The Definitions & Implications Of Human Intelligence

Throughout history, humanity has struggled to quantify and measure the things that make us adapt, evolve, and survive.

Nowadays, we pretty much use the terms “intelligent” and “smart” interchangeably and with the connotation that they both mean something along similar lines.

Some people base their entire personalities on stereotypes around intelligence, and organisations like MENSA offer an exclusive club for those with exceptional IQ scores.

People convince themselves things like artistic ability and analytical intelligence are mutually exclusive.

Others even believe your intellect is set in stone from the day you are born and that you can’t change it.

But, is that really true, and what can the history and theories about intelligence tell us about ourselves?

Intelligence, By Definition

So one of the main questions at hand here is, how exactly do we define intelligence?

Well, there are a number of ways.

Some may say it’s our ability to reason, others our ability to solve problems and get closer to achieving our goals.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget believed that intelligence was tied to how much we can abstract.

This theory is based on his experience in developmental psychology, where he observed that as children grow, they start thinking in less rigid and concrete terms.

Coincidentally this might explain why we find mathematicians, programmers, and philosophers to be very intelligent.

As those subjects require less knowledge and more innovative methods of conceptualising things.

In order to clear misconceptions and myths about intelligence, I think it would be best to start off with the most popular measure of it, one you’re probably familiar with – IQ.

The history of IQ measurement is interesting, nuanced, and a bit complicated, but it’s necessary to go through it in order to better illustrate the implications of these types of tests.

Our journey begins in early 20th century France, where psychologist Alfred Binet is tasked by the government to create a test.

The test was meant to be able to reliably identify which school children have developmental disorders and cannot be taught in regular classrooms.

Shortly thereafter, Binet and his student Theodore Simon created this metric, calling it the Binet-Simon test, and it gained limited popularity.

Interestingly enough, the term IQ would be coined later by a German psychologist William Stern abbreviating the word Intelligenzquotient as to signify an overall score on the test.

Going back to the test, it measured children’s knowledge, reasoning, visual-spatial processing, working memory, and analytical skills.

Then, the results were compiled and compared to an established baseline for children that age.

Essentially, what that meant was that scores weren’t a universal signifier for intelligence, just how intelligent you were for your age.

Almost all IQ tests derived from this original one use a bell curve of normal distribution with 100 IQ as the mean, with each standard deviation being 15 points.

If we look at the numbers, this means 68.2% of the entire population have an IQ from 85 to 115, while 95% have an IQ between 70 and 130, leaving cases of extremely high or low scores extremely rare.

This might come as a surprise to many of you, but yes – the first IQ tests weren’t made to see who was the smartest but who needed educational help and support.

As previously stated, the test did its job fine, and minor revisions were made in the following years to make it more accurate, but it hadn’t entered into the pop psychology sphere and the common vocabulary just yet.

That all changed when Stanford psychologist Lewis Terman adapted the test to English, thereby renaming it the Stanford-Binet test.

But this wasn’t just a translation.

Terman began presenting the test not only as a way to identify students with special needs but also to identify and offer high-ranking positions to people with exceptional intelligence.

This is where the seeds of organisations like Mensa and the stereotypes about smug know-it-alls bragging about IQ scores with no actual worthwhile achievements to boast about were planted.

Now the test had gained popularity overseas, but it wouldn’t be until the US army implemented it in its selection process during World War I that it would become so widespread.

The reason the military would want an IQ test may not be why you’d think they would.

We’ll get to what IQ predicts in a minute, but safe to say a high IQ score doesn’t mean you’re a brilliant strategist or a cunning fighter.

Going back to the test’s original purpose, the army needed to know which potential soldiers had such a low intellectual capacity they couldn’t understand and follow orders, which in turn would mean they could potentially be dangerous to their comrades on the battlefield.

The Uses Of IQ Tests

Now that we’ve traced the history of this metric, I believe it’s important to take a step back and see why it’s useful in the modern day.

As we’ve just explained, it certainly isn’t an indicator of how “smart” or “clever” one is.

The truth of the matter is IQ is probably psychology’s most well-put-together and valid factor.

Let me explain:

Because psychology doesn’t have the luxury of digging inside the brain physically like its cousin biology, scientists have to construct variables that account for different psychological traits.

This is also known as the black box problem, as in short – we can see what we input inside the mind and what comes out as actions or ideas, but not how those interact inside the mind.

This can often be tricky because in order to make sure they actually measure something real, they need to have internal and external consistency, also known as validity.

Internal validity means that the construct measures something real, something that isn’t just a series of coincidences and won’t change drastically in time.

An example with IQ is that we’ve made a multitude of tests throughout the years that measure the metric accurately, without it changing significantly when the same person takes the same test years later.

