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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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