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What is intelligence?


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Have you ever heard the word 'IQ' bandied about, but never know exactly what it means? 

Intelligence is of an abstract nature, yet we have come up with a rather simple way to quantify it. We call it IQ, or intelligence quotient, which is a dividend of a person’s mental age taken from a series of intelligence tests, and chronological age. We use this number for educational placements, assessment of intellectual disability, job applications, and perhaps even as a measure of worthiness, but can IQ predict success and if so, what kind of success is it able to predict?

There are a few theories simplifying intelligence. The one general intelligence theory suggests that all subclasses of intelligence are linked in a way that people who score well on one aptitude test also tend to score well on another. Some of us are better at mathematical rather than verbal reasoning. This is because different people specialise in different disciplines relative to themselves, but relative to other people they are approximately on the same level in all aspects of intelligence. Studies show that this tends to be true in practice.

There is also support for the multiple intelligences theory. Analytical intelligence is one leg of it. It is what we might call “school smarts” which helps us solve well-defined problems like the ones given in math class. Then, there is creative intelligence, which allows us to adapt to new situations and have unique ideas. Lastly, there is practical intelligence, which aids us in everyday problems requiring critical thinking.

Yet, another theory suggests that there are two types of intelligence: fluid and crystallised. The former is a measure of our speed in understanding and evaluating hypotheticals while the latter is simply the knowledge we gain through experience or study.

However one defines intelligence, essentially what intelligence quotient measures is how well one recalls and relays information. Skills like spacial ability, math comprehension, verbal and written skills, and memorisation are tested to determine this. There are substantial associations of IQ with morbidity and mortality. It has also been studied as a predictor of job performance, income, and social mobility, so it clearly has some power and deserves our attention.

Despite this, many critics claim that while IQ examines some aspects of intelligence, it neglects social skills, self-awareness, empathy, and motivation which also influence our ability to live productive, consequential, and fulfilling lives. While IQ can predict certain achievements, it’s not the whole truth.

“Character is higher than intellect. A great soul will be strong to live as well as think,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. This idea of a pursuit of happiness is entrenched in modern society, but as many note today, neither a high IQ nor the success that a high IQ can predict is always able to deliver that kind of satisfaction. Clearly, another form of intelligence must play a role.

Daniel Goleman, a journalist, popularised the emotional intelligence theory in his 1995 bestseller. This kind of intelligence is where self-awareness, healthy interpersonal relationships, and ability to empathise comes from.

There remains a question of whether intelligence, may it be analytical or emotional, can be cultivated. This is the old nature versus nurture question. It’s somewhat uncomfortable to consider intelligence as a fixed, acquired trait since the belief in heritability of intellect and Henry Goddard’s intelligence tests that followed were approved and used by the eugenics movement to sterilise and push discriminatory legislation against the “feeble-minded” and the poor.

Studies like one published in Psychological Science suggesting that the IQ of children adopted at birth is not well correlated with that of their adoptive parents but strongly correlated with that of their biological parents tells us that nature is part of the equation. When in the 1960’s the Norwegian government added two extra years to their compulsory education programme, researchers concluded that each additional year of education added three point seven points to their IQ score upon examining soldiers' IQ scores. Stuart Ritchie and his colleague at the University of Edinburgh agree, concluding that each year of schooling adds one to five points to one’s IQ score. While this effect must eventually plateau, it suggests that there is a way to cultivate intelligence.

While the “Mozart effect” might not hold true long term, people are capable of change and progress, and those with a growth mindset are much more likely to achieve it. An intelligence test can’t measure a person’s potential or their worthiness but rather where they are in the advancement of particular skills, and that’s what it should be used for.

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