Then we have external validity, i.e will this factor predict a specific type of behavior in the future, how often and to what extent.

After all, what use is a measurable construct if we can’t use it to reliably understand how our environment, humans included, behave and interact?

Sure, we can measure something accurately now, but if we can’t make sure it either won’t change or will change predictably then we can’t make models of it.

In this aspect IQ is a very reliable predictor of academic and professional success.

This doesn’t mean that if you have a below-average IQ, you’re set for life on a road of mediocre achievement and poverty.

It only means that if you have a high IQ score, chances are really in your favour you’re likely gonna do well job-wise and in the scientific community.

But here’s the catch: that’s all it predicts really.

Now let’s discuss one of the most common ‘types’ of intelligence.

Does Emotional Intelligence Exist?

Artistic ability, success in interpersonal relationships, athletic potential – all that has nothing to do with your IQ score, be it high or low.

This is why when people make a one-to-one association between IQ scores and intelligence, let alone between intelligence and life fulfillment, they’re dead wrong.

However, this is also what makes it incorrect to talk about things like emotional, social, or musical intelligence.

It’s not that these concepts aren’t real. They very much are.

But it’d be more accurate to call them emotional competence or ability to understand/self-regulate emotions rather than intelligence.

Similarly, what people call naturalistic intelligence is just an abundance of knowledge,  bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is mind-muscle connection, and so on.

All real phenomena, but just not different types of intelligence.

I know it may not have the same ring to it, but there’s one major difference between these types of competence and intelligence – they can’t be reliably measured.

Yes, we can tell when someone can’t “read the room,” or the opposite – can seem almost clairvoyant at times about people’s intentions and feelings.

This may seem like proof enough, but when compared to the decades of study on quantifiable intelligence, these examples are anecdotal.

In order for these things to be called intelligence, not only do they have to be related to the rationale and problem-solving, which in many cases they do.

But they’d also need to be reliably consistent and measurable, as well as predict how people who score high on them will differ from those who don’t.

Think about it in terms of applicability – being a better athlete doesn’t correlate with being a better cook, or an enhanced ability to rise through the ranks in the office.

And who knows, maybe one day we will have the in-depth technology or theoretical frameworks to measure these “intelligences” more accurately and in a deeper context, discovering they are solid, valid factors.

But, as pedantic as it may seem, calling them alternate forms of intelligence not only diminishes the importance of the countless years of research into making IQ as stable and coherent a factor that it is.

But also brings down many of the arts to a sort of objective level, sandpapering off their uniqueness in order to make them neatly fit into comparable boxes.

Final Thoughts

In the end, intelligence is quite a useful concept.

It has helped us invent, deduce and study all manner of things we take for granted nowadays.

I didn’t mention this earlier, but we believe some animals, such as birds of prey, dolphins, and apes are more intelligent than others, based on adaptive behavior their cousins in the rest of the animal kingdom lack.

This is yet another piece of evidence we humans rose to the top of the natural hierarchy, because of our intellect.

But just as we should cherish and try to improve this aspect of ours (and yes, we most definitely can improve it).

So must we realise that focusing too much on it can limit our perspective on, well… life.

How well one can draw, act, paint, sculpt, fight, exercise, write stories, and ultimately enjoy living here on this very planet doesn’t correlate with intelligence.

A classic example of how we perceive things to mistakenly correlate with intelligence, that is to say, go hand in hand with another factor, is chess.

We might think that the analytical ability and know-how of grandmasters all but ensures they possess a genius-level intellect.

It turns out, their skills at the game don’t correlate with being good at math, biology, facial recognition, or any of that, just being good at chess.

That isn’t to say good chess players are stupid. Plenty of them are really intelligent and score high on an IQ test.

But just being intelligent doesn’t define what you’ll be good at, just how likely it is to be good at it.

Think of it like someone born with good genetics – yes, they’d have an easier time building muscle or have a more aesthetic jawline, but if they eat fatty food and don’t train, they’ll still waste what little advantages they had.

Time and time again, study after study has concluded that dedication, persistence, and consistency are far more important than an inherent advantage or disadvantage in rationale.

As a matter of fact, a gift of high intellectual capacity might be completely useless, depending on your specific goals.

For example, in the arts, a high level of intelligence can lead to overthinking, self-doubt, and even paranoia about one’s works.

This can even extend into the quality of life in general, as these qualities are mirrored by, say, heightened levels of introspection.

All in all, there are obvious benefits to being very intelligent, but so are there to other talents, as we might label them.

What matters most to our ability to do the things we want to do, to make our dreams come true, is being multifaceted and balanced beings. A strong body, a curious mind and an insatiable spirit – all three things we must support and nurture throughout our whole lives.


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