Are some cultures more gifted than others?

Posted on March 6, 2009. Filed under: American culture, Asian culture, cross cultural, education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

My son is highly gifted in math. He is very advanced in all his subjects, but he is off the charts gifted in math. I’m not sure where this came from, although I personally believe the hand of God is involved.  I first noticed something was unusual when, as an infant, he started lining up raisins in a pattern. By kindergarten he was adding mixed fractions in his head when everyone else was counting to 10, and by 5th grade he started teaching himself calculus by downloading lessons from the Texas A&M math department website. Our school district supports gifted education and has let him accelerate 3 years in math.

Being gifted in America is a big secret, where “all children are gifted!” If he were a star athlete, or a prodigy musician, that would be fine. But America, the land of equality, really doesn’t like the idea that some people are innately smarter than others.

We attended an award ceremony at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth for the top 400 middle school children nationwide, based on SAT scores. (SATs are college entrance exams).  The children were called up alphabetically in groups to receive their awards, and when the W,X,Y,Z group was called,  an enormous amount of students stood up.  They were the Wangs, Wus, Wongs, Xias, Xies, Xins, Xus, Xues, Yans, Yangs, Yaos, Yes, Yoos, Zhangs, Zhengs, and Zhus. The most highly gifted students were overwhelmingly Asian.

This is my dilemma. I don’t believe one race is smarter than another. And I know that Asian culture highly values education and these students were there because their parents pursued this testing to identify their child’s ability. I know that, unlike in America, it’s fine to be gifted.  I’ve also read that the math systems in China, Japan and Korea are easier than English, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers. But these were Asian-American children. They were learning math in English.

These were not just good students, they were the top students in the nation. You can’t coach a 12-year-old to score a 700+ in math on the SAT. You can barely coach an adult to reach that score. These students weren’t recognized for their hard work, but for an innate ability. So given their small percentage of the general population,  I’ve got to ask–why are so many of our top math students Asian?


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16 Responses to “Are some cultures more gifted than others?”

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They are not gifted; they are “crammed” (instead of sports, they do math after school) and taught by elders that it is most laudable to be outstanding in math. My daughter, in college now, told me her peers in high school made fun of all the kids who well in school, especially in math.

There might be a self-selection bias. We would need to compare to SAT scores for kids in rice paddies in depths of the Chinese farmland before we get too hyped up about racial and cultural differences. Chinese-American children are descended from Chinese ancestors who were doing well enough in China to afford the trip across the Pacific (it is a long and expensive trip) to come to America and/or they had a skill set that motivated someone else to pay the frieght. This could naturally select for more agreesion, more intelligence, more deligence, etc. Flip the story around, take Americans living and working in the Orient today, and see if their children don’t outscore the norms significantly.

I read your blog and as a Mom of an Asian Adoptee, I must say that this is perpetuating the stereotype of Asians. I know plenty of Asians who aren’t great at Math- som African Americans who can’t feel a musical bet or dance at all–I do, however, agree with your perception that several Asian cultures do encourage their children to work hard in an educational setting. THis is also something that the Jewish culture values. BUT not everyone who is Jewish would make a great banker or lawyer and not every Asian is innatley smart at MAth–itsjust ridiculous and degrading to individual people-THere..I’ve said my piece- Peace…and KamSamydah (Thank-you in Korean)

Well, anyone who is reasonably well-informed and a critical thinker who actually believes that any human culture is inherently/genetically more/less intelligent than others must have underlying reasons for wanting such to be true.

Over long time frames (tens, hundreds, thousands of years), groups simply put emphasis on different areas of life, at different times, and to varying degrees; depending on their surroundings and states of being. Primarily, it’s a matter of history and necessity. Look at the legendary early American work ethic, or the way overall production rose when the US faced two World Wars – Americans did not have a choice. But over the past several decades, the continually-rising standard of living naturally led to a (relative) sense of complacency. The short history of the US means we do not have that common, long term experience of delayed gratification.

On the other hand, many areas in Asia have been living in stable, relatively homogenous communities – but with a much lower standard of living – for hundreds and even thousands of years. The legacy of long term investments resulting in an eventual (maybe not even within the same generation) payoff is woven throughout the fabric of their history. Let’s call it vision and patience. And, when people in that type of society get on the same page the results are magnified.

