Why Asian (Jewish, Cuban, etc.) kids excel

A cultural superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control  help people from some cultures excel in school and business, write “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua and husband Jed Rubenfeld in The Triple Package. Their triple-threat cultures are: Cubans, East Asians, Indians, Jews, Lebanese, Mormons, Nigerians and Persians.

People in these groups believe their culture is exceptional, but as individuals they need to prove themselves, write Chua and Rubenfeld. These cultures cultivate self-discipline and impulse control.

The book has been criticized for ignoring the immigrant effect: Nigerians, Indians, Lebanese and Persians who make it to the U.S. tend to be educated, ambitious, relatively successful people. They’re so smart they figured out how to get here. Miami’s pre-Mariel Cubans also were more middle-class than average.

All this reminds me of Joel Kotkin’s 1994 book, Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.

A new study looks at high-achieving children of low-income Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants who “lack middle-class cultural capital.” These families “use ethnicity as a resource to construct and support a strict ‘success frame’ that helps the poor and working class override their disadvantages.”

Chinese immigrant parents often are educated and speak English, said one of  the study’s authors, UC-Irvine sociologist Jennifer Lee. However, Vietnamese immigrants’ children do well in school and careers even when their parents have little education or money.

That’s where expectations comes in – or what the paper calls, quoting its interview subjects, the understanding that “A is average and B is an Asian fail.” 

Parents search for the best schools and lobby for their children to be placed in advanced classes. If they can’t afford tutoring, they turn to ethnic organizations and churches to provide a free or low-cost “shadow education.”

If success is measured by doing better than the previous generation, then Mexican-Americans are the most successful, Lee writes in Time.

About Joanne


  1. As a member of the only group up there without a racial component–Mormon–and who has been part of LDS congregations on four different continents, I have seen that excellence in school and work often comes to practicing Mormons as a natural result of being frequently counseled to learn all we can (for an example, see http://yountprogram.org/hinckley-education.php) and to be honest and diligent in all our interactions, including in business and employment. Not abusing drugs, tobacco, and alcohol also helps, of course. I would expect to see similar excellent results with Seventh Day Adventists. Why didn’t Chua include them?

    • Elizabeth says:

      CT, the Mormons have a positive, family centered, anti-hedonistic culture. There are several others, but Chua decided to focus on a limited number in order to make her point without going over a certain number of pages.

      The IQ argument is fraught with erroneous conclusions. See the “Bell Curve Debate”, particularly Thomas Sowell’s essay. Cultures that emphasize learning, reading, etc. like the Askenazi, which have had to survive by their wits plus emphasis on nearly universal education will measure higher in tests that measure this type of ability.

      Many African sub-groups, such as black people from the West Indies are on par or exceed the educational/professional achievements of US Protestant whites. Mbutu pygmies with an average IQ of 55 would put them at the level of severely retarded, for want of a better word. I seriously doubt if you take a Mbutu baby and raise them exclusively in a US or European middle class home that that child would have that low an IQ.

      • IQ scores from Jamaica are in the 70′s. The one IQ study from Haiti that I’ve heard of was done a long time ago and was in the sixties. The IQ scores I’ve seen for the Virgin Islands are in the seventies. The average IQ of Carribean blacks is pretty low.

        • Elizabeth says:

          But yet the ones who move to the US have very high educational attainments and incomes.I know many people from that part of the world, and can say that I have yet to meet one with a sub-par intelligence. I would say that IQ tests are really only relevant for highly literate societies. My mother’s parents were immigrants with grade school educations – GF ran his own business and my mother graduated with honors from HS, my aunt with two Master’s degrees. I wonder what IQ scores my grandparents would have had?

  2. The average IQ of Ashkenazi Jews is 115. East Asians such as South Koreans and Japanese average 107-108. Genetic differeences are fundamental. Culture is an epiphenomenon.

    • dangermom says:

      And how would you explain the Mormon one then? Mormons are a heterogeneous population. Quit with the genetics/IQ obsession already.

      • There is significant evidence that different populations of humans have different average IQs, and that IQ is useful for predicting educational success. That being said, culture (or environment) has a major impact also.

        The tragedy is when low average IQ populations embrace a culture of failure.

        • There is a huge range in average IQ for human populations from about 55 for Mbuti pygmies to about 115 for Ashkenazi Jews.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Jim, most Askenazic Jews study Torah/Talmud/Hebrew from an early age – emphasis on development of mental agility/logic/symbolism decoding – yes, even the more “secular” parents send the kids to these classes. Additionally, the well to do did not to marry their daughters off to a Jock, they wanted the best Torah scholar they could find – that was prestige. No wonder the IQ difference.

      • Greg Cochran who has studied this question has said that the percentage of the Ashkenazi Jewish population who were rabbis was too small to account for the extraordinary high average IQ of this population.

        Note though that the rabb’/scholar sexual selection theory itself implies that the basis of the difference between Ashkenazi Jews and other European whites is genetic. It just explains this difference as coming about through sexual selection of rabbi/scholars.

        It is Cochran’s view that occupational specialization was the principal cause of selection for high IQ among Ashkenazi Jews. Note that the Ashkenazi population of Europe was almost exclusively urban even in Miedeval times. Urban environments in most of European history created strong selection for high intelligence. Remember that in most of European history there was no significant welfare system. To survive in a Miedeval city required a considerably higher degree of intelligence than to survive as a peasant in the countryside.

        • I should have pointed out that untill the last few hundred years only a few percent of the gentile European population lived in cities. The vast majority were peasants or serfs of some kind.

