Measuring an infant’s or baby’s IQ seems to be, practically speaking, an impossible task. IQ tests achieve their scores by asking participants to demonstrate skills in math tests, memory tasks, vocabulary tests, and puzzles that interrogate sensory perception. Considering babies are notoriously distracted and baby talk is a very limited form of communication, a standard modern test is essentially useless. That hasn’t stopped scientists from trying to design IQ tests for children that will allow them to see the future success of an infant’s mind. Perhaps the craziest thing in the weird world of IQ tests for infants is how close a scientist has come to performing a test for infants that could actually predict their future success.
In 1985, psychologist Dr. Joseph Fagan III seemed to discover that infant intelligence was both knowable, measurable, and predictive of future intelligence. Until now, IQ tests for children have been aimed at those aged five and over — those who could communicate well enough to offer answers to researchers. Psychologists such as David Wechsler used vocabulary tests, visual puzzles, math problems, and memory tests to provide an IQ score for elementary-aged children. In 1965, psychologist Nancy Bayley came closer, developing the Bayley Scales of Infant Development which were scored based on the observation of test administrators. But the Bayley scales failed as an IQ test because the nonverbal motor behaviors seen in infants really have nothing to do with future cognitive abilities. A child who grasps and manipulates objects early, for example, does not necessarily develop into an intelligent adult.
Instead, Fagan found that a baby’s vision development was a much better marker. In Fagan’s early research, he discovered, through what he called new pairwise comparison tasks, that infants have the ability to recognize, remember, and remember faces and visual information. The idea behind the new pairwise comparison is to present infants and babies with a series of pairs of images and then change one of the images in the pair. The researchers then measure how much time the baby spends looking at the new image compared to the image he is familiar with. “Preference tests for visual novelty tell us that the infant has the capacity to know the world,” Fagan wrote in a technical summary of his test in 1992. “If such knowledge acquisition processes underlie the performance on intelligence tests later in life, it is justified to assume that their exercise in early life represents intelligent activity on the part of the infant.”
So Fagan set about testing infants. Parents held their babies in their laps as they sat in front of a small desk stage in which a pair of pictures could be placed. The images used were images of men, women and babies’ faces that infants are used to recognizing. Babies were introduced to pairs of images before being exposed to a new pair featuring an image they had never seen before. The researchers, looking through a peephole, then measured how long the baby stared at the new image. The infant has undergone four sets of tests and is exposed to almost 30 pairs of images.
Fagan’s test gave a “novelty score” comparing the time a child looks at new images to the time spent looking at familiar images. More interest in novelty, he supposed, was associated with more intelligence and vice versa.
Fagan’s claims that test scores could predict future intelligence scores were met with skepticism. Fagan’s sample size was relatively small, there seemed to be inconsistency between testing sites, and the predictability of the test could not be known until much later when the babies were older. (Fagan himself did much of the subject tracking, revisiting the babies when they were in high school to find that their scores on standard IQ tests correlated with their earlier infant intelligence test scores.)
But the biggest criticism came from the implications of the test. Many of Fagans’ contemporaries worried about what labeling babies as intelligent or unintelligent might possibly mean for children’s future.
In a 1992 article published in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology titled The Fagan Test of Infant Intelligence: A Critical Reviewthe lead authors were concerned that the Fagan test was being used to recognize high-IQ babies for enrichment, which would “skim the cream and leave the rest behind”.
Fagan himself saw this as a greater social good, that it might be useful to recognize these children, especially if they were from disadvantaged backgrounds. “‘Why not test the infants and find out which of them could handle the most in terms of stimulation?’ Fagan told The New York Times in 1986, “It won’t hurt anyone, that’s for sure.”
Fast forward a decade and the ironic prescience of this line begins to become apparent. Companies and authors have gone straight from measuring a baby’s IQ to ways for parents to increase said IQ. In 1996, the Baby Einstein videos were released, promising to boost a baby’s intelligence and give them a head start. books like Raising a Smarter Child in Kindergarten and How to multiply your baby’s intelligence, followed suit, as did baby sign language and baby music lessons. All of these have been marketed as stimulating baby’s brain development.
In 2004, the toy company Fisher-Price took a more direct aim at the baby’s IQ test, commissioning one from British psychologist Dorothy Einon. The test was essentially a 10-question quiz that asked parents to identify their baby’s behaviors, such as what they do in response to a falling teddy bear or how many blocks they could stack. In an article by The telegraph About the Fisher-Price test, psychologists expressed deep doubts, suggesting that the quiz was unscientific and could unduly stress parents.
This point speaks more directly to the harm these tests can do to parents. Giving parents a pseudo-scientific measure of their child’s IQ has little upside and a big downside inducing gaping anxiety that calls parents to action – any action – that can help give a boost to their low-IQ baby, to their mid-IQ one-leg-up baby, or to help their supposedly high-IQ child reach their potential.
“I’ve heard of elite preschools that use IQ-type tests on babies during admissions,” says Dr. Celeste Kidd of UC Berkeley’s Kidd Lab. “When I hear about these places, I never take school seriously,” she says, because defining “intelligence” is an incredibly slippery task. “We don’t know enough about intelligence to worry about it. And that’s a good thing,” she said.
Despite the accumulation of the idea of increasing the IQ of babies, Fagan’s test – the first of his studies – has remained out of public view. Part of that is because he seems to have taken the critics to heart. Fagan eventually developed a computer program that could help researchers implement his test. The latest edition of the manual was published in 2004 and Fagan had moved away from using the test to predict intelligence and instead insisted that it be used only as a diagnostic tool to recognize early signs of retardation. mental.
“Recent advances in the study of higher infant cognitive functioning, via the observation of preferences for novelty, have led to the development of a valid test of early intelligence,” Fagan writes in his 2004 manual. test. “It should be kept in mind that the Fagan test was developed for the early detection of later mental retardation and should not be used for routine screening in normal populations.”
Kidd notes that diagnosing problems is a much more reasonable goal than predicting intelligence. This is largely because there are far too many things playing into our concept of intelligence – cultural cues, environmental issues, and even social factors could affect intelligence, not just genes.
Instead of looking for predictors of future intelligence through IQ tests for children, Kidd suggests parents instead focus on their child as an individual, with individual talents and challenges. While it’s important to keep an eye out for red flags that might indicate developmental issues, it’s best to judge your child against their own developmental path.
Ultimately, intelligence and quality of life are very different things. IQ tests for children could possibly measure intelligence, but more likely they measure a child’s cultural aptitude. Sure, a baby who can recognize a new face may be able to put a puzzle together faster at age 5, but that’s no use if the child’s home is a miserable place to live, full of stressed parents.
More than intelligence, love and trust are what seem to lead to the best outcomes for children. Being stressed about their intelligence, however, does not. “We have ample evidence that parental anxiety has had negative consequences on a child’s development and well-being and on their ability to interact with parents,” says Kidd. “Any product that could increase parental anxiety could have an unintended negative consequence on a child’s well-being.” Which, no matter how smart your child is, just doesn’t seem very smart.
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