American family values: where even the dull can dream!

By Razib Khan | September 27, 2010 5:03 pm

ResearchBlogging.orgOne of the issues when talking about the effect of environment and genes on behavioral and social outcomes is that the entanglements are so complicated. People of various political and ideological commitments tend to see the complications as problems for the other side, and yet are often supremely confident of the likely efficacy of their predictions based on models which they shouldn’t even been too sure of. That is why cross-cultural studies are essential. Just as psychology has overly relied on the WEIRD nature of data sets, so it is that those interested in social science need to see if their models are robust across cultures (I’m looking at you economists!).

That is why this ScienceDaily headline, Family, Culture Affect Whether Intelligence Leads to Education, grabbed my attention. The original paper is Family Background Buys an Education in Minnesota but Not in Sweden:

Educational attainment, the highest degree or level of schooling obtained, is associated with important life outcomes, at both the individual level and the group level. Because of this, and because education is expensive, the allocation of education across society is an important social issue. A dynamic quantitative environmental-genetic model can help document the effects of social allocation patterns. We used this model to compare the moderating effect of general intelligence on the environmental and genetic factors that influence educational attainment in Sweden and the U.S. state of Minnesota. Patterns of genetic influence on educational outcomes were similar in these two regions, but patterns of shared environmental influence differed markedly. In Sweden, shared environmental influence on educational attainment was particularly important for people of high intelligence, whereas in Minnesota, shared environmental influences on educational attainment were particularly important for people of low intelligence. This difference may be the result of differing access to education: state-supported access (on the basis of ability) to a uniform higher-education system in Sweden versus family-supported access to a more diverse higher-education system in the United States.

Minnesota is to some extent the Scandinavia of America, so the cross-cultural difference is particularly notable. You wouldn’t be surprised for example by big differences between Mississippi and Sweden. But looking at a comparison between the Upper Midwest and Scandinavia is closer to seeing the impact of national culture and policy differences on populations which were originally very similar.

Their methodology was simple, though as with much of this sort of behavior genetic work the statistical analysis can be somewhat labored. In both Sweden and Minnesota you had samples of dizygotic and monozygotic twins which give you a way to compare the effect of genes on variation in life outcomes. Sweden has large data sets from male conscription for behavior genetics analysis. They compared this with the Minnesota Twin Family Study data set.

Since the topline results are pretty straightforward, I thought I’d give you some statistics. Table 1 has raw correlations. Note that they converted educational attainment into a seven-point scale, less than 9 years of education to completion of doctoral studies.


You see the expected drop off in correlation between identical and fraternal twins. Identical twins share more genetic identity than fraternal twins, so they’re going to be more identical on a host of metrics aside from appearance. Those are just raw correlation values of traits though across categories of twins. The core intent of the paper was to explore the relationship between genes, family environment, and other environmental factors, and educational attainment. To do this they constructed a model. Below you see estimates of the variance in the trait explained by variance in genes, shared environment (family), non-shared environment (basically “noise” or error, or it could be something like peer group), from Sweden to Minnesota, and, at three intelligence levels. Two standard deviations below the norm is borderline retarded, ~2.5% of the population or so, and two standard deviations above the norm is at Mensa level.


It’s interesting that as you move up the IQ scale the genetic variation explains more and more of variance the educational attainment. Someone with an IQ of 130 is likely to be university educated. But there are many who are not. Why? The way I interpret these results is that if you are that intelligent and do not manage to complete university you may have heritable dispositions of personality which result in you not completing university. If, for example, you come from a family which is very intelligent, but is low on conscientiousness, then there may be a high likelihood that you just won’t complete university because you can’t be bothered to focus. Or, you may have personality characteristics so that you don’t want to complete university. A second major finding here is that Sweden and the USA go in totally different directions when it comes to the sub-average and dull in prediction of years of education. Why? The explanation in the paper seems plausible: Sweden strongly constrains higher education supply, but makes it available to those with proven academic attainments at a nominal price. Family encouragement and connections don’t matter as much, if you can’t pass the university entrance examination you can’t pass it. In contrast in the USA if you’re dull, but come from a more educated or wealthier family, you can find some university or institution of higher education which you can matriculate in. Supply is more flexible to meet the demand. I actually know of a woman who is strongly suspected to be retarded by her friends. I have been told she actually tested in the retarded range in elementary school but was taken out of that  track because her family demanded it (she’s the product of a later conception, and her family made their money in real estate, not through professional advancement). Over the years she has enrolled in various community colleges, but never to my knowledge has she completed a degree. If she had not had family connections there is a high probability she wouldn’t have completed high school. As it is, she can check off “some college” on demographic surveys despite likely be functionally retarded.

