopted), the children’s IQs tend to be more similar than we would expect by chance alone—a relationship that can be attributed only to the influence of a common home environment (N. L. Segal, 2000).

We find especially compelling evidence for the beneficial effects of stimulating home environments in an ongoing project in Romania (C. A. Nelson, 2005). As a result of previous government policies, most Romanian orphans were at one time placed in large institutions to be raised. After a change in government and the intervention of a team of developmental psychologists, some institutionalized infants (randomly selected) were placed with adults willing to serve as foster parents. (Sadly, the intervention team could not find foster families for all of the infants.) As researchers periodically assessed the children’s physical and cognitive development, they found dramatic differences between the two groups. Despite adequate nutrition, children remaining in an institution throughout infancy and the preschool years had smaller head circumferences and less brain activity than the foster children. When intelligence was assessed, the institutionalized children had an average IQ of 64 (indicating mental retardation), whereas the foster children, on average, had IQs in the normal range.

Effects of early intervention

Unfortunately, not all children live in homes that provide ongoing stimulation and nurturance. When children live in impoverished or neglectful home environments, enriching preschool programs and other forms of early intervention can make an appreciable difference. For instance, high-quality child care and preschool programs (e.g., Head Start) frequently lead to short-term IQ gains and other cognitive and academic benefits (Bronfenbrenner, 1999; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2002b; Zigler, 2003). The effects of such programs don’t continue indefinitely, however. Without follow-up interventions during the elementary school years, cognitive advantages (e.g., higher IQ scores and academic achievement) often diminish over time and in some cases disappear altogether (Brooks-Gunn, 2003; Farran, 2001).

We must not be disheartened by such results. Publicly funded preschool programs such as Head Start often enroll the most economically disadvantaged children in the community. To study the long-term effects of these programs, researchers sometimes have difficulty finding an appropriate control group. For instance, they may compare children who attended the programs with children who, though not attending preschool, grew up in more advantaged circumstances (Schnur, Brooks-Gunn, & Shipman, 1992). Furthermore, early intervention often leads to long-term improvements in areas not reflected in IQ test scores. For instance, children who attend intensive, developmentally appropriate academic preschool programs are, later on, more likely to have high achievement motivation and self-esteem, less likely to exhibit serious behavior problems or need special education services, and more likely to graduate from high school (F. A. Campbell & Ramey, 1995; McCall & Plemons, 2001; Spencer et al., 2001; Washington & Bailey, 1995).

Early intervention is most effective in fostering intellectual development when it is tailored to children’s existing abilities and interests. But bombarding infants and small children with constant or intense stimulation is not effective. Children seem to have a natural desire to learn about their environment, and most eagerly explore their surroundings. But they can handle only so much information—and certainly only so much new information—at any one time. Furthermore, pushing young children into exceptionally challenging (perhaps age-inappropriate) activities can cause stress, depression and, in some cases, physical harm (Elkind, 1987). And ultimately, a secure, supportive relationship with one or more caregivers or teachers is just as important as age-appropriate toys and activities (S. Loeb, Fuller, Kagan, & Carrol, 2004; NICHD Early Child Care Research Network, 2002b).

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