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Eric D. Knowles Headshot

What Does Science Say About the 47 Percent?

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What has crystallized in the last few weeks of the 2012 presidential campaign is nothing less than a battle between two competing theories of success -- about where success comes from and the role of government in fostering it.

However, this question, which both campaigns have signaled will feature prominently in the upcoming presidential debates, is not one of competing values, personal philosophies, or party platforms. In fact, it has a right and a wrong answer, and social science can tell us which is which.

Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comments reveal the governor's belief in two alternative paths to success. On the one hand, some people achieve their goals because they possess the "right stuff" -- talent, intelligence, and drive. Alternatively, people can get help from external sources -- including, of course, the government. For Romney, aptitude and aid are inversely related: the more of one you have, the less of the other you need.

President Barack Obama's "you didn't build that" remarks express a theory of success very different from Mr. Romney's. According to Mr. Obama's theory, success is most likely when individuals and the environment, including the government, both bring something to the table. For Obama, good environments are no substitute for aptitude and hard work -- rather, they allow these qualities to most fully reveal themselves.

The scientific literature speaks clearly to the debate between these two theories of success, and it tells us that Mr. Obama is right.

Consider a recent study in which a team of researchers examined how genes and socioeconomic status combine to foster the development of cognitive abilities in young children.

The authors followed 750 pairs of identical and fraternal twins from the ages of 10 months to two years, measuring the growth in each child's cognitive abilities over this period. By examining the relationship between cognitive development and the twins' varying degrees of genetic similarity, the researchers were able to estimate the extent to which cognitive ability is genetically determined. The socioeconomic status (SES) of the children was judged through a combination of measures, including parental educational attainment and household income.

What the researchers found was striking. Among high-SES children, genes were strongly predictive of age-related increases in cognitive ability. In other words, children from relatively well-to-do families performed better or worse depending on their genes. These kids developed up to their intrinsic potential. Yet at the lowest levels of SES, genetic variation wasn't related to cognitive development at all. This means that, if you're poor, even having the right stuff doesn't guarantee good developmental outcomes.

This research indicates that poor environments limit children's opportunity to develop aptitudes that they are, in a sense, genetically "destined" to acquire. Like a good seed planted in poor soil, even the best equipped of us cannot be expected to thrive in impoverished circumstances. This, in a nutshell, is Mr. Obama's theory of success.

The implications of this theory are clear: if we want the so-called 47 percent to succeed or fail on its merits -- a requirement from which Mr. Romney believes they are currently spared -- then the solution is more government assistance, not less.

Mr. Obama's theory of success also gains credence from psychological research on "stereotype threat," the experience of anxiety that results from awareness of being negatively stereotyped by others. Members of stigmatized groups often experience such threat in contexts where they know they are expected to do poorly, as when an African American student takes a test of verbal reasoning skills.

Owing to the anxiety caused by stereotype threat, students of color routinely underperform relative to their abilities -- a self-fulfilling pattern that only serves to bolster the negative stereotypes that give rise to threat.

Fortunately, recent research by Stanford University's Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen has identified simple interventions that inoculate students from the experience of stereotype threat. For example, simply by increasing students' sense of "belongingness" in academic settings, the researchers drastically reduced racial gaps in academic performance. Protected from the effect of a threatening stereotype environment, minority students' true abilities shone through.

This work shows that inherent gifts and helpful environments are not inversely related routes to achievement, as Mr. Romney's theory of success would have us believe. Rather, as Mr. Obama asserts, creating a good environment is the only way of ensuring that individuals' aptitudes see the light of day.

If this is so, perhaps the government should be in the business of helping people after all -- through, for instance, progressive taxation that reduces financial burdens on poor families or affirmative action policies that might help change our stereotypes of minority and women professionals.

Studies like ones I've described repudiate the notion that ability and help are interchangeable routes to achievement (the Romney theory of success). Rather, social science corroborates Mr. Obama's contention that the government has a role to play in enabling its citizens to express whatever talents and aptitudes they possess to the greatest possible degree.

Eric D. Knowles is an assistant professor in New York University's Department of Psychology. He studies the psychological factors that influence people's political choices.