How can education impact the well-being of a nation? Heiner Rindermann, professor of educational and developmental psychology at the Chemnitz University of Technology in Germany, has been building a cumulative body of research precisely on this topic. This has resulted in a new book titled Cognitive capitalism: Human capital and the wellbeing of nations. I had the opportunity to ask Heiner some questions about his new book.
What is the role of education and cognitive ability in relation to the development of “human capital”?
RINDERMANN: A high-quality education enhances the development of thinking, deepens knowledge, furthers personality, changes attitudes, and trains special skills, which are all important for success in the world of work. With a higher quality of education, more complex tasks can be solved, and behavior suffers less from fewer mistakes. The positive side effects spread into everyday life and social relations. Usually, the individuals themselves, the environment near them, and more broadly society as a whole benefit.
Education works through the enhancement of cognitive ability — which is a combination of intelligence and knowledge — and also through the mechanisms of changing personality and behavior. In my view, human capital is that aspect of human abilities and attributes that are useful to the economy (see page 40 of my new book for more detail).
Why is human capital important to national well-being?
Cognitive human capital has a positive impact on innovation, production, institutional efficiency, and norm-obeying behavior. Therefore, economic growth, productivity, income, wealth, and well-being are increased. Apart from the gains for the economy and for individual and national wealth, freedom, democracy, and the rule of law also benefit. People live in a safer and more liberal society.
What education policies do you recommend based on your new “theory of cognitive capitalism”?
Cognitive capitalism refers to the idea that the cognitive ability of society as a whole, and of its cognitive elite in particular, is the prerequisite for the development of technological progress, for the historic development of modern society with its increasing cognitive demands and complexity, and for the wealth-furthering norms and institutions that form the core of the capitalist system (including economic freedom, free markets, the rule of law, and property rights). In effect, cognitive ability is crucial in creating and sustaining a high-achievement milieu, leading not only to economic growth and wealth, but also to a democratic and free society.
The two most important factors are invested time in learning from early childhood on and an achievement-oriented structure in education — tests, central exams, decisions/promotion based on objectively measured achievement, discipline for improved learning, the aim of school and instruction is learning/achievement, etc. — surrounded by further factors, such as higher teacher quality and more problem-solving in instruction. Discipline increases the time spent on tasks, and relevant content tested in central exams shows positive effects on cognitive achievement.
Additionally, cognitive training programs, such as Klauer’s reasoning training, are short and effective — this is not to be confused with working memory training, which is too narrow. Because weaker students usually benefit more, such training programs can help to reduce achievement gaps. They show not only positive and lasting effects on IQ tests and intelligence, but also on school achievement, attentional behavior, and language competences. The act of thinking hard actually can make someone smarter.