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Are Jews More Creative than Asians?

November 3, 2016 | by Dr. KH Kim

Why is a Jew 625 times more likely to win a Nobel Prize than an Asian? It has nothing to do with IQ.

Dr. Kim is an award-winning professor of Innovation & Creativity at the College of William & Mary. Her research study "The Creativity Crisis" was the subject of a 2010 Newsweek cover story. Numerous news outlets have since sought her expertise, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, NPR, and others. This controversial article is an excerpt from The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, which is a synthesis of research findings. All original sources are found in her book.

My research shows that a Jewish person is over 625 times more likely to win a Nobel Prize than an Asian person. Why? Is it related to their IQs? Is it because they are raised differently? Shouldn’t the notoriously high academic standards of Asian culture produce a greater number of innovators?

Creativity is the process of making something unique and useful, and the successful result of this process is innovation. The Nobel Prize is symbolic of innovative achievement. Jewish people constitute less than 0.2% of the world population, yet about 23% of Nobel Prize winners – including a recent Nobel Prize winner, Bob Dylan – have at least one parent who identifies as Jewish.

In contrast, Asian people constitute about 23% of the world population, but only about 4% have won the Nobel Prize. Considering population size, the ratio of Jewish Nobel Prize winners is over 115, but the ratio of Asian people is less than 0.2. Statistically speaking, a Jewish person is more than 625 times more likely to win a Nobel Prize than an Asian person. In fact, Jewish people are well-represented in all innovative achievements. For example, they make up some of greatest musicians of the 20th century: over 25% of the conductors, 40% of the pianists, 50% of the cellists, and 65% of the violinists.

Many claim that Jewish people are successful in the field of innovation because they have high IQs. My research does not support this assertion.

In addition to my research on Jewish history, culture, and education, I have interviewed and observed Jewish people and lived with a Jewish family for three years. I have researched influential Jewish texts, visited synagogues and participated in Jewish ceremonies and holidays. I was determined to discover unique features that might affect innovation. When I started my research, I knew nothing about the Jewish culture. I later learned that, generally speaking, American people consider it taboo to evaluate or appear judgmental about Jewish people. But because I am Korean, I never knew this. As a researcher, my unfamiliarity about this taboo helped me maintain my objectivity. My findings about the differences between Jewish and Asian parenting/teaching were deemed controversial by many, and delayed the publication of my book, The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, a few years.

Dr. KH Kim

Many people have made the claim that Jewish people are successful in the field of innovation because they have high IQs. However, my research does not support this assertion. I found that Asian people and Jewish people have equivalent IQs. I also found that both successful innovators and creative underachievers are shaped by their climates. My extensive research has coalesced into a framework, which I call CATs. CATs stands for three practical steps for innovation which is achievable in any culture. They are: cultivate creative Climates (step 1); nurture creative Attitudes (step 2); and develop creative Thinking skills (step 3). Surprisingly, the most critical part of a creative process is the climates. Individuals' climates include their culture, physical and psychological conditions, interpersonal relationships, developmental processes, and prevailing biases. All aspects of climates deeply influence how individuals think and have the potential to encourage or discourage creative behavior. Fortunately, climates are the part we have the most control over.

Within the CATs framework, Jewish parenting/teaching priorities are very effective at cultivating creative climates which nurture their children’s creative attitudes and thinking skills. They cultivate creative climates by setting high expectations and providing challenges for their children including brutally honest feedback with a clear, specific expectation. In response to the horrific threats facing the Jewish people, they have become resilient and embodied the belief that “what doesn’t kill you makes stronger.” They developed their children’s creative attitudes such as independence, self-efficacy (true self-confidence from knowing their specific strengths), resilience, and risk-taking. Moreover, instead of focusing on tragedy, Jewish people have transformed it into wide-spread advocacy for social justice. This attitude reinforces big-picture thought and compassion.

Jewish parents tend to provide children with a model for inquiry and questioning which expands children's curiosity.

Jewish parents and educators nurture their children’s creative attitudes such as open-mindedness, biculturalism, and resourcefulness, by providing them with diverse resources and experiences. Unfortunately, throughout history, Jewish people were forced to flee their homes and countries. However, this exposed them to diverse people, cultures, areas, languages, religions, and arts. These experiences opened their minds to other perspectives, ideas, and ways of life, increasing creative thinking skills. While instilling in children the values of their Jewish identity, Jewish parents and educators nurture their bicultural identity by teaching them about the similarities and differences between the cultures while fortifying their desire to sustain their Jewish identity. Jewish communities have developed classes, school systems, and short-term and long-term trips to their homeland of Israel. Bicultural identity enables multiple perspectives, complex thoughts, and an outsider’s perspective, which enhance creative thinking skills.

Further, research shows that Jewish people tend to marry later than their non-Jewish counterparts. They are more financially and emotionally established when they have children, which helps them provide their children with diverse resources. They also teach their children – early – how to find and utilize resources such as books, arts, libraries, museums, and human resources, thereby nurturing their children's resourcefulness.