All Americans, at some level, realize the obvious truth that an early focus on education will surely lead to kids, then adults, who are “better” or “smarter” in those key areas of study. The difference is, generally Americans more than one generation removed from being immigrants themselves are already used to “the good life.”
Thus, the sense of urgency necessary to make the personal sacrifices required to spend hours every evening making sure your kids are studying is just not there. And yes, we have done a great (terrible) job of stigmatizing mentally-gifted children during the last few decades, unfortunately.

Now, we may call it “smarter” for Asian parents to (generally) spend much more time with their kids on schoolwork and education-related issues than other cultures, but it’s not truly a grey matter issue. It’s a pragmatic approach, proven to be successful over the long run.

That all being said; we humans, like all the other critters, have and will continue to evolve through natural selection and “training”, for lack of a better word. If an entire culture is eating the same foods, learning the same materials, raising their kids in similar fashion, etc., over generations certain traits will of course become more prevalent. Specialization has its pluses.

Lauren, as far as your son’s amazing math abilities, and other examples of kids who show very unusual “inherent” skills, I believe there are always going to be rare examples of that type of occurrence – kind of like (but less understood) when there are recessive genes that pop up now and then.

In a nutshell, it’s a combination of nature and nurture, with the emphasis on nurture for your Asian math/science whiz examples. Jared Diamond’s fantastic book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies is a fascinating read and leaves little doubt as to the innate adaptability and intelligence of all humans and cultures.

I’m an asian but I do not think I’m more gifted than the non-asians. But I do find that Music lessons have greatly enhanced some of the brain functions, overall well-being, creativity and problem-solving skills.

I had the experiences of doing maths in 2 languages (Malay and English). I had no problems doing the maths in English (becoz English is my favorite subject) but I had problems with the maths in Malay. Since it is compulsory that I pass maths in both languages, I had to be tutored for my maths in Malay. It turned out that I was having problems understanding the maths questions…. once I figure out what it was, I could solve it quite easily.

Does that make me gifted? I think I just had lots of practice with lots of maths problems in class… and I love solving maths (in English of course).

Some cultures obviously produce more people good at math than others. This has nothing to do with genetics; the commenters who brought that up are muddying the waters. People have mentions Asian cultures, Jewish culture, and I would add the culture of India. One possible similarity is a tendency in those cultures to make conversations into debates, making fine distinctions and so on.

I’m just making that as an observation of my own but it could be turned into a scientific claim that could be studied. It seems to me very important to find correlations between cultural traits and success at mathematics, not to mention correlation between cultural traits and all sorts of other things (tendency to violence, the gift of gab that the Irish are supposed to have, musical ability, and so on.)

Cultures are different, they result in people with different abilities (statistically, not saying anything about a particular person), and these differences should be studied.

Charles Wells

I want to comment on this subject because I
think that it is important. The first three years
of a child’s life is so important. I see many
brilliant children. I test 3 year olds and if
their parents don’t value intellect, they get
eaten alive. From my perspective it is a form of

Some cultures value intellect and scholars and
provide a nurturing environment and some cultures

I have been living in Mississippi for a year now
and from a cultural perspective it is incredible.
They do not value reading. There are very few
signs on the road because people look for
landmarks. They have reorganized their brain
through environment and experiences.
peace and blessings

Well, you can’t coach giftedness, but you can nurture it. I think that the difference is that Asian families push their gifted children much more (in general) in STEM fields than other American families.

I also suspect that the mode of thinking fostered by Asian families helps when taking tests, because tests are generally very pretty “inside the box” thinking, while most other American families don’t really raise their children to any specific type of thinking. Asian kids aren’t necessarily worse at creative thinking, but they are raised to be better at application thinking (for lack of a better phrase)

All right, what about all the scientists from
the former USSR? When you don’t watch TV day
and night, but have generations of great
culture and literature behind you, plus innate
heroism and love of your Motherland, that leads
to many accomplishments. After all the Periodic
table of elements is really Mendeleev table of
elements, first man in Space was Russian (how
many Americans know his name – Gagarin?), and
Russia produced more great writers than any other


It’s a perfectly fair question. But the answer is almost staring us in the face. The groups who stand out prefer no to use the “g” word. Rather, they explain that, given whatever this or that population brings with it into the world, resulting statistical differences (such as the one observed here) probably have a very simple explanation: one group works harder than the other to develop whatever its inborn talents may be, and to optimise the opportunities provided by nurture.