The next table is a bit more confusing. It shows you the correlations between the effects of the variable on education and intelligence. In other words, does a change in X have the same directional effect on Y and Z, and what is the extent of the correspondence between the effect on Y and Z.


Shared environment had almost the same effect on intelligence and education, while genetics had a more modest simultaneous effect. Not too surprising that non-shared environment didn’t have a strong correlation in effect across the traits, the authors note that much of this is going to noise in the model, and so not systematically biased in any direction. Though the confidence intervals here are a little strange. I’m not going to get into the details of the model, because frankly I’m not going to replicate the analysis with their data myself. That’s why I wanted to present raw correlations first. That’s pretty straightforward. Estimates of variances out of models with a set of parameters is less so. Here’s an interesting point from the correlations in the last table:

The patterns of genetic correlations in the two samples differed. In Sweden, genetic correlation was steadily in excess of .50 across the range of intelligence, indicating a genetically influenced direct effect of intelligence on educational attainment that was weaker than the shared environmental effect on educational attainment. In the MTFS [Minnesota] population, however, genetic correlation was in excess of .50 when level of intelligence was low, but was halved at higher levels of intelligence. This indicated that genetic influences on intelligence tended to limit educational attainment when the level of intelligence was low, but not when the level of intelligence was average or high.

Now let me jump to conclusion:

This finding indicates that genetic influences common to intelligence and educational attainment may have been more effective in limiting educational attainment in individuals with low levels of intelligence than in encouraging educational attainment in those with high levels of intelligence. As in Sweden, shared environmental influences on intelligence and educational attainment were completely linked, indicating a direct contribution from shared environmental influences on intelligence to educational attainment. The decrease in shared environmental variance with higher intelligence, however, indicated that shared environmental influences were more effective in encouraging educational attainment in higher-intelligence individuals than in limiting educational attainment in lower-intelligence individuals. In other words, in populations in which shared environmental influences such as family history and values encouraged high levels of educational attainment, individuals were able to surmount limitations in intelligence.

Our analysis does not permit the conclusion that these differences in educational systems cause the differences in environmental and genetic influences on educational attainment observed in this study, but it is reasonable to hypothesize that this is likely. In particular, the greater expense of higher education and greater subjectivity of admission standards in the United States compared with Sweden may partially explain the very different patterns of shared environmental influences in the two population samples. Regardless of the causes underlying the differences we observed, the results of our study make clear that the degrees of environmental and genetic influences can vary substantially between groups with different circumstances, and even within such groups. Our results also suggest that the ways in which social systems are organized may have implications for how and to what extent environmental and genetic influences on behavior will be expressed.

This discussion about the role of environment, genes, and culture, on various outcomes should not hinge on one paper. But, these sorts of results are often not widely disseminated among the intellectual classes. One aspect of the American educational system in contrast to some other nations is that not-too-brights have university degrees. Education has long been a project for social engineering in the USA, going back to Horace Mann. Legacies, underrepresented minorities, the poor, those with particular talents, etc., are all part of the decentralized system of university admissions in the United States. In contrast, in nations such as Sweden or Japan there is a more centralized and universal set of criteria. This results is more perfect sorting by the metrics of interest without considerations of social engineering. I know that Sweden has traditionally had a small aristocratic class, while the Japanese aristocracy were basically abolished after World War II. Additionally, both are relatively homogeneous societies so considerations of racial representativeness are not operative. Or weren’t until recently in the case of Sweden. But consider one reality: if such a system is perfectly meritocratic over time if the traits being evaluated are heritable then you will have genetic stratification and reduction of social mobility assuming assortative mating at university.

Currently there is some handwringing by the elites about the fact that so few poor kids get admitted to Ivy League universities. I think there’s a simple way to change this: get rid of the implicit Asian quotas. After all, there was a lot of socioeconomic diversity after the Ivy League universities got rid of their Jewish quotas, but the children of the Jews who didn’t have to go to CUNY and went to Harvard are well off themselves. But more socioeconomic mobility through removing the implicit Asian quota would cause other difficulties, as elite private universities need their slots for both legacies as well as underrepresented minorities for purposes of social engineering/fostering diversity/encouraging donations. Additionally, just as with the Jews the welter of mobility in one generation of the children of Asian immigrants would settle into quiescence in the next if the traits which enable university admission are genetically or culturally heritable.