          • Elizabeth says:

            Jim, I should have explained this in greater detail – Jewish religious studies involve (1) learning a difficult language (hebrew) , (2) memorization, and (3) parsing the meaning – studying various interpretations and developing ones own interpretation by applying formal logic.

        • Elizabeth says:

          Jim,the percentage of Rabbis is nearly meaningless when you consider that the average Jewish male was exposed to more religious education than any other religious group. Jewish boys started Hebrew school where they studied scripture and commentaries. The well to do (or even not so well to do) encouraged their young men to continue full time study even after marriage. Most did not go on to become fully “ordained” Rabbis. Even adult men who had jobs/professions continued studying in their spare time instead of heading to the bars. When I stated what the well to do wanted, I was illustrating the community values – the culture that values athleticism will have more and better athletes, etc.

          Cochran makes some interesting points – it is probably a combination of many things that produces this high a number for Askenazic Jews. It will be interesting to plot a trend, if at all possible, as assimilation and atheism beomes more entrenched. I see that Askenazim youth as a whole are less interested in the hard academic subjects.

          Intelligence is highly malleable – a tendancy toward the mean works for both above and below. Nutrition, cultural factors, etc. all play in to it. Culture can be altered for the better or worse.

          • Let me try to make sure I understand you. You seem to be suggesting that religious studies tend to make people more intelligent. Do I understand you correctly?
            If there is a reliable way of increasing IQ whether by studying religion or Mah Jong or whatever the advatages to any group of doing so are so great that it will quickly be adopted and the world’s average IQ will rise rapidly.

          • keep in mind, too, that historically in Europe, young Jewish men who didn’t have the academic chops to study Talmud, etc. were far more likely to be removed from the gene pool. More likely to wander off and join some other community; more likely to be condemned to bachelorhood; more likely to be unable to support a group of children.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    Just for grins, I went back and read a bunch of stuff regarding Ogbu and Shaker Heights.
    Couple of commenters said that the black kids were not allowed to be authentic, words to that effect.
    It seemed to me as if they were being allowed. Problem is, white middle class adolescent culture fits secondary ed better than the black version.

  4. palisadesk says:

    The average IQ in Poland (according to the 2006 study) is 106, nearly tied with South Korea.

    Where did I miss all the accolades for Poland’s educational prowess?????

    According to James Watson, South Asians have significantly lower IQ’s than whites, but at the rate they are going they will soon clean our clocks, academically and technologically.

    Native ability counts, but many other factors matter as much or more.

    • You can’t go by just one study, you have to look at all the data. Results for a single study may be biased by an unrepesentative sample or just statistical noise. IQ tests given to East Asian samples typically range from the low 3 digits to over 110. As usual throughout the world urban samples produce higher results than rural.
      So an IQ sample from Hong Kong measuring say 112 is more appropriately compared to a sample from Minneapolis measuring say 104 than to the US average. Looking at all the data however it is reasonable to conclude that East Asians average about a third of a standard deviation about European whites.
      I assume that by South Asians you mean people of the Indian Subcontinent. This is such a heterogeneous population that the mean IQ of this population is both very difficult to determine as well a pretty useless parameter.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      “Native ability counts, but many other factors matter as much or more.”

      I wish we knew more about this. And I wish we actually knew how much, if any, different ethnic groups differ in things that matter–and how much these things are changeable and how much they’re not. One thing I’d really like to know about is “impulsivity,” “ability to defer gratification,” how well a student does on some equivalent of the marshmallow test.

      But I gather that most young researchers shy away for fear of damaging their careers. “Why do you want to study that for? The only people who are interested in that are racists.”

      • It’s easier to maintain something (customs, habits) than it is to re-establish it after a period during which it was lost. There are many communities (both urban and rural) where strong families and strong, successful communities have been lost, to the point that current residents have never seen such customs in action – and it’s hard to see how to return to the former pattern.

        It is true in other areas, as well. Recent discussions in the small city where I currently live have focused on how to re-invigorate the downtown shopping area. Since the downtown lost its status as the major shopping area, decades ago, it’s not easy to bring it back. It can’t attract new stores, because there are not enough shoppers, and it can’t attract more shoppers because there aren’t enough stores.

        • There was a famous case in Africa where herds of young male elephants were acting out violently against other animals and humans. The problem was, all the male elders had been killed off by poachers, and there were no older males to teach the young males how to behave. When they transplanted older males into the area, the pronblem cleared up.

        • Descendents of survivors of the Holocaust show no signs of having lost the Ashkenazi Jewish advantage in intelligence. By the way what you say about culture is one reason why its not very important. Evolution and history are very rough processes. So something as fragile as culture is not very important. Genes in comparison are rather rigid. Of course over long periods of time random mutations result in genetic changes which ultimately become huge. But if you survive Auschwitz it has no effect on the genes you pass on to your children.

    • Recent PISA scores from India haven’t been so good. Of course such a huge population will have in absolute numbers lots of very smart people but the bulk of IQ studies of the Indian population are way below European white averages.

  5. Kirk Parker says:

    The author lost me at “India”, by apparently considering that immense and diverse nation to constitute a single culture where academics and intelligence are concerned.

    • Indeed it is true that India exhibits an enormous genetic diversity. Different castes and ethnic groups no doubt have very differenet psychometric profiles. Some groups such as the Parsi’s are said to be very intelligent and have been compared to Ahkenazi Jews, although I’m not aware of any psychometric data on the Parsi’s.
      Many psychometric studies from India have produced averages in the eighties. Ofhand I can’t recall any psychometric studies of East Asian populations with average results below 100.
      The huge population of India undoubtly contains tens of millions of very smart people but the liklihood of this population as a whole performing academically or technologically at the level of European whites or East Asians in the forseeable future is very low.