Are children smarter than us

The Flynn effect shows very impressively how much you can actually "get" out of children despite the allegedly high "heredity". He describes the phenomenon that people are becoming more and more intelligent. According to an overview study, the average IQ increased by a little more than 29 points from 1909 to 2013. Compared to someone who lived in 1909, we are on average highly gifted today. It should be said: Substantial changes in the human gene pool are impossible in such a short time. The miraculous increase in intellectual capacity is due almost entirely to environmental effects such as better education and nutrition.

If one now looks at which components of intelligence can be influenced by genes, it turns out that the effect of the genes should actually be relatively small. A comparison with a computer is helpful. A computer's ability to solve problems depends on the potential of its hardware and the quality of the software installed on it. Applied to humans, this means that their intelligence consists of two components. First, the hardware of the biologically mediated abilities of the brain, such as the neuronal storage capacity. And secondly, the software of the knowledge content and behavioral strategies acquired in the course of life. As with computers, the software required for intelligence-related activities - thinking and problem solving - comes from the environment. And since the best hardware cannot do anything without good software, the influence of genes basically depends on the environment providing good software.

One could argue that genetic effects on the hardware level of the brain place limits on the acquisition of high quality software. However, a look at brain development shows that this is unlikely. Contrary to what is often thought, a child's brain potential does not increase, but rather decreases as they grow and get smarter. An evolutionary trick: children initially produce genetically determined neural connections in large excess so that they can react flexibly to the environment. And while they then adapt to their respective environment, the neuronal surplus is reduced through experience. At the beginning of the development of intelligence, paradoxically, there is a relatively large brain potential, which decreases with increasing intelligence. This means that genes can only influence intelligence development to a limited extent.

Studies that actually measure the influence of certain genes on intelligence confirm this. There are studies with several hundred thousand people in which numerous genes have been identified that could have an influence on intelligence. However, the effect of the individual genes is negligible. Even if you combine all of the gene effects, current research can only explain differences in intelligence by four percent. The problem: popular population geneticists do not want to acknowledge the low proportion of genes in intelligence. Instead, they use statistically questionable extrapolation techniques to make assumptions. For example, the fact that much larger studies - a million subjects or more - could identify many more genes. At some point the high population genetic "heredity" will be approached. But this hope is also a fallacy. Because the possibly additionally identifiable gene effects would turn out to be increasingly smaller, so that substantially higher genetic proportions are not to be expected.

Let's get back to the little "still". Telling children that they have "not yet passed" is appropriate not only from an educational but also from a biological point of view. Because intelligence has a lot less to do with genes than some scientists claim. They spread their theses without really having convincing empirical evidence. That is ethically questionable. Such wrong beliefs can start a vicious circle in children who struggle in school. The child himself, his parents, the teachers, all then have less confidence in the potential because they believe the child is "genetically less intelligent". This demotivates the child and tempts adults to encourage them less, because "it is of no use anyway". It goes without saying that the performance then drops - which in turn seems to confirm that this is predetermined. Worst of all, this self-fulfilling prophecy actually develops lower intelligence. But it has nothing to do with genes. All the more so with the environment, which in this way prevents children from developing their true potential.

But anyone who accompanies children in learning or exploring the world has to know something else. The fact that every child can potentially develop high intelligence does not mean that getting there is easy. Rather, it's a path where there are lows of motivation that you can't run away from. A student who has not yet followed this path will not suddenly only make progress if he begins to believe in himself. And the knowledge that genes have little influence on intelligence does not mean that students should be constantly driven to achieve top performance in all subjects. Those who do this fail to recognize the important difference between intelligence and expertise. Intelligence is a fundamental mental resource. When it comes to expertise, the question arises as to where to invest this resource primarily. Students should be accompanied on this search so that they can find their true interests and develop their intelligence potential there. And if your expertise is smaller in areas that seem less interesting to you, you have to accept that.

Christof Kuhbandner, 44, is a professor of psychology and holds the chair for educational psychology at the University of Regensburg.