Gauging the Intelligence of Infants

Kenneth Chang, New York Times, April 7, 2014

The claim about babies was startling: A test administered to infants as young as 6 months could predict their score on an intelligence test years later, when they started school.

“Why not test infants and find out which of them could take more in terms of stimulation?” Joseph F. Fagan III, the psychologist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland who developed the test, was quoted as saying in an article by Gina Kolata on April 4, 1989. “It’s not going to hurt anybody, that’s for sure.”

In the test, the infant looks at a series of photographs–first a pair of identical faces, then the same face paired with one the baby hasn’t seen. The researchers measure how long the baby looks at the new face.

“On the surface, it tests novelty preference,” said Douglas K. Detterman, a colleague of Dr. Fagan’s at Case Western.

For reasons not quite understood, babies of below-average intelligence do not exhibit the same attraction to novelty.

Dr. Fagan suggested that the test could be used to identify children with above-average intelligence in poorer families so they could be exposed to enrichment programs more readily available to wealthier families.


25 years later

For the most part, the validity of the Fagan test holds up. Indeed, Dr. Fagan (who died last August) and Dr. Holland revisited infants they had tested in the 1980s, and found that the Fagan scores were predictive of the I.Q. and academic achievement two decades later when these babies turned 21.

“It’s really good science,” said Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of the Imagination Institute at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.”

But Dr. Fagan’s hope for widespread screening of infants has not come to pass. “There are some centers that have it,” Dr. Holland said. “It never came to be the kind of thing where it’s widely available.”

The trend is perhaps in the other direction, away from dividing young children by I.Q. and its surrogates out of concerns that the labels become self-fulfilling prophecies. Private schools in New York City, for example, have agreed to abandon intelligence tests for 4- and 5-year-old applicants.

Dr. Kaufman said that because the Fagan test was only “moderately predictive” of later academic success, it was not accurate enough to forecast the intellectual trajectory of a particular child. “From a practical standpoint, it’s not valid,” he said. “It’s not random, but it’s not enough for individual prediction.”

But the numbers become more reliable in aggregate, and the test is widely used in the academic world to quantify the effects of, for example, toxic chemicals on young children.

For the last decade of his life, Dr. Fagan was unexpectedly drawn into the “genes versus environment” debate over intelligence after he found that babies from widely different cultural backgrounds performed equally well on his test. That, he argued, undercut the argument for a biological basis for the stark “achievement gap” between white and black children, or rich and poor.


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  • A good test of innate intelligence should ideally have no component of education or acquired knowledge. If infants can be tested for innate intelligence, then this is the ideal.

    But Dr. Fagan’s hope for widespread screening of infants has not come to pass.

    Does anyone need more than one guess to figure out why not?

    • willbest

      My kids are smart, one is really smart, and even I wouldn’t want to risk them being blacklisted with a test if by chance the regressed too far to the mean.

  • shawnmer

    And perhaps no later than tomorrow, the Grey Lady will run a piece asserting that IQ “doesn’t exist.” So, an IQ test administered at 6 months – Come on, some tell me it could possibly be due to “racism” at that point! – is predictive of something that, in adulthood, is somehow nonexistent?
    I couldn’t be a cultural Marxist if I tried.

    • Johnny Squire

      Yep. Another crazy, irrational attempt to explain away reality as “racist”. And despite the loss of a misrepresented but useful tool against Christianity, they may have to someday denounce evolution as racist, too.

  • Romulus

    All science that proved racial differences henceforth will be suppressed or tweaked with PC spin.
    All science that falsely claims Europeans had darker skin, or blacks created Egypt or that they are as intelligent, will be be endlessly propagated.

  • Tim_in_Indiana

    For reasons not quite understood, babies of below-average intelligence do not exhibit the same attraction to novelty.

    I wonder if this also applies to adults? Blacks, for example, do not tend to show much interest in a wide variety of stimuli…basketball, music, socializing and “bling” seem to be the main interests of most of them.

    • So CAL Snowman

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black person reading a book in public.

    • GeneticsareDestiny

      It probably does. Blacks do seem to have a fairly narrow range of interests. White hobbies are incredibly variable, from sky diving to chess to Dungeons and Dragons to building model cars…you could list them forever. Blacks seem to stick much closer to the mean and seem to engage in mostly the same activities as other blacks, though with exceptions of course.

      • Hallie Eva

        Want to sit among Whites and nothing but Whites, with a few Chinese/Japanese thrown in?
        Attend symphony, ballet, or opera performances, visit an art museum.
        For years, libraries were free of blacks. Not anymore. Some here report they use the computers to view porn.

  • J. Russo

    Both genetic and environmental factors determine an individual’s intelligence. I like to think of genetics as the size of a cup and the environment as the amount of water available. If you’re in the middle of a desert, it doesn’t matter whether you have a big cup or a small cup. You’re not going to get any water, period. Similarly, even if we can identify infants as having greater biological potential, it would be pointless if we do not address the issues of poverty, socioeconomic injustices, and educational inequities that prevent whole communities from reaching their full potentials.

    • GeneticsareDestiny

      “it would be pointless if we do not address the issues of poverty, socioeconomic injustices, and educational inequities that prevent whole communities from reaching their full potentials.”

      Are you speaking globally here or only about America/Western nations? Because while malnutrition and related negative effects of poverty probably are repressing IQs in third world countries, I can’t really think of any way in which children of any race in first world nations are genuinely disadvantaged. They all attend school, none of them are starving, they all see doctors when they are sick, etc.

      Note that I grew up in the bottom decile of income in the U.S., so I am well acquainted with American-level poverty and the reality of life in it.

  • tech

    I work in the NICU and have noticed the black babies are more likely to have head circumferences <5th percentile. Obviously, it's just an observation but definitely an interesting trend.

  • IstvanIN

    I can truly believe this. Retarded children and adults seem to be content, or even obsessed, with one or two topics, activities or belongings. On the other hand more intelligent people are interested in the new, newly discovered or newly invented. Those who enjoy learning. Who do you think reads Scientific American, Popular Mechanics or Popular Science. The curious, who are, generally, the more intelligent. Why wouldn’t babies, in a more rudimentary way, be the same?

    • willbest

      Well these days I would say sheep that like to maintain their indoctrination.

  • wildfirexx

    I think intelligence can be measured in many different forms…however, you would think that infants who learn to crawl, walk and talk early, would probably show a higher degree of intelligence and IQ, simply because they are quicker learners.
    Of course I don’t know if this has ever been tested, but it seems to make common sense!

    • Robert Kelley

      It may be a little counterintuitive, but Rushton in “Race, Evolution and Behavior” says that “Black children sit,crawl, walk and put on their own clothes earlier than Whites and Orientals.” Rushton believes that a longer period of infancy is needed for greater brain growth.

      • Who Me?

        Black newborns can raise and turn their heads at a younger age (avg ~ 10 days old) than White babies. It’s large motor control, not intelligence.

      • wildfirexx

        Thanks for the correction Robert, I guess instinctive ability plays a larger role than learning ability at such an early age, although watching my kids as babies grow and develop, and now my grandson, all were quick learners. “Longer period of infancy is needed for greater brain growth”, certainly does make sense within the animal kingdom, in which humans are at the top!

    • IstvanIN

      Horses can walk right after birth, are they smarter than us?

  • scutum

    Q: You doing okay Josh? A: Yeah, but I’m sweating like a Negroe trying to read a book.