Does IQ alone explain Jewish success?
A look at other socio-psychological traits.
Written by Curtis Dunkel.
It is undeniable that Jews, specifically Ashkenazi Jews, have high general intelligence. It is also undeniable that they are successful. But the level of Jewish financial, political and cultural success cannot be explained solely by their exceptional cognitive ability. It therefore stands to reason that other factors are at play. This article discusses three additional socio-psychological differences between American Jews (who are primarily Ashkenazi), Protestants of various denominations, and Catholics. Brief speculation is offered as to the possible role these three differences play in Jewish success.
Many have suggested that “Jewish values”, especially the importance placed on education, is what accounts for Jewish success. In the best-known test of this possibility, Lynn and Kanazawa examined the order in which respondents ranked values they would like to inculcate in their children. Participants were given a list of 13 values (e.g., success; cleanliness; honesty) and were asked to choose the single most important value as well as the next three most important values.
In terms of participants’ top choice, the researchers found only one difference: Jews were more likely to choose judgement and less likely to choose honesty. In terms of the next three choices, they found that Jews gave higher ranks to considerateness, interest in how and why things happen, judgment and responsibility – while giving lower ranks to cleanliness, honesty, manners and obedience. When discussing their results, Lynn and Kanazawa stress that while there were differences, “Jews do not differ much from others in the values they would most like their children to have. Jews and non-Jews attach most importance to their children having good judgement, being considerate, honest and responsible, and Jews and non-Jews attach least importance to their children valuing cleanliness and appropriate sex role behaviour” (p. 807). The results point to some minor differences between Jews and Christians, which are nested within broader similarities.
Often forgotten in the context of Jewish-gentile value differences are those concerning the Protestant Work Ethic (PWE). If you are unfamiliar with the PWE, the adage “idle hands are the devil’s workshop” captures it well. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, sociologist Max Weber argued that a distinctive suite of values – individualism, hard work, piety and thrift – arising from the Protestant religious faith led to the growth and spread of capitalism. In contrast, Weber maintained that Jewish religious teachings (e.g., the doctrine of religious solidarity) led to a different set of values which were then reinforced by exogenous factors (e.g., socio-economic exclusion). Yet as Barbalet points out, Weber’s basic model whereby religious belief shapes ethical orientation, which in turn shapes economic outcome, remains the same for each religion: religious belief is the engine that drives the differences further down the track.
Beit-Hallahmi looked at differences in PWE1 between Protestants, Catholics and Jews. He found no significant differences between Protestants (mean score = 8.84) and Catholics (mean score = 7.63), but found that both groups scored much higher than Jews (mean score = -2.81)2. Consistent with the finding that Jews are low in PWE, a colleague and I found that Jews place less value on faith and more value on having “extra money”. They also appear to value physical health and a sense of accomplishment.
If you’ve taken an introductory course in Psychology, chances are you’ve heard of the Big Five personality traits. If not, or as a refresher, the Big Five five traits are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. You were probably taught that the Big Five represent the highest-level traits in a personality hierarchy and that they are independent of each other. Contrary to this common presentation of the facts, it has long been known that the Big Five are “impressively non-orthogonal”. That is, the traits are not independent of each other. They exhibit a significant degree of overlap to the extent that a general factor of personality (GFP) can be extracted from their covariation. Note that this pattern is not simply a function of the Big Five personality paradigm, as a similar pattern is found with alternative conceptualizations of personality.
The GFP is most commonly thought to gauge an individual’s social effectiveness. Just as someone high in general intelligence can utilize their intelligence to solve problems that require critical thinking, someone high in the GFP can successfully navigate their social world to achieve their personal goals. And just as general intelligence is largely independent of the subject of its application, the GFP is largely independent of what those personal goals might be.
We have examined differences between religious groups and found that Jews score especially high on the GFP. Granted, the research relies exclusively on self-report measures of personality. So it could be that some sort of self-deceptive positivity (e.g., chutzpah) is behind the difference, or that in rating their own personality Jews and gentiles use different reference groups. Either of these alternative interpretations would also be interesting. However, there are reasons to believe that the GFP reflects social effectiveness, and that Jews are especially socially effective. For example, most findings regarding the GFP remain after controlling for response bias.
