Ability, Capacity & Capability: On Neuro-Bigots & Cognitive Fatalists

Everything else you grow out of, but you never recover from childhood.

Beryl Bainbridge


Let’s begin by sorting this out:

Ability: Simply means what someone can do. It relates to their present level of skill in a particular field. Eg: Lazarus has the ability to run fast.

Capacity: Is future-oriented. It means that little bit beyond your current ability: the things you might be able to do if you worked hard. Eg: Lazarus has the capacity to win many of his races.

Capability: For the select few. Everyone has abilities and some even strive to realize their full capacity. But only a small percentage are capable of doing spectacular things. Eg: Lazarus has the capability of winning an Olympic medal.


Applied to cognitive functioning, according to these definitions, people can have particular intellectual abilities and, with hard work may reach a certain capacity. But only a rarified few will have the capability of becoming truly gifted thinkers.

My question is this: Who decides? Who looks at what you are able to do right now and then decides what your capacities / capabilities might be?

The answer is simple: all of us do it. Regardless of how qualified we are. Adults in particular do it to children. And the things parents and teachers tell us about our abilities, capacities and capabilities so often stay with us for life. The things these neuro-bigots say about us become self-fulfilling prophecies not because they are true, but because we trust these people and internalize their judgements of us. We thus believe we are only capable of so much, and begin to limit ourselves accordingly.

I have heard some teachers argue that they tell kids that they will not amount to very much to spur them on to great things. But I think this is just dishonest. And cruel. I’ve also heard many, many parents and teachers talking about a kid’s IQ as if this is some kind of quantifier of a child’s lot in life. IQ tests were never designed to quantify intelligence (beyond identifying those with clear neurological disabilities), much less to predict future success. IQ has as little correlation to success as being a teacher or parent does to knowing how young brains work.

Socio-economic circumstances and intellectual stimulation play an equal, if not greater role in determining a child’s mental capacity and even capability. Yet neuro-fatalists will persist in looking a child’s IQ, standardized test scores and general behavior and making predictions about that child’s future. Worse, these judgements then determine how they act towards these children and affect the opportunities they provide for them… and, hey presto, the predictions come true as if by magic. It’s the equivalent of a fortune-teller telling a mark that they will meet someone new and exciting – and said mark then subconsciously looking for ways to make this prediction happen.

The sad thing is, they’re wrong. So many teachers and parents suffer under the delusion that their roles give them a special privilege to make deterministic judgements about the mental aptitudes and prospects of the young people they have in their care. They do not.

Bottom line: Every child has a diverse range of abilities. But we need to be very careful when we try to use these to predict what their capabilities or even capacities might be. And we need to be even more wary when we use superficial evidence to try and scaffold the kind of future we think they are pre-destined to have. Rather, let’s challenge and inspire – and give them the space and time to be what they want to be.


Further reading:

The Heritability of IQ (Wikipedia article).





  1. While I agree with the core of your argument – that IQ does not determine one’s lot in life – I do disagree with a number of your other points.

    Firstly, I am a teacher who has studied psychology (including developmental psychology) for 5 years as part of my training, so I think you’re wrong when you say” IQ has as little correlation to success as being a teacher or parent does to knowing how young brains work.”. I don’t know of a single teacher training course that does not include developmental or educational psychology as a component. While becoming a parent does not require this knowledge, becoming a teacher does.

    Secondly, IQ tests are the ultimate attempt at quantifying intelligence. How can using a single digit to represent intelligence be conceived as anything other than an attempt at quantification?

    Thirdly, I think you’re misinterpreting the research. The Wikipedia page to which you link states that there is a .80 correlation between parental IQ and their child’s adult IQ, which is a strong correlation indicating that it is heritable. Studies with adopted children have shown that while a child may achieve at a level higher than their biological parents’ due to a more stimulating environment (etc), by adolescence the child’s IQ is once more much closer to their biological parents than their adoptive.

    In conclusion, the current most reliable determinant of future success is through the Marshmallow Test. While IQ attempts to measure those skills which are most highly prized in educational institution, it turns out that these have little correlation to real world success.


    • Thanks for the comments Em.

      It seems that perhaps I did not express what I wanted to say properly as I agree with most of what you have to say. I do, however, differ on some major issues:

      1) Teacher training may include some development psychology and perhaps even some basic neuroscience. However, most teachers do not receive the level of training you obviously have. Also, neuroscience is making new advances and discoveries about the faster than almost any other field. An initial training course at university 5, 10 or even 20 years ago means that most of us do not qualify to discuss things neurological.

      2) I might well misunderstand the research. Perhaps you could explain to me why the correlation between a child’s IQ and their parents’ is so low during childhood and then so close later on in life? Does it take them time to ‘grow into their IQs’, or is it perhaps because they are habituated into it by environmental factors? I am honestly curious!

      3) The marshmallow test is indeed a great predictor of success. It seems that the tendency towards patience and delayed gratification go hand-in-hand with future success. I wonder if there are genes for this kind of fortitude? I also wonder if we shouldn’t encourage teachers and parents to administer this test once a month. Seems to me this would be a far less dangerous and far more enjoyable (not to mention accurate) means of assessing a child’s future capacities and capabilities.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts.


      • 1) While neuroscience is making great strides, only a certain amount of detail is necessary for teaching. A lot of the broad strokes have remained the same. Having said that, though, I have noticed that the older generation of teachers have a far stronger belief in IQ tests, and this seems to stem from their training and the widespread use of the tests to stream children (in the days of the Apartheid government). I hope that current teacher training is better rounded in their explanation of IQ tests.

        2) I’m not sure that the correlation between a child’s IQ and their parents is VERY low. For most research the results are considered statistically significant if they are 0.05. The Wikipedia page on the heritability of IQ indicates that it ranges from 0.5-0.85, which is a strong correlation. I don’t think the researchers have any answers about why a child’s IQ tends to become closer to their biological parents’ as they age. If I recall correctly the research I read that clued me on to this was done either earlier this year or last year. One of the suggestions the researchers had was that the children sought out similar environments to their biological parents as they got older and older. I think it’s fascinating and it’s definitely something I’m following.

        (Forgive me if you know this, but I’m writing it in case you don’t)
        In general children’s brains are a large lump of (relatively) disconnected and formless goo. Ok, I’m exaggerating that. As children learn things, pathways are carved out and and connections are formed. The pre-existing connections that are not used or not found to be helpful are pruned from the brain. So the older you get the more reinforced your pathways and connections are, and the more unused connections have been pruned off and pathways have been developed e.g. language pathways. It would make sense then that children have higher IQ’s (or more connections) which are then either pruned or not resulting in a brain that has good connections or lacks them . A recent report said that our brain folds into itself like origami as we form pathways. Brain development seems to finally slow down at around age 25. Which, I guess is a long way to say you may be right saying that we grow into our brains, as much as people grow to their heights (etc.) around the same age.

        3) I’m not sure about genes for self-control and will, but after looking for links about it I came across a book by the researcher. It’s definitely going on my reading list! The marshmallow test is far more delicious all around, but no doubt will become used as a lazy shortcut by teachers as much as the IQ currently is. :/

        Thanks for the chat! I don’t often get the opportunity to talk about these deeper issues in the general busy-ness of every day teaching.


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