What Not To Ask At A Dinner Party: “Are Jews More Creative Than Asians?”



Jewish people make up the majority of the greatest innovators of the 20th century. 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?

What is creativity? 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. Jews 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, Asians 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.

I don’t have any personal emotions toward Jewish people and will be brutally honest about both my Jewish and Asian research findings.  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. Through my many experiences, 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. However unfortunately, because I included my findings about the differences between Jewish and Asian parenting/teaching in the book, The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, almost all publishers shied away from publishing it.

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 Asians and Jews have equivalent IQs. I also found that both successful innovators and creative underachievers are shaped by their 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. My extensive research has coalesced into a framework, which I call CATs (cultivate the 4S Climates; nurture the 4S Attitudes; and apply ION Thinking skills). CATs describes the steps for innovation, which is achievable in any culture. Within the CATs framework, Jewish parenting/teaching priorities are very effective at cultivating the 4S climates (soil, sun, storm, and space), which nurture their children’s 4S attitudes, which contribute to ION thinking skills. They especially cultivate the storm climate, which sets high expectations and provides challenges for their children including brutally honest feedback that includes a clear, specific expectation. Jewish people's storm climate and the resulted storm attitudes were strengthened in response to the horrific threats to Jewish people and culture in the 20th century, especially the Holocaust. Despite these threats, they have become resilient and embodied the belief that “what doesn’t kill you makes stronger.” They developed the storm attitudes such as independence, self-efficacy (true self-confidence from knowing their specific strengths), resilience, and risk-taking. All successful innovators exhibit these attitudes, which enable ION thinking skills. Moreover, instead of focusing on this tragedy, Jewish people have transformed it into wide-spread advocacy for social justice. This attitude reinforces big-picture thought and compassion, which all innovators exhibit.  

Jewish parents/educators nurture the soil attitudes such as open-mindedness, biculturalism, and resourcefulness by providing their children with diverse resources and experiences (soil climate). All great innovators exhibit these attitudes, which enable ION thinking skills. Unfortunately, throughout history, Jews 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, which all innovators exhibit, and these experiences enable ION 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. In the last two centuries, Anti-Semitism of the Western world has fortified Jewish people’s desire to sustain their Jewish identity.  Jewish communities have published guides and built centers for non-Jews who marry Jews and/or want to nurture their children’s Jewish identity. They have developed classes, school systems, and short-term and long-term visit programs to their homeland of Israel.  Bicultural identity enables multiple perspectives, complex thoughts, and an outsider’s perspective, which enhance ION thinking skills. Further, research shows that Jewish people (and most innovators’ parents) 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. This has nurtured their children's resourcefulness, which all innovators exhibit and enable ION thinking skills. 

Jewish parents/educators nurture the sun attitudes such as curiosity, optimism, and big-picture thought by providing their children with inspiration and encouragement (sun climate). All innovators exhibit these sun attitudes, which enable ION thinking skills. Jewish parents/educators, including Jewish rabbis, provide  children with a model for inquiry, which expands the children's curiosity. They nurture children’s love of reading early and have been known as "the people of the book.”  Further, they emphasize Tiḳḳun 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 –– and they mostly give to non-Jewish causes. 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 thought, and compassion, which all innovators exhibit and enable ION thinking skills.

Jewish parents/educators nurture the space attitudes such as emotional expressiveness, autonomy, nonconformity, and defiance by providing their children with the freedom to be alone and unique (space climate). All innovators exhibit these space attitudes, which enable ION thinking skills. Research shows that Jewish parents/educators support their children's self-expression; their own curiosity, preference, and interest (CPI) in how and why things happen; and their argument, rather than cleanliness, orders, rules, or 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. Jewish parents and educators support their children's disobedience and defiance, including rejecting the norms and even own Jewish heritage, in pursuit of their own CPI.

Before I researched Jewish parenting/teaching, 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 –– everyday life around the world. Confucian parenting/teaching follows four specific principles (4P). The first P 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 practice hierarchy by teaching 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 ION thinking skills. It also limits ION thinking skills by hindering cross-pollination, which is sharing ideas and/or working with other experts in an equal relationship. 

The second Confucian P is academic diligence and successConfucian parents/educators indoctrinate that academic success is important not only for their children but also for honoring the extended family and even ancestry. Since the 600s, this P has spawned extreme, unhealthy competition in China, resulting in what is known as "Asian exam hell," which has led to high suicide rates among Asian students. Confucian parents/educators only value academic work, which is practice-intensive, homework-heavy, and result-driven, and they do not value their children’s play, daydreaming, or CPI. This unfortunately hinders the development of their children’s curious, spontaneous, energetic, and daydreaming attitudes, which are necessary for ION thinking skills.

The third Confucian P 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 no 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 thought, compassion, and cross-pollination, which are necessary for ION thinking skills. Also, research shows that the extreme competitiveness has resulted in Asian students’ 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. However, copying others’ work is not conducive to ION thinking unless the original work is improved or transformed in a unique and useful way.

The last Confucian P is harmony and conformity. Confucian parents/educators teach their children to be modest and not act different from others, which sacrifices not only their children’s self-confidence but also their individuality and uniqueness. They over-emphasize harmonious relationships; how to be likeable; 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, which are necessary for ION thinking skills.

Some Jewish parenting/teaching might be like Confucians' described above, and some Asian parenting/teaching might be like the Jewish’s described above. In general, however, Jewish 4S parenting/teaching leads to innovation, whereas Confucian 4P parenting/teaching leads to exam hell and a lack of self-expression and creativity, which eventually make Asian children human "bonsais". A bonsai is a decoratively shaped tree that is clipped and wired so that it cannot grow to its full potential, which is only for the owner’s enjoyment, not for the bonsai's.

Everyone is born curious and creative, but the climates either nurture or squash his or her creativity. Discover how anyone can cultivate the 4S climates, nurture the 4S attitudes, and apply ION thinking skills to achieve innovation in The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation.

(This article is an excerpt of the Chapter 8 of the book, The Creativity Challenge: How We Can Recapture American Innovation, which is a synthesis of research findings –– not a personal opinion –– and all of the original sources are found in the book.)

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