Bring Up Intelligence—How IQ tests do not measure how smart we really are

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I can’t even begin counting the number of times people called me “smart” for studying science at a university level. And even though I am partly flattered, another more substantial part of me is outright annoyed. To be clear, I am understandably not a proponent of the maxim “You don’t need a rocket scientist to do this.” This idea that rocket scientists are at the top of the intelligence pyramid is downright arrogant. Yes, they are indeed brilliant, but there are also plenty of people in other fields that are equally smart. Be careful here; even non-scientist can be as intelligent as rocket scientists. So next time you feel compelled to tell your scientist friends how smart they are, remember to tell your local farmers how smart they are as well. We need to stop considering how intelligent people are by the amount of mathematical knowledge they master or how much academic content they can stuff into their brains. We may have understood now that intelligence is complex. Yet, we are still way behind when it comes to redefining how we view it in our modern society. 

Since the early 20th century, intelligence has been defined by how much you score on an Intelligence Quotient test (IQ test). Considering the average on the test to be 100, anyone who would score under 90 would classify as dull and the ones with scores under 70, mentally defective. On the contrary, individuals that score above 115 would be considered gifted. However, even though we created this test with the intention to measure intelligence, it only succeeded at evaluating the general factor, “g” (i.e. cognitive abilities). Indeed the questions asked often revolve around aspects like general knowledge, arithmetics, vocabulary, language comprehension, picture completion, block design, object assembly, coding, picture arrangement and similarities. This tool seemed so formidable and has been so successfully marketed as a universal intelligent test that most people today would readily believe them to measure intelligence. But beware that this test does not capture the whole picture of intelligence, and rating your job candidates on only this measure would be a complete travesty. 

There are, however, people out there that are genuine supporters of the IQ tests as a future performance predictor. Although these individuals are not entirely misguided -IQ tests do indeed show moderate correlation with future successes-, other measures have proven themselves even more reliable. For instance, emotional intelligence has proven itself a good predictor, along with self-control, faith over one’s future and interpersonal strategies. More impressively, in all those predictors, self-control actually was better at estimating one’s chance of success, even compared to IQ tests. And this brings me to wonder about the consequences of such an intelligence test. For me, it seems like a premature way to etiquette people into categories dictating if they should succeed or not. If we decide to attend university or apply for jobs, we can’t escape the ‘oh!’ so prevalent IQ tests, which may determine if we will get the job or not. And it seems that the more prestigious the place you are applying to, the more probable you will have to face one of these tests. So the test is no longer used merely as an indicator but as an obstacle too. We can only wonder from such observation if the success is truthfully linked to IQ scores or are the IQ scores deciding who should succeed or not? For me, this whole IQ thing really sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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So if intelligence is not what IQ tests are calculating, then what is intelligence? Many psychologists and psychometrists attempted to describe it. Yet, nobody came up with a theory upon which everyone could agree. This disagreement over the definition arises from the different understanding that people have of intelligence. A mathematician, for example, may believe that intelligence is your ability to reason and compute complex problems; a physicist may think that it is the ability of one’s mind to picture abstract objects; an artist may perceive it to be the ability to create. And it is that flexibility in the concept that makes it hard to measure. I would even say that it is a vain pursuit to try measuring it. Intelligence is too complex and evidently a subjective notion. Yet, some theories seem better at summarizing the idea. 

In an attempt to correct how we saw intelligence, Robert Sternberg proposed the triarchic theory of intelligence. He started describing the classical view of intelligence as analytic intelligence. This one best describes how well we will do in an academic setting. It involves reasoning, computing, problem-solving, and more. As a second theory, he introduced creative intelligence. It best defines how someone can be innovative, inventive and a generator of new ideas. As the third and last, he brought up practical intelligence, which describes best the people that are particularly ‘street smart.’ Those individuals are known as people who can have a good idea of how things might turn out and avoid trouble. They typically know the best route, the best restaurant, the best contacts, etc. They also might have a better intuition about someone’s intention soon after meeting them for the first time. 

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Although this approach is much better than what IQ tests offered us, I find it still lacks complexity. It doesn’t yet capture the whole image of intelligence. And someone else, an American psychologist, came to a similar conclusion and proposed that we view intelligence as multimodal and not as one single unit, which agrees with what Sternberg previously offered. However, Gardner’s theory was slightly more ambitious as it officially encompasses nine types of intelligence, and unofficially, 10. Yet, given the lack of empirical evidence to support this idea, this theory is still being critiqued. Gardner’s approach was uniquely based on subjective judgement and observation. And since the whole concept is an abstract notion, to begin with, such as love and sadness -which we can’t measure either-, I find it quite suitable.  

We could probably group the first three under Sternberg’s view of analytic intelligence. And yet, I find this segmenting to be fairer. They are visual-spatial intelligence, linguistic-verbal intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence. They are all probably very self-explanatory, but I can, at the very least, describe them a little. Visual-spatial intelligence refers to people who are good at locating themselves and finding directions. Basically, people who score high on this intelligence may be capable of mentally visualizing the whole itinerary when they travel somewhere. Individuals that score high in linguistic-verbal are often the ones we would describe as eloquent. They have a way with words, and they also have an easier time learning new languages. Well, logical-mathematical inclined people have an easier time following rules and creating new ones. They also excel at reasoning and critical thinking. 

As mentioned, there are at least six more to introduce, so I’ll be quick. These six types are bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, naturalistic, and existential. Bodily-kinesthetic people are better at orchestrating and fine-tuning their movement. It is why this type is most often called physical intelligence. Musical people have increased ease in determining the tone, sounds and rhythms of music. Interpersonal individuals are more skilled at networking and creating good long-lasting relationships. Intrapersonal refers to people that are finely tuned to their inner thought workings and are very good at introspection. Naturalistic intelligence characterizes people that can effortlessly draw links with nature. And existential intelligence was created as an alternative to spiritual intelligence, where people perceive that their lives have a higher purpose. At last, there is one remaining unofficial intelligence, which is digital intelligence. Its need arose from the accessibility to digital content. 

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To wrap up everything, let’s say that I particularly like Einstein’s quote: “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.“ It is truly an amazing analogy to describe how everyone can be intelligent in their own way. But if you test them all using the same standardized tools, you might miss what’s right under your nose. So, as a take-home message, I would like you to realize that some scientists are smart (on some modalities), but so can be dropout students (on different modalities). And most importantly, that you are intelligent too and never forget it. I’ll end this article with another clever quote from Einstein: “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change [or to adapt],” and I find that it englobes well the notion of intelligence. As humans, we are born with the ability to adapt, and as such, we are all intelligent. 

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer them as soon as humanly possible.

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