Similarly, the finding of high Jewish GFP has been replicated using several large nationally representative samples, across various age cohorts and with an assortment of personality measures. These differences are not simply a function of differences in intelligence: Jews have a higher GFP even after controlling for their higher intelligence. The differences also exhibit what is called a Jensen effect, named after the renowned intelligence researcher Arthur Jensen. In short, a Jensen effect means that the individual personality traits that are most reflective of the GFP are also the traits on which Jews and gentiles show the largest gaps. As an aside, guess which group has the lowest GFP? Interestingly, it is atheists. Although they have a very high level of intelligence (higher than Jews in most of the samples we examined) they consistently have a low GFP.
In recent years, Nathan Cofnas and Kevin MacDonald have engaged in a heated debate concerning Jewish in-group favoritism. MacDonald has long maintained that Jews evolved a “group evolutionary strategy” and are therefore especially ethnocentric, while Cofnas maintains that Jews do not exhibit high ethnocentrism. To support his position, Cofnas relies on inter-religious marriage rates. As of 2010, Jews are more likely to marry non-Jews than Jews. However, I’m not convinced that in-group marriage is the sine qua non of ethnocentrism. One can think of many examples where highly ethnocentric individuals marry outside of their group. In-group favoritism can be expressed in a variety of behaviors and attitudes. For example, I would say that if someone strongly identifies with their group and expresses a marked preference for individuals of their group, they would have higher in-group favoritism than someone who does not do those things. Indeed, we constructed a scale of in-group favoritism based on a handful of items like this and found that Jews had a unique profile of being low in religiosity yet high in in-group favoritism. This pattern of low religiosity and high in-group favoritism was replicated in a follow-up study.
The research therefore seems to support the hypothesis that Jews are relatively ethnocentric – a finding unsurprising to many. Yet this doesn’t mean that MacDonald’s theory is correct. A more parsimonious explanation relies on proximate causes. Jews consider remembering the holocaust as an essential aspect of being Jewish. They also perceive high levels of anti-Semitism in society. And it seems reasonable to expect that a group in which these beliefs were common would “circle the wagons”, so to speak. What’s more, using White gentiles or WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) populations as the standard or benchmark for comparison may lead to biased conclusions. If a more expansive array of groups were used as comparisons, I posit that Jews would not appear especially ethnocentric. It would be the low levels of in-group favoritism among WEIRD Christian groups that would stand out.
One can imagine several ways in which low PWE, high GFP and high in-group favoritism might individually, or in combination with high intelligence, facilitate Jewish success in comparison to other religious groups in Western countries. Yet some conjectures seem much more likely than others. How, for example, could low PWE be beneficial? Here is a guess. At one point in time, piety and thrift were conducive to financial success. In modern capitalist countries, it is possible these are less advantageous; the system may now reward the accumulation of debt with greater and greater amounts of leverage, while punishing thrift. Individuals who are adept at navigating this more complex system may fare better.
As for high GFP and high in-group favoritism, these seem self-evidentially useful for achieving social and financial success – just like high general intelligence. If the GFP indeed reflects social effectiveness, it is clear how such an attribute would promote success in almost all social domains. And as mentioned above, Jewish in-group favoritism may only appear high in contrast to WEIRD populations – but combined with other attributes such as high intelligence and high GFP it may underlie their exceptional group-level achievements. Of course, these are all speculations on my part. But they are based on the available evidence.
Curt Dunkel is a former Professor of Psychology. He is now an independent scholar with interests in evolutionary psychology and individual differences.
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The Open-Source Psychometrics Project includes a data set (https://openpsychometrics.org/_rawdata/) with responses to the Protestant Work Ethic scale. Selecting for White participants who were Protestant (n = 155), Catholic (n = 136), or Jewish (n = 18) and calculating a one-way ANOVA resulted in a significant F-test (p < .001). Post-hoc Hochberg’s GT2 tests revealed a significant difference between Protestants (M 67.97; SD = 14.03) and Jews (M 59.94; SD = 12.54) with Catholics not differing from either group (M = 62.51; SD = 13.39). The results replicate Beit-Hallahmi’s finding that Protestants score higher than Jews, but do not replicate the finding that Catholics also score higher than Jews.
There is also a large difference in PWE related to political orientation, with conservatives having a significantly higher PWE than those on the left and this finding has been replicated several times. This association between PWE and political orientation is also in line with Jews’ strong leftist tilt.