Rethinking Intelligence

(Rethinking Intelligence is an article that originally appeared on AlivebyNature)

Denny McGuire (not his real name) is a 62 year-old crane operate grade education and an IQ of £41. places him squarely among the lowest 10% of Americans, a segment of the pop­ulation some researchers describe as “dull.” (An IQ of 100 is considered average.) Yet McGuire has an almost uncanny ability to pick fa­vorites at the racetrack. Each evening he spends hours por­ing over racing forms to come up with his picks for the next day’s races, weighing variables such as track conditions, a horse’s past performance and the competition.

His results are impressive. On a test of his skills conducted by Cornell University psychologist Stephen Ceci, McGuire correctly selected the favorite nine times out of 10. He pre­dicted the post-time odds for the top three horses 70% of the time. And in their study of 30 handicappers like McGuire, Dr. Ceci and colleague Dr. Jeffrey Liker, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, found no correlation between IQ and the accuracy of their predictions.

Americans have long believed in intelligence as a maturity ‘that powers not only our performance in school ultimately our success in life. We’ve used the so-called intelligence quotient test to label our children as gifted or not, according to how they perform on the exam. IQ scores often shape our expectations—and our kids’ expectations—of what they can accomplish.

But that idea has been brought into new focus, spurred in part by provocative, best-selling books that aim to push the limits of how we think about intelligence. First came The Bell Curve in 1994, in which traditionalists Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein equate high IQ with success and link low IQ to some of our most pressing social ills, including crime, unwed motherhood and welfare dependency. Though the book and its thesis were widely denounced, many people embraced the idea of IQ as destiny.

Not psychologist Daniel Goleman, whose 1995 book Emotional Intelligence brings together the most current re­search on what it takes to do well in school and in life. Dr. Goleman rejects IQ in favor of what has been popularly dubbed “EQ”—emotional intelligence—the ability to cope, empathize with others and be self-motivated. And unlike the IQ that Murray and Herrnstein argued cannot be changed, EQ is infinitely improvable. “It’s never too late,” says Gole­man. “If we teach kids this stuff, they get better at control­ling impulses, handling anger and anxiety and being em­pathic.” (For more on emotional intelligence, see “Thinking From the Heart,” p. 82.)
Not that IQ doesn’t have predictive powers. But studies show that there’s only a weak to moderate correlation be­tween IQ test scores and the ability to excel in a chosen field, whether academia or auto mechanics. That’s why many ex­perts believe that our reliance on IQ is misguided.

“How much does IQ buy you after you get out of school? Not much,” says Yale University psychologist Robert Stern­berg, whose interest in intelligence was sparked by his own disastrous performance on IQ tests as a child. “A high IQ doesn’t make a better salesperson or a more creative artist or scientist, and it won’t enable a doctor to work better with pa­tients. Even college professors will fail if they don’t know how to teach or get along with administrators.”

The concept of IQ was born nearly 100 years ago, when French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon de­vised a test to identify retarded children in public schools. Stanford University psychologist Lewis Terman brought a revised version to this country in 1916, which came to be known as the Stanford-Binet test.

Though the IQ test has evolved since then, it still assesses the basic language and math skills taught by our schools, and it fairly reliably predicts the grades a child will earn. Most ed­ucators continue to believe that IQ tests are valid indicators of academic potential and should be used to identify children who are gifted or who have learning disabilities, and to make tracking decisions in elementary and secondary schools.

But even Dr. Terman’s research turned up shortcomings in the test as a predictor of success in life. In 1921 he began fol­lowing more than 1,500 California schoolchildren who had IQ’s of 140 or higher. By 1960, most of the males had estab­lished successful careers. (Because in those days most women didn’t have careers, only the men were followed.) But Terman’s research associate, Dr. Melita Oden, identified 100 in the group with very high IQs who were working far below their supposed potential in clerical or other relatively unde­manding positions. Apparently, though adept at the linguistic and mathematical skills gauged by IQ tests, these men were hampered by a lack of ambition and motivation.

