Better Intelligence?

By Dr. Emily O'Leary

Better Intelligence?
IQ testing has traditionally been seen as the best indication of how clever a person is, and consequently, their potential for success. Yet in the real world “book smarts” are often no match for “street smarts”. What is the real difference, and can these “smarts” be accurately measured?

In which planet does life exist? The majority of students in the class put up their hands, but I was the lucky one chosen. “Mars,” I replied. The teacher, a lanky short-haired woman who had spent far too long in the education system replied, “No, Emily, it is Earth.” What Miss “Too Long in the Education System” failed to understand was that in the weekend prior to this class I had watched a very interesting documentary about how life on Mars may exist, so consequently I thought this may be a trick question. This classroom incident relates to this month’s discussion: can intelligence be accurately measured? Further to this, if intelligence can be measured, are we actually measuring intelligence in these scales or some other construct,
such as memory?

What is Intelligence?

Intelligence typically refers to a person’s mental capacity to learn and apply knowledge. In contrast, intelligence quotient, or IQ, is a score derived from standard IQ tests. The important distinction between these two is that IQ and intelligence are not the same thing.The issue of intelligence tends to spark controversy because, firstly, there is no set consensus on how it is defined and, secondly, people question the usefulness of standard IQ tests because of their implications.

English psychologist Charles Spearman was one of the first people to try to measure intelligence in the early 20th century. He proposed a “general intelligence”, also known as “G factor”, and stated that this G factor formed the basis from which all other brain skills were established. In other words, if the brain was a house, the G factor is the foundation upon which we build the rest of the house. Spearman’s conceptualisation tended to be more along the lines of measuring academic achievement. As with most things in life, problems surfaced due to this narrow definition. The main argument is that other aspects of intelligence were being ignored, such as social and emotional intelligence.

One of the more popular theories of intelligence is “successful intelligence”, developed by Cornell University Professor Robert Sternberg. In his 1997 book, he proposed that previous theories were too narrow and relied too heavily on IQ tests. Sternberg’s whole premise can be summed up in a recent quote: “Successfully intelligent people discern their strengths and weaknesses, and then figure out how to capitalise on their strengths, and to compensate for or remediate their weaknesses.”

There are three key categories to successful intelligence. The first is analytical: the ability to analyse, evaluate, judge, or compare and contrast and having strong verbal and mathematical skills. The second is creative: the ability to generate new ideas and deal with new situations. The third is practical: this involves the ability to adapt to everyday situations in multiple arenas, for example, work, home and social life. Essentially, this is “street smarts”.

Finding success

Successful intelligence, Sternberg argues, is interplay between all three forms of intelligence rather than just “book smarts”. As most IQ tests measure only the analytical component in intelligence, many people infer their intelligence is based completely on their score, for example, below average. However, research shows that although tests of practical knowledge typically show no correlation with IQ tests, they predict job performance nearly as well as, and sometimes better than, IQ tests. This means many people are developing ideas or core beliefs about their ability that may be inaccurate.

Sternberg continually emphasises that successful individuals may not have high test scores, but they maximise their strengths and work around their weaknesses. Many different components contribute to intelligence, including social and emotional factors.

Emotional intelligence – EI – as developed by American psychologists Peter Salovey and John Mayer since 1990, refers to the ability to read and solve a variety of emotion-related problems. Such people can be described as “having the gift of the gab”, or “a people person”. EI has been popularised through many books, most notably, Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by renowned American psychologist Daniel Goleman, who has said people with high EI reportedly do better both
in their professional and personal lives.

Current measures of IQ

IQ tests consist of a number of tasks relating to verbal and linguistic skills, memory, spatial and analytical skills and general knowledge. The issue with many IQ tests is they often measure academic attainment, not the capacity to learn. Standard IQ tests include the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children and Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales. IQ tests use a bell curve with scores ranging from: • Above 130: Very superior
• 120-129: Superior
• 110-119: High average
• 90-109: Average
• 80-89: Low average
• 70-79: Borderline
• Less 69: Extremely low.

However, although intelligence scores are a good predictor of how well that person may do at school, they do not infer anything about ultimate success in personal or professional areas. IQ tests have their place, but as general baseline measures. In other words, the issue is not the tests, but our interpretation and conceptualisation of the results.

One “bad” result does not mean a lifetime of misery – it can mean a multitude of things, for example, that
the child had a bad night’s sleep, has attention difficulties, dyslexia or, perhaps, has exceptional skill sets in other areas.

IQ tests tend to measure analytical intelligence, and therefore cannot determine functioning in a certain career. For example, some 30 years after I learned them, I can still recall 20 elements of the periodic table. That does not mean I should be in a science lab, more that I had a rather formidable science teacher.

Can we increase IQ?

Standard IQ scores tend to be relatively stable, particularly as we age. However, in childhood and adolescence general cognitive ability (G factor) is influenced by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Twin studies suggest that between 40 and 80 per cent of variance in IQ is linked to genetics, but the environment is crucial. Research shows that a child’s brain has reached  90 per cent of its adult size before the age of five, with another huge burst of neurological activity at adolescence. This does not mean parents should start panicking and purchasing French audio books for their three-year-old children. It just means it’s good to be aware of the fact your child’s brain is growing very quickly so it’s a good time to provide lots of mental stimulation, such as varied reading and role playing.

If this thought elicits anxiety about whether you are proving enough of an enriched environment, perhaps reflect on the words of Professor Bruce Hood, an experimental neuroscientist at the University of Bristol. His advice to parents is, “Be kind to your children. Unless you raise them in a cardboard box without any stimulation or interaction, then they will probably be just fine.” Imagination, not fear Intelligence has been hugely oversimplified. Albert Einstein said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

This topic  is a hot one for me as many young people throughout the clinic place far too much emphasis on performance. Additionally, throughout my own schooling years there were times where the thought of being “tested” elicited a lot of fear. Although I am a big fan of striving for what you want in life, I believe defining yourself by your IQ/academic success is problematic, as you are essentially putting all your eggs in one basket.

To put it another way, if your career is what defines you, who are you if you lose your job? The same can be true of being someone’s partner or father. The ability to engage with your world and make sense of it is vitally important. Formal education can help with later success, but the biggest predictor of happiness is gratitude.



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