The key lies in the fact that
(a) whereas the observation is “statistical” (given a “population”, a certain fraction emerge as performing outstandingly well);
(b) the proposed “explanation” (the “g” word) is assumed to describe something tangible about “individuals”.
This confuses different “categories”.

I have been privileged to work with many of the best young mathematicians in the UK for 40 years, and my conclusion is that the “g” word is positively harmful. It explains nothing; and it suggests responses which are usually counterproductive. We can utter the “g” word – and I am happy to do so informally in the pub, or on the beach when engaging in discussion of “statistical” phenomena; but it is wrong to encourage others to think that such statistical data is relevant when describing individual children, or when advising parents and teachers how to provide for individuals or for specific groups. The “g” word simply does not “denote” anything sufficiently real or tangible.

Performing at a high level is not like “getting swine flu”. Some young human beings do things that are very impressive; others may appear relatively unimpressive at that age; and each group will be later represented among those adults who stand out. Those who claim to “identify” and predict in either group confuse statistical trends and individual prediction: a larger fraction of those who perform well at a young age may stand out later, but this does not justify labelling individuals as being (or as not being) “g”. There is no “g”-virus out there, which we can test for and treat.

Once one understands this (for example, by having had to clean up after hundreds of bewildered parents and children who see an earlier diagnosis lead to nothing especially striking in adulthood), one is ready to start the intelligent debate.

What do we really know and what can we usefully do to optimise the outcomes for individuals and for communities?

I think that one of the reasons that there are so many math-gifted Asians in the U.S. is the pattern of immigration of professionals from China, Taiwan, and, more recently, India.

The parents and grandparents of Asian children in America often represent the top university graduates from countries in which there is tremendous competition for educational resources. Typically these immigrants tend to be technical professionals (where math is a key skill), rather than authors, lawyers, artists, or other fuzzy types.

To the extent that cognitive differences have a heritable component, I think this largely explains what we’re seeing with Asians and math achievement. And there’s probably an environmental influence to the extent that these families tend to have a strong academic legacy.

Your son’s math ability sounds a lot like my son’s. He’s biracial, and his grandfather was an immigrant engineer who graduated at the top of university class in Hong Kong. I was a humanities major in college and didn’t drill my son with flash cards or send him to Kumon, as some of the comments suggest. Still, he’s been consistently 3-4 years ahead in math since kindergarten, learning pretty much on his own. We don’t make a big deal of “being gifted” and just try to make sure he’s happy.

So yes, maybe *these* Asians are smarter. Keep in mind this is not a random group of Asians; instead, they’ve been “selected” by generations of American business interests.

(You could also ask whether the children of white rocket scientists with Ph.D.’s are better at math than the general American population…)

If they do, it’s not the writer of this article. I clearly state that “I don’t believe one race is smarter than another.” I was, however, surprised to see that the overwhelming majority of profoundly gifted children at this award ceremony were Asian-American, significantly out of proportion to their representation in the population. That is a fact, not an opinion. I was asking why, and I think it’s a valid question.

I’m a ‘gifted’ art student and musician, and yet I do terribly in math (terribly for me is about an 80 (B+)). However this did not turn out to be true with the SAT. I easily scored over a 700 in math and the two other sections (Reading and Writing). I’ve skipped a grade only once because of a test my school gave new students on their first days in the system. I am currently 16 and I’m proud to say I am NOT a gifted mathematician or English literature major.

It has been researched and it is a fact that some cultures are more intelligent than others, regardless of whether it is accepted or not. Some cultures value education more, and scientific research has shown that those cultures that do value education, are generally more intelligent overall.

I am naturalized US citizen originally from India … I think it’s a good question to ask even if there are no simple answers. Good discussion so far with different viewpoints. Here is mine…

I believe this is an example of ‘Nature & Nurture’ issue + geographical dispersion. Some intelligence is inherited and this is true for entire human race. It would stand to reason most immigrant professionals, but not all, could be deemed to be intelligent. [US Immigration (the legal one: -) policy favors those kind!] This tends to skew the immigrant population profile and therefore not representative of the population of their original culture.

The nurture part is successful families encourage educational activities more than others. I think there is good number of native US families doing that but as a proportion, it may be lower than that compared to immigrants. In other words, the total number of intelligent American with Math’s talent may be more than similar immigrants; it just gets downplayed because Americans are more widely dispersed geographically than immigrants for obvious reasons. The converse helps immigrants get noticed!

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