Studies of top executives suggest that corporate stars get to the top in part because they’re good collaborators and can in­still a sense of mission in their employees. Self-confidence and motivation are also key to achieving success in the corpo­rate world (top managers tend to score strongly in these traits).

Nor does IQ account for the creative gifts and bold intuition of successful artists, writers, musicians and scientists. When British bacteriologist Sir Alexander Fleming spotted a speck of mold growing in his bacterial culture dish, for instance, he didn’t automatically toss out the contaminated experiment but instead took a closer look. And when he noticed that the mold had killed the bacteria it touched the development of peni­cillin, one of the most important breakthroughs in modern medicine, was under way. (To test your own creative think­ing, see “Can You Make an Intellectual Leap,” right.)

Dr. Sternberg and other experts believe that such practical and intuitive skills—otherwise known as common sense or street smarts—are the key to getting ahead. People with this type of savvy are good at selecting the best environment for their talents, shaping that environment to fit their needs and adapting themselves when necessary. “No one would have called Ronald Reagan an academic genius,” Sternberg says, “but he knew how to communicate a message, project an im­age and inspire trust.”

But how do we acknowledge these practical abilities, never mind qualities such as empathy and drive? To deal with this problem, in 1983 Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner developed a theory of multiple intelligences, seven traits meant to account for the range of human intellectual abilities. They include linguistic ability and logical-mathe­matical skills (the stuff of IQ), spatial intelligence (the ability to visualize and manipulate forms in space), interpersonal in­telligence (the ability to understand the motivations of oth­ers), intrapersonal intelligence (the ability to understand one­self), musical intelligence (sensitivity to melody, rhythm and pitch) and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (athleticism).

Broader definitions of intelligence such as Dr.Gardner’s and Sternberg’s help redress the cultural biases inherent in standardized tests. “Personally, I’m lucky,” says Sternberg. “Our society values writing and I happen to be a decent writer. . . . But put me in a culture that values hunting, navi­gational finesse under the stars, or, for that matter, physical prowess, and I’d look stupid pretty fast.”

So much for The Bell Curve’s IQ-equals-achievement argument. What’s more, there’s abundant evidence that score is influenced by education. Psychologist Richa Nisbett of the University of Michigan in Ann Arb found that after two years of graduate training in psychology, students showed an 80% improvement in the statistical and methodological reasoning skills. And South African village children whose schooling was postponed for up to four years because of a lack of teachers lost five IQ points for every year off, com­pared with children whose education continued unin­terrupted. IQ also tends to dip during summer vaca­tion and rise with the number of years spent in school. “A lot of what’s on an IQ test—who wrote Hamlet, what is the boiling point of water—is factual infor­mation or general cultural knowledge taught in schools,” Sternberg says.

Intelligent behavior, on the other hand, is shaped largely by what we learn outside the classroom. “The garage mechanic diagnosing an engine prob­lem and the chef inventing a new dish both pro­ceed with judgment and finesse only because of their rich repertoire of experience,” says Harvard School of Education cognitive psychologist David Perkins. One study that looked for links between careers performance, IQ and job-related knowledge found that job-related knowledge predicted career performance better than IQ.

Indeed, it is increasingly clear that shortcomings in the skills measured by IQ tests may be more than compensated for by acquired experience and wisdom. Moreover, though the brain may conduct nerve impulses more sluggishly as we age, this slowing of mental processes can be counteracted by cultivating a vital life of the mind. “Research shows that there’s a kind of ‘use it or lose it’ effect,” says Dr. Perkins. “People who are mentally active—who read, play bridge, converse or stay involved professionally—tend to stay sharper longer than people who turn into mental couch potatoes.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean we should scrap IQ, but it’s time for a new gold standard for intelligence, ideally one that would include the “genius” auto mechanic as well as the 80­year-old whose thirst for stimulation prompts her to take up a new hobby. Granted, these traits can’t be easily quantified. But when it comes to what we get out of life or what we contribute to others, they tell us more than IQ ever will.

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