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Are we intelligent about developing human intelligence?

Ungifted_KaufmanWhen it comes to our under­stand­ing of human intel­li­gence, for too long, there has been a mis­match between the­ory and prac­tice. The­o­ret­i­cally, the two main threads run­ning through def­i­n­i­tions of intel­li­gence have been (a) adap­ta­tion to the envi­ron­ment, and (b) the cog­ni­tive, affec­tive, and voli­tional char­ac­ter­is­tics that enable that adap­ta­tion. Prac­ti­cally, IQ tests mea­sure an impor­tant but lim­ited slice of intel­lec­tual func­tion­ing in a very lim­ited test­ing envi­ron­ment. Why such a disconnect?

Intel­li­gence tests were born out of neces­sity. Alfred Binet was given the task of invent­ing a test that would dis­tin­guish fast learn­ers from slow learn­ers in a school envi­ron­ment. From the very first test of intel­li­gence, we’ve been oper­at­ing in an indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences par­a­digm, and have been stuck in that par­a­digm ever since. Attempts to go beyond IQ seem to just add on more indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ence vari­ables, and slap the label “intel­li­gence” on them. This cre­ates more tests, and more ways to com­pare one per­son to another on what­ever tests of intel­li­gence the psy­chol­o­gist has cre­ated. But here’s the thing: there’s no objec­tive rea­son why soci­ety still needs to oper­ate in this paradigm.

While stan­dard­ized tests can cer­tainly be use­ful for sci­en­tif­i­cally inves­ti­gat­ing the mind and brain, and can greatly inform edu­ca­tional inter­ven­tions, there’s no rea­son why edu­ca­tors or any­one else for that mat­ter needs to com­pare the intel­li­gence of one per­son to another based on a sin­gle dimen­sion of human vari­a­tion. Truth is, gen­eral intel­li­gence—the largest source of cog­ni­tive vari­a­tion ever dis­cov­ered in humans—is merely a descrip­tion of pat­terns of vari­a­tion found between peo­ple; it doesn’t actu­ally exist within any individual.

Devel­op­men­tal psy­chol­o­gists are devel­op­ing excit­ing new tech­niques to study vari­a­tion within the per­son. Instead of select­ing a few fixed time points and range of cog­ni­tive skills, and aggre­gat­ing the results across sub­jects, the new person-specific par­a­digm focuses on a sin­gle per­son, selects a range of time points, and con­sid­ers the tra­jec­tory of a dynamic sys­tem of cog­ni­tive, emo­tional, and per­son­al­ity processes as they unfold over time. The results from the tra­di­tional indi­vid­ual dif­fer­ences par­a­digm— where we com­pare peo­ple to each other—do not apply at the person-specific level.

I believe this has major impli­ca­tions for our under­stand­ing of human intel­li­gence. For over 100 years, the field of intel­li­gence has mostly con­cerned itself with intel­lec­tual func­tions that show the largest vari­a­tion between humans, while less atten­tion has been given to func­tions that dis­play min­i­mal dif­fer­ence between peo­ple. But I believe shift­ing our level of analy­sis to the per­son presents enor­mous oppor­tu­ni­ties. It allows us to more clearly see, and appre­ci­ate, the rich­ness of human intel­li­gence. As Steven Pinker notes, “Humans every­where on the planet see, talk, and think about objects and peo­ple in the same basic way. The dif­fer­ence between Ein­stein and a high school dropout is triv­ial com­pared to the dif­fer­ence between the high school dropout and the best robot in exis­tence, or between the high school dropout and a chimpanzee.”

Once we look at how indi­vid­u­als actu­ally attain their per­sonal goals in the real world, many more aspects of human intel­li­gence become vis­i­ble than when we focused only on the char­ac­ter­is­tics that most strongly dif­fer­en­ti­ate peo­ple. Vir­tu­ally every human being on this planet has the same basic needs for com­pe­tence, auton­omy, relat­ed­ness, belong­ing, and unique­ness, even if we dif­fer in the bal­ance of those needs. We all have the capac­ity to cul­ti­vate a growth mind­set, learn how to prac­tice delib­er­ately, or flex our self-regulation mus­cles. We’ve all been endowed with pow­er­ful “struc­ture map­ping” atten­tional mech­a­nisms that allow us to soak up fun­da­men­tal knowl­edge about spa­tial rela­tions, num­bers, prob­a­bil­ity, logic, lan­guage, phys­i­cal objects, liv­ing things, arti­facts, music, aes­thet­ics, and the beliefs and desires of other minds, even if we dif­fer in what cap­ti­vates our atten­tion. Vir­tu­ally every­one draws on a robust implicit learn­ing sys­tem to soak up the prob­a­bilis­tic rule struc­ture of the world and can use pow­er­ful long-term work­ing mem­ory mech­a­nisms to acquire a deep, rich exper­tise base in some domain of human knowledge.

Some researchers might empha­size that these capa­bil­i­ties are evo­lu­tion­ar­ily older than fluid rea­son­ing or work­ing mem­ory. But keep in mind that our com­plex minds didn’t appear overnight. For most of our human evo­lu­tion, new struc­tures were grad­u­ally built on top of older struc­tures. The com­plex­ity of the human brain is the result of mil­lions of years of trial– and-error in a vari­ety of dif­fer­ent envi­ron­ments. Minds that were adap­tive for sur­vival and repro­duc­tion in par­tic­u­lar niches were main­tained. Drafts that weren’t adap­tive were grad­u­ally put into the waste bin. You can think of our minds as a layer cake. Each layer is impor­tant, and has con­tributed sig­nif­i­cantly to who we are as a species, and what we are capa­ble of. Just because a mech­a­nism of the mind is evo­lu­tion­ar­ily older does not make it any less impor­tant for adap­tive functioning.

It is my belief that it’s time for a new def­i­n­i­tion of human intel­li­gence that takes all of these aspects of the human mind into account. One that empha­sizes the value of an individual’s per­sonal jour­ney. That extends the time course of intel­li­gence from a two-hour test­ing ses­sion of decon­tex­tu­al­ized prob­lem solv­ing to a life­time of deeply mean­ing­ful engage­ment. That arms stu­dents with the mind­sets and strate­gies they need to real­ize their per­sonal goals, with­out lim­it­ing or pre-judging their chances of Ungifted_Kaufmansuc­cess at any stage in the process. That shifts the focus from doing every­thing right to a life­long learn­ing process where bumps and detours are par for the course. From a fixed mind­set to a growth mind­set. From prod­uct to process.

It’s time for The The­ory of Per­sonal Intelligence.

Scott Barry KaufmanThis is an adapted excerpt from Ungifted: Intel­li­gence Rede­fined - The Truth About Tal­ent, Prac­tice, Cre­ativ­ity, and the Many Paths to Great­ness, by Scott Barry Kauf­man (June 2013; 424 pages). Avail­able from Basic Books, a mem­ber of the Perseus Books Group. Copy­right © 2013.


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