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Noah Smith

Nurture Counts as Much as Nature in Success

More years of schooling and growing up around smart people makes a huge difference.
You would want him as your neighbor.

You would want him as your neighbor.

Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The question of nature versus nurture is an important one, but also an incredibly delicate one. How much of the disparities we see in society are fueled by a lack of good education, social influences and role models, and how much are due to natural ability? Given that people in advanced countries spend multiple decades of their life in school, this is an important question. But it’s also a very fraught one -- discussions about the issue are frequently hijacked by people pushing racist or sexist theories, and polite society’s reaction, understandably, is often to make such discussions taboo.

As a result, it’s hard to know what people really think about the nature-versus-nurture question. My impression is that most Americans subscribe to a casual, reflexive faith in the primacy of inborn ability. Several years ago, my doctoral adviser Miles Kimball and I wrote a widely read article lamenting American students’ lack of effort in mathematics. We believe that many Americans don’t try hard because they believe that all math skill is innate -- a “fixed mindset,” as described by Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck.