What is mystery ingredient X?

Arnold Kling writes:

I don’t think we have a recipe that says, "Take a child of two non-college educated parents, add primary education ingredient X, bake, and out comes a college-capable high school graduate." The mystery ingredient X has yet to be discovered.

Some Asian cultures or immigrant groups come close to finding this ingredient.  It involves total parental commitment to the educational ideal and a willingness to enforce the notion that a non-educated child is shaming the entire family, not just the child.  That said, I’m not sure that college education per se is the key here (and probably Arnold would agree; read his phrasing carefully).  If you can bake up some low rates of time preference, you’re coming pretty close to the real mystery ingredient. 


Irving Fisher once put together a chart purporting to show the discount rates of various ethnic groups, and of course those then most successful were assigned the lowest rates. I don't remember what he had for Asians (or anyone else, for that matter), and nobody would now defend his apparent belief that discount rates are genetic, but he (and you) were certainly on to a key ingredient for success. I do some work with kids, almost all of whom are destined to be dirt poor all their lives. I often hear them claim that finishing school "just takes too long."


I believe you're absolutely correct; what was the statistic in yesterday's Washington Post, that Asians, who make up 16% of Fairfax County's population, will make up better than 50% of the freshman class at Thomas Jefferson HSST next fall.

The mystery ingredient X has yet to be discovered

IQ works nicely. Oh, I'm sorry, no one likes that answer so we'll pretend that there hasn't actually been massive amount of research in this area. Of course to be fair this answer is also not very useful if you're looking for ways to improve the system of primary education.

and nobody would now defend his apparent belief that discount rates are genetic

On the contrary, I will step up and say that they almost certainly have a strong genetic component. If you mean that no one would seriously defend the strawman that they are 100% genetically determined, well yeah, that's an easy one. But if the heritability of time preference proves to be less than 40% given a first-world environment I would be very surprised.

Varangy: uhm, why? what "part" role does it play? Thanks for the trolling though.

public education has a much bigger job to do these days, and fewer resources to do it with.

Fewer resources? What do you mean by this? Spending on public education has generally increased over time. Did you have some other metric in mind?
But as for the job being bigger, yes. A person needs to learn quite a bit more than they used to in order to aspire to anything higher than a menial job.

My dad had a plumber father and an Irish immigrant mother. He ended up an engineer. He went to a Catholic High School and then enrolled in a co-op program that allowed him to work himself through college. In my opinion, the active ingredient was genetics/IQ.

I think the "family shame" element is a big part of the key. The Chinese/Jewish argument that you shame your family and insult their sacrifices with your A-minus versus an A is a powerful argument, especially when mixed in with incessant comments about how the neighbor's/cousin's/etc kid made his parents so happy by bringing home the trophy in the latest academic contest.

Peer effects. Likely explains a good portion of the asian/immigrant effect: if asians and immigrants are less likely to be involved with the more popular/partying/high discount rate crowd.

Oh no! How can we possibly be expected to provide opportunities as if racially blind!?! As if...they were individuals! How could we possibly realize that there might be differences in averages, but that differences in means don't preclude greater variance in individuals?

The stupidity goes all the way up, by the way. My Asian advisor basically told me I couldn't do well at mathematical modeling because the classes were mostly Asian.

He didn't stop to ponder on my excellent record in mathematical modeling, or that maybe asians will fill classes where the language barrier is not a problem.

So "X" is fight a war? Man, that would be depressing.

What is the correlation between IQ and success in life, whether academic or otherwise?



I'm sure I'm not alone in personally knowing people who are smart but never amount to much or people of average intelligence who are very successful because they are hardworking and tenacious.

There are other contributing factors such as access to resources, ambition, ability to concentrate for long periods of time, mental illness, emotional wellbeing, etc. that can often exert a greater influence on ones success in life than IQ.

If these immigrant groups adopted children, would you expect the same results? I certainly wouldn't.


It would be so much easier for everybody if you'd just be honest and say, "Yes, sure, the Mystery Ingredient X is of course IQ, which we know is significantly genetic in origin, so there's nothing much we can do about that, outside of immigration policy. But there is still likely to be secondary ingredient Y and tertiary ingredient Z, and here's one of my guesses for what Y or Z might be ..."

Then, you wouldn't have to listen to commenters explain to you what you already know but are too timid to state.

Honesty is a much more productive policy.

Anecdotal observation: I've ridden mass transit every day for many years in a city in the northeast and it's striking to me that there are very different levels and styles of communication between parents (?) and children. Asians (mostly Chinese and Vietnamese) and their kids talk with each other constantly from one end of the line to the other. They just chatter, chatter, chatter on. White parents, I'm sorry to say, talk at or to their kids, while looking around for admiration. Black kids don't get talked to or with at all. They're ignored; left to squirm or vege.
IQ tests are in large part tests of verbal facility. But as always it's difficult to tease out the contributions of nature and nurture.

"Selection bias" guy above is on target. Remember that the asians in this country are not a random sample of asians. In my Ph.D. program I initially was thinking that all people from India were math geniuses who learned linear transformations and proof techniques in junior high. Asians in this country were the people who were highly motivated to get out of Vietnam, China etc. and move to America for better opportunities. Without a doubt they had more gumption than their neighbors who stayed behind. I have no data to back this up, but I bet if you looked at the college completion rates of non-asian American kids whose parents live 500 miles or more from their American birth place, you would find graduation rates that exceed the national average.

I haven't seen any study that can produce the academic results of Asian outperformance purely based on iq. If they exist, I'd truly appreciate a cite. After all, even taking existing measures of NE Asian iqs vs. whites at face value, I don't see how the small, less than half standard deviation difference gets us the huge overrepresentation of Asians (relative to their numbers) on tests like the SAT. Didn't Lynn try to show that Asians outperformed even when taking IQ into account??

Or put it another way, if IQ were 100% of the difference, are the measured gaps big enough to get 50% of TJHSST or Berkeley be Asian? [especially when Asian stats tend to aggregate higher IQ asians with lower iq asian subgroups and when admissions officers tend to practice anti-Asian affirmative action.]

We found it in the 70's

See Project Follow Through.

Blah blah blah. The fact that there are so many comments is proof that ingredient X (and lack of ingredient Y) has yet to be discovered. Which isn't a bad thing; I mean, have you ever tried to get a kid with a college degree to clean your apartment twice a month for sixty bucks? Yikes. And _some_body's gotta do my dry cleaning for me, no?

My daughter tells me that at TJHSST they refer to getting a B+ as an "Asian fail."

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