Citation: Johnson W, Deary IJ, Silventoinen K, Tynelius P, & Rasmussen F (2010). Family background buys an education in Minnesota but not in Sweden. Psychological science : a journal of the American Psychological Society / APS, 21 (9), 1266-73 PMID: 20679521

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cognitive Science, Culture, Psychology

Comments (19)

  1. Apparently American elite universities take in a lower portion of the nation’s population than those of Europe:

  2. JasonM

    Wow – out of curiosity I looked up this Forbes Reynolds McPherson character, mentioned in the Daniel Golden article linked by “implicit Asian quotas,” and discovered he wrote an op-ed just yesterday in the Boston Globe, about the “next Petraeus.” The internet is a funny place…

  3. Thanks. I like studies that compare Sweden to Minnesota.

  4. Katharine

    Now you’re just baiting my misanthropy!

    I will say that I think this is f*cked up, and that for one America needs to have more stringent standards for what it allows to operate as an institution of higher education and also more stringent standards for who it allows in. (And it needs to really do more to shame the crap out of the uneducated.)

    Also, a link for everybody:

  5. miko

    Implicit in these discussions (maybe) is that you will get a better education at Harvard or other elite schools. The real advantage of enrollment is the opportunity to establish personal networks that will help you in business or politics. The Ivies do not produce the most scientists, engineers, or intellectuals. They produce social elites. Harvard has to admit ruling class legacies (within reason) because that’s what going to Harvard College offers–that’s what it is about. Any associations these places have of being intellectually elite (rather than socially) is about research, a realm in which undergrads are at best an annoyance.

  6. Anthony

    Interesting that the genetic component of variance in education at +2s is *higher* in Sweden than in Minnesota. Though looking at the 95% confidence interval ranges, the numbers are nearly meaningless.

    You hypothesise that “Someone with an IQ of 130 is likely to be university educated. But there are many who are not. Why? The way I interpret these results is that if you are that intelligent and do not manage to complete university you may have heritable dispositions of personality which result in you not completing university. If, for example, you come from a family which is very intelligent, but is low on conscientiousness, then there may be a high likelihood that you just won’t complete university because you can’t be bothered to focus. Or, you may have personality characteristics so that you don’t want to complete university.”

    One possible component of that is people leaving university to work and/or start their own business. By and large, only smart IT people (programmers, sysadmins, etc) and heirs to successful businesses would find it profitable to start working as an employee instead of completing college, but there are likely to be plenty more who think they can do better starting their own business. To the extent that a college degree is signalling, it’s not worth getting if you’re going to be your own boss. There are almost definitely cultural variations between Minnesota and Sweden in how available and potentially profitable these alternate paths are.

  7. Miko, that’s true, but I’ve heard from my friends who transferred to Harvard or Yale that at least in physics they gave a very good and extremely challenging education. In some subjects part of what you learn is what is demanded of you. At those schools (and places like MIT obviously) a lot more is demanded. I can’t speak for the other sciences let alone the humanities. But I think there is a standard of achievement demanded such that degrees from those locations are worth more.

    Do they produce more scientists? Probably not, although that might also have something to do with the size of those departments relative to the college as a whole.

  8. miko

    I didn’t say you wouldn’t get a good education at one of those schools or that some of the classes aren’t challenging. I just don’t think the education you get from and ivy is different from what you can get at any of the top 200 (maybe more) colleges. This is dependent on individual departments of course, but mostly dependent on individual students and their wherewithal to take advantage of the opportunities placed in front of them (perhaps the defining characteristic of Harvard undergraduates). I’m saying the value-add of an ivy is not a better education or more intellectual growth, it’s branding, social cache, networking opportunities, and potential entry into elite circles.

  9. I’m saying the value-add of an ivy is not a better education or more intellectual growth, it’s branding, social cache, networking opportunities, and potential entry into elite circles.

    the quality of students matters insofar as the peer group can push you. those of us who grew up in rural areas and were always the “smartest kid” and didn’t get much parental push aren’t aware of these things btw until later in life. i went to a no-name state school and meet people who went to elite schools all the time now. i’m not intimidated, but can appreciate what a high caliber peer group can do.

    OTOH, there’s a disciplinary difference here. no offense to humanists, but ivy league grads in those disciplines often strike me as nothing more than more polished bullshitters than the average bear. i have an interest in classical history that’s personal, and when i’ve engaged ivy league graduates with backgrounds in this area i was disgusted by how little they ventured beyond the demarcated curriculum and how obviously fixated they were on citing the literature which was in vogue in their department. the cliometrics of late antiquity mattered a shit load less to them than the fact that they’d studies late antiquity at havahd.

  10. pconroy

    Miko, Razib,

    I believe I can add a valuable insight to this discussion also. My brother and I immigrated from Ireland to the US together, both early 20’s, 2 years apart in age, both having IQ’s upwards of 145. We both took the SAT just 2 weeks after arriving here, and both scored very well. We both applied to a bunch of colleges and both of us listed Columbia as 1st choice. We were both accepted to Columbia. Here the similarities end.

    I decided the cost was prohibitive and opted for CUNY instead, he went ahead with the expensive Columbia – and got into serious financial debt. I hated the professors and especially the low quality students at Hunter, but felt I was doing the right thing financially. I studied Computer Science and he studied Arts/Film.

    1.5 years after graduating CUNY, I’m making a 6-figure salary, and never talked to anyone I met in CUNY again, and more importantly never even crossed path with anyone from there in the New York IT community ever! I did however meet my first wife there, a recent Polish immigrant, who went on to have a very successful career as a psychotherapist in NYC.

    My brother on the other hand thoroughly enjoyed his time at Columbia, met great friends there, who he is still in contact with after 20 years. He has even worked with some of them. He also met his first wife there, a Swedish-American, who is now a Professor of Politics at an elite college in Massachusetts.

    If I had to do it all over again, I would definitely opt for Columbia – for entirely the reasons mentioned – the ability to meet and interact with other students from a similar intellectual bent as yourself, and form a network of peers in your industry of choice.

  11. miko

    Right, but I think there is a list of well over a hundred schools that are not Columbia or the 8 or 9 other big names where you would have met like-minded BFFs. I don’t know much about CUNY, but I’m not talking about the difference between Harvard and night classes at a commuter campus. I’m talking about the difference between being, for example, a biology major at Harvard or being a biology major anywhere in the UC system, or Wisconsin, or any number of state schools or less glamorous private ones. Many of those places will prepare students to become a biologist as well or better than Harvard will. None, of course, can better prepare you for being a Harvard Man(TM) (or Woman), which, as far as I can tell, is the most compelling reason to go to Harvard (that or you love being near ATMs and chain stores). It is interesting to compare Harvard to the trade school down the road, MIT, which is truly meritocratic and elite (in elite ability sense), and doesn’t give a fuck how they look in postcards.

    I went to a small liberal arts college–in my family there was not really anything else on the table, and I was paying off loans until I was 30. I value the friends I made there–it was clubby and humans like feeling part of a club. But overall I did not feel a part of the mainstream of the student body (east coast, private / boarding school) and have much more enjoyed my experiences at larger and more diverse institutions.

    In all the different places I’ve been (which ranges from Very Extremely Elite to Unheard Of), at the level of undergrads working in labs I can detect no difference in ability. I realize I see a skewed sample–the keen ones who want to work in labs, but still. The difference seems to me that at elite schools they have more self-confidence (often misplaced to comic effect), though it seems to be confidence tinged with a mortal fear of failure. I sometimes feel sorry for these kids, some of whom have been stage-parented into neurotic bundles of achievement. Hmmm… I’m rambling and can’t really remember what this discussion is about…

  12. pconroy


    Well the CUNY system is rated the second best college system after the California system. I went to Hunter, and it is rated fairly good – though not it’s computer science program. Overall for any courses we could compared. there was not much material difference. The difference came about especially in the quality of the discussion – for those subjects that class participation was important. At Hunter the quality was poor, at Columbia much better.

    I should add that both of us had attended UCD in Dublin, Ireland for a couple of years previously, and it was far superior in the quality of material – though it had enormous lecture theaters and provided almost no assistance to students or any kind. Intellectually, people at UCD were far better quality than Hunter, and better than that of Columbia too. Like the article on Sweden, Ireland has a strict meritocracy in terms of attending college. If you get above a certain threshold in points you can attend – that threshold varies, based on the number of people applying. There are no bogus degrees like in the US.

  13. some of this depends on the child. if a marginal kid can get into harvard (marginal as in marginal for harvard!) that is probably going to yield a lot more than if they went to a state school. OTOH, genuine superstars eventually rise to the top given enough time. there’s some data that what matters is where you’re accepted, not where you go, 10 years out. though that’s been disputed. i think part of the issue is “averaging.” i think the marginal utility for a lawyer for going to an elite school is much more than a doctor, because of various differences in professions and laxity of admission. similar for person majoring in engineering or english.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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