During most of my career as a cognitive psychologist, I expressed grave doubts about the Western version of IQ or Intelligence Quotient, often simply called “general intelligence.”
Despite more than a century’s worth of testing, psychologists still cannot come up with a better definition of intelligence than “the ability to adapt.” Given that this is the concept that lies at the core of intelligence, you would think that there would be greater reservations about more than a century’s worth of testing that reduces IQ to two fundamental abilities – verbal and mathematical. Traditional IQ tests do not pay even lip service to musical, artistic, athletic, or inter-personal abilities.
In addition they are highly biased in terms of content with which a middle-class child is apt to be familiar. Educators and psychologists agree that what they call intelligence is influenced by both genetics and environment, but the environment is not adjusted for in traditional intelligence tests.
As a result, IQ tests do a fairly good job at predicting who can succeed academically. They do not predict who will make the most money, who will report as adults that they are happy, or the success of their family life. And a recent study of students in the Bronx has demonstrated that non-cognitive characteristics like grit, persistence, curiosity, and sheer character are absolutely necessary and themselves are highly predictive of success, even academically. Exceptionally high intelligence and educational opportunities to develop it are not enough.
Traditional concepts of intelligence embed in many of us an assumption that if people aren’t like us, they are less intelligent. If the elderly aren’t as good with modern technology as younger people, the assumption is that younger people are smarter. Or possibly even that old people are dumber. Ethnic minorities, people with physical deformities, or language difficulties are often discriminated against as being less intelligent. A lack of proficiency in the dominant language of a country is often assumed to be because the person isn’t intelligent. I have seen this dreadful misconception operate in relation to doctors, professors, engineers, and social workers who speak haltingly or with a heavy accent.
I’ve reached the conclusion that our traditional concept of intelligence is a chauvinist Western prejudice. It’s a way of fooling ourselves into thinking that we are superior to the peoples we have colonized in the last 400 years.
The assumption is often made in all good faith. But unfortunately, it can be a way of staying stupid ourselves.