Jewish parents/educators nurture their children’s creative attitudes such as curiosity, optimism, and big-picture thought by providing them with inspiration and encouragement. They tend to provide children with a model for inquiry and questioning which expands the children's curiosity. They nurture children’s love of reading early and are known as "the people of the book.” Further, they emphasize Tikkun olam – repairing the world – which teaches their children to leave the world a better place than they found it, which establishes generosity as a norm.

Research shows that Jewish families are more charitable and give larger amounts of money than other religious or non-religious families – regardless of their income or wealth level.

Research shows that Jewish families are more charitable and give larger amounts of money than other religious or non-religious families – regardless of their income or wealth level. Jewish people make up only less than 2% of the American population, but they represent 30% of the most charitable donors. This reinforces their children's optimism, big-picture thinking and compassion, key ingredients for innovation and creativity.

Jewish parents and educators tend to nurture their children’s emotional expressiveness, autonomy, nonconformity, and defiance by providing them with the freedom to be alone and unique. Research shows that Jewish parents and educators support children's self-expression; their own curiosity, preference, and interest in how and why things happen; and their argument, rather than cleanliness, orders, rules, and good manners. Being on the margins of society combined with a bicultural identity has nurtured their children's nonconformity, which drives them to self-identify as nonconforming outsiders, who support underdogs and those who have been or are victimized.

Confucian Principles

Before I researched Jewish parenting and teaching methodologies, I had studied Confucianism, which was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. Confucian principles and values are based on Confucius’s philosophy and ideas, which continue to serve as the ethical and moral foundations for most Asians, who I call Confucians in this article. Confucian parenting and teaching follows four specific principles. The first principle is hierarchical relationships, where age is a mark of wisdom and authority. Older people have the right to exercise discipline and control over younger people who are to listen to them.

The tragic Korean Air crash in 1997 illustrates a negative effect of this hierarchy, in which a young engineer would not challenge his older captain’s authority, leading to 228 deaths. Confucian parents/educators teach their children with the use of control and power. They instill dependence and obedience in their children and unwavering acceptance of the information they are taught. This stifles their children’s independence, autonomy, critical thinking, nonconformity, and defiance, which are necessary for creative thinking skills. It also limits creative thinking skills by hindering cross-pollination, which is sharing ideas and/or working with other experts in an equal relationship.

The second principle is academic diligence and success. Confucian parents and educators indoctrinate that academic success is important not only for the child but also for honoring the extended family and even ancestry. This principle has spawned extreme, unhealthy competition in China, resulting in what is known as "Asian exam hell" since 1970s, which has led to high suicide rates among Asian students. Confucian parents/educators place highest value on academic work, which is practice-intensive, homework-heavy, and result-driven; they do not value their children’s play, daydreaming, or their children’s curiosity, preferences, and interests. This hinders the development of their children’s curiosity, spontaneity and creativity.

In general, Confucian parenting leads to a lack of self-expression and creativity.

The third principle is filial piety (parents’ unquestioned authority) and loyalty. Confucian parents are highly involved and make enormous sacrifices for their children’s academic success. In return, their children seek to become wealthy and reach high social status so that they can repay their parents for the sacrifices they made for them, which leaves little room for charity. As an extension of filial piety, loyalty at work contributed to Asian countries' economic success in 1980s. However, it leads Confucians to unquestionably accept authority and reject ideas from or compete against out-groups because of their loyalty to their own in-group. Confucian parents teach their children to work harder and out-achieve their peers and out-group members. They openly compare them to others, which fosters a winner-loser dichotomy. This attitude stifles their children’s big-picture thinking, compassion, and cross-pollination, which are key ingredients for creative thinking skills. Research also shows that extreme competitiveness has resulted in Asian students’ prevalence of plagiarism and lack of original ideas. The more they feel filial obligation to excel, the more they willingly cheat or achieve by any means necessary.

The last principle is harmony and conformity. Confucian parents/educators teach their children to be modest and not to act differently from others. This can impair their children’s self-confidence and sense of individuality and uniqueness. They over-emphasize harmonious relationships and the avoidance of confrontation, disagreement, and conflict. Asian children are overly concerned with others’ views. Formality and seriousness are encouraged, while playfulness and humor are not. So their playfulness, nonconformity, and defiance are trampled upon, which are necessary for developing creative thinking skills.

Although there are some similarities between Jewish and Confucian parenting and teaching, in general, Jewish parenting leads to innovation, whereas Confucian parenting leads to a lack of self-expression and creativity. The result is often Asian children who are like human "bonsais". A bonsai is a decoratively shaped tree that is clipped and wired so that it cannot grow to its full potential.

Everyone is born curious and creative, but the climates either nurture or squash his or her creativity. Discover how anyone can cultivate creative climates, nurture creative attitudes, and apply creative thinking skills to achieve innovation in The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation.

This article is an excerpt from The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, which is a synthesis of research findings. All original sources are found in the book.

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