Wednesday 1 October 2014

Epistemic rationality in Nigeria


Since my readers are a refined lot, I do not expect that you blinked at the title. For Piaget, epistemic rationality represented the highest stage of cognitive development, leaving behind cognitive egocentrism and its corollary animistic-magical thinking. At its highest stage (“formal-operational”), thinking distinguishes between mind and world, subject and object and theory and reality. In contrast, at a lower level, infantile world views are based on animistic and magical thinking. Animistic thinking means assuming that physical things and phenomena (e.g., the sun) have a soul, intentions and a will like humans have. In magical thinking the person believes that s/he can influence physical things and phenomena by means of causally unrelated “techniques” (e.g., sacrifices, prayers, and spiritual cleanings).

I never totally settled down with Piaget, even though my stumbling, second-year essay on his work was given a cherished A. I did not doubt that he was an observant person with interesting ideas. It was simply that, as I worked through the various presumed stages of child development, it was clear that there must be an underlying process, which was only dimly observed by the stage theory observations. The fourth stage (formal-operational stage, from age 11/12) was the final stage, and that was the one, presumably, in which my tutors (and possibly myself) were operating during my undergraduate education. If Piaget was to be believed, by age 12 children became potentially scientific in their world outlook, and from then on the world was, if not their oyster, at the very least a series of tasty molluscs.

However, if persons of reportedly low intelligence can actually achieve formal operations then the predictive value of intelligence tests is severely questioned. If the IQ results for sub-Saharan Africa are to be believed, Africans should not be capable of scientific thinking, or not many of them, at the very least. Do the IQ results mean that rationality in Nigeria will be limited, and that many of these citizens will be stuck in the stage of concrete operations (7 to 11 years), apt to believe that magic is everywhere round them? Piaget (1974, p. 309) himself assumed that “In particular it is quite possible […] that in numerous cultures adult thinking does not proceed beyond the level of concrete operations [stage 3], and does not reach that of propositional operations [stage 4].”

Rindermann, H., Falkenhayn, L. & Baumeister, A. E. E. (2014). Cognitive ability and epistemic rationality: A study in Nigeria and Germany.  Intelligence, 47, 23-33.

Usually, the correlation between IQ (measured by Raven Matrices) and Piagetian tasks is around r=.60 (Jensen, 1980, p. 674) but this has not been tested on African subjects. Does it hold true, and what does it mean for actual specific beliefs?

Rindermann and colleagues have put together a test of rationality. Positively defined, epistemic rationality is the application of logic, the logical and critical use of empirical data and the use of arguments. It is the application of consistency (no contradictoriness), uniformity (the same is treated equally), coherence (statements are connected), simplicity (parsimony, following William of Ockham), and efficiency. It is the unprejudiced and unbiased observation of the world, of nature and people and their products. Conclusions are drawn in a logical, critical and well-founded manner. 

Sample items: A man can get rid of HIV if he has sexual intercourse with a virgin; If a person wants to get rid of HIV, that person should go to a healer (not conventional medicine); If god strongly believes in the age of a person, this person is able to become over 140 years old; A reason why a person gets sick (e.g., measles) could be that the person has not prayed enough; There is no need to read more books than the Holy Bible; An innocent person cannot be killed even by a high dosage of poison.

The samples were small, and relatively elite for their native populations, in that both samples were about 1 standard deviation above their native means. This should be seen as a pilot indication, very much worth while extending to a larger population sample.  Rindermann et al. used a short form of the Advanced Progressive Matrices to test the intelligence of their subjects. By way of comparison, here are the estimates of Nigerian IQ from Lynn’s database, so you can see the sample sizes and the variation in the estimates. All these results always need updating, so if you have more recent work, let me know. Nonetheless, the background is that intellectual levels are low.

                        Age          N          test          IQ Reference 

Nigeria 26 30 DAM 67 Haward & Roland, 1954 
Nigeria  Children  480 Leone  70 Ferron, 1966 
Nigeria  Adults  86 SPM  64 Wober, 1969 
Nigeria   6–13  375 CPM/PMA  69 Fahrmeier, 1975 
Nigeria   5–7  150 SPM  87 Okunrotifa, 1976
Nigeria   9-10  88 SPM  83 Nwuga, 1977
Nigeria  41556 165 SPM 80 Nwuga, 1977
Nigeria  41619 120 SPM  72 Maqsud, 1980a
Nigeria  12 98 WISC-R 73 Ani et al., 1998
Nigeria  11 402 SPM 69 Ijarotimi & Ijadunola,2007
Nigeria: median       71  

The results of this study are shown below:

Table 3: Epistemic rationality scale means (range 1 to 7)


Nigerian Sample


German Sample



5.41 (1.16)

6.17 (0.84)


5.53 (0.75)

6.26 (0.53)


5.83 (0.75)

6.38 (0.59)

God and gods

3.02 (1.21)

6.12 (1.19)


4.70 (0.97)

6.30 (0.73)

Evolution and nature

3.93 (1.17)

6.33 (0.90)


6.42 (0.82)

6.77 (0.55)


5.35 (0.75)

5.93 (0.57)

Epistemic rationality (mean)

5.02 (0.50)

6.29 (0.55)



Mean, IQ (SD)

89.13 (14.01)

                    111.33 (11.99)

Clearly, the Germans are brighter, which did not need proving, but it is also clear that IQ makes a difference when it comes to beliefs. The Germans “get” the scientific viewpoint; the Nigerians, despite more years of formal education, are less likely to do so, though these well educated Nigerians are probably the most science oriented of their compatriots. In particular they attribute more influence to gods and religion, don’t accept evolution, and tend to be more somewhat more casual about road safety.

Of course, there are many differences between the people of Germany and the people of Nigeria. For a start, the birth rates are five times as high in Nigeria. 42 Nigerians per thousand are born every year, against only 8 Germans per thousand. Nigerians live for only 52 years, Germans 81 years.

There are two main ways of explaining these differences: that the people are the same but the geography and history differs, which impacts their current behaviour but that could be changed quickly; or that the people differ (because they have adapted to different geographies over very many generations) and that they will change slowly.

Whatever line you take on explaining national differences, the bottom line is that this paper suggests that IQ results have practical implications for thinking about the real world.  Further work on the rationality test in different and larger samples would be a good idea.


  1. Read Theodore Dalrymple's essay "After Empire" about a Congolese with two uni degrees who believed that Mobuto could morph into a leopard. It's on the net.

  2. You can find the same phenomena in European past,
    e.g., judges convicted animals.
    An excellent book on this subject,
    analysing Shakespeare as a pioneer of modern thinking:
    LePan, D. (1989). The cognitive revolution in Western culture. London: Macmillan.

  3. Agreed. This would suggest a cultural rather than genetic explanation. Don't know how representative the practice was, but it is a significant finding anyway. Le Pan's book looks good. It is in my (conceptual) in tray now. I suppose Gregory Clark could argue that the generations since before 1200 eventually lifted intelligence sufficiently to make the conceptual revolution possible.......

  4. James,

    Gregory Clark at least initially did not speak of IQ increases from 1200-1800. In conversation he seems a little more open to the possibility now. Michael Woodley, "The social and scientific temporal correlates of genotypic intelligence and the Flynn effect," Intelligence (2012), has both a substantial Flynn effect and genotypic IQ increases occurring from 1455-1800.