The Test of Intelligence

In reading through Gazzaniga et al.’s Psychological Science textbook, I was struck by this line about intelligence tests:

“tests generally favor those who wish to do well.”


But the statement is interesting when dissected. I tend to think of intelligence—or, especially, Intelligence Quotient—as a relatively-static measurement of reasoning, awareness, and attention (along with a dash of test-taking wherewithal). If taken multiple times at the same age, we ought to test out to the same IQ.

Yet it’s odd to think that intelligence depends on intention. Do I intend to do well on this SAT? All right, then I’ll study for it. Yes, so I’ll read the questions carefully. Absolutely, so I’ll answer everything to the best of my ability.

But clearly this is a piece of intelligence. It’s not the only piece, since environments, disabilities, family, socioeconomic status, and nearly every other human quality affects performance (and, by extension, “intelligence”). But desire, effort, and preparation are still crucial elements.

It still sounds strange, however, to confess, “I mailed in my math quiz today because my intelligence was low.” I tend to want to differentiate between effort and intelligence. I could have done better, thus my intelligence should rate an X rather than a Y. Really, though, is wishing to do well a critical part of intelligence?

This creates a problem with the standard intelligence schema. For instance, we know Einstein was intelligent. This is a given. Unarguable.  Big brain, big formulae, etc. There’s a common belief that he did poorly in school, though I believe there are holes in this theory. Regardless, I’ll bet you he screwed up at least one test/class/subject throughout his life. And on that day, he was stupid: he had low intelligence.

But if Old Albert was stupid sometimes, where does that leave the rest of us peons? This problem may be one of the reasons researchers have expanded the idea of intelligence far beyond simple IQ tests of verbal/logical reasoning into the realms of music, art, even throwing a football. Einstein had plenty of intelligences, which all added up (in some esoteric formula only he would likely understand) to his being Intelligent (with the capital I). And this bails us all out: if I’m not great at math (or, importantly, if I have no desire to learn and do well in math class), I’m saved from stupidity by my love of the harp. This is the kind of reasoning that allows us to imagine that some kids are “too smart” for school, and “too bored” to do well in structured work or educational environments. Homeschool, studying abroad, or other alternatives to standard classes are often pitched as possible ways of alleviating these problems, fostering intelligences in unconventional ways. Perhaps they do—I really don’t know.

One problem is that the word “intelligence” (like “modern,” “new,” “talent,” etc.) has gathered a massive cultural cachet. Thus everyone wants to co-opt its meaning for their own agendas. Now we have Emotional Intelligence, even, alongside Color, Rock, and Stick Intelligences (I’m developing these latter ones). The clutter accumulating around “intelligence” makes it meaningless. By attempting to cash in on the weight of “intelligence” we’ve diminished it.

I think we should toss the whole concept, at least on the personal level. Any measure or assessment of ‘intelligence’ has external purposes (to researchers looking at big-picture trends) but almost no useful internal or local uses, I’d argue. IQ is useful in considering group averages and correlations over time to assess society, education, and economics, certainly, but it does worse than nothing for individuals, especially children, I believe. Carol Dweck’s research shows that encouraging children based on effort rather than on ability emboldens them to try new things and take on challenges rather than staying safely within the intellectual boundaries they know.

So tell children they are good at trying, rather than that they are intelligent.

Personally, if I hadn’t been so worried about screwing up and proving myself unintelligent—carrying a mantle that many bestowed on me, with the best intentions—maybe I would have committed to learning a musical instrument, or kept playing baseball, or majored in math, or taken on a trade. By being labeled early on as Intelligent, I had one path open to me, the route to the Ph.D., the indicator of (academic) intelligence. Clearly things might have gone worse, but I still wonder sometimes what else I might have chosen had I been brave enough to venture beyond what I knew I was “good at.”

What’s done is done, but I’m applying this theory to the rest of my life, and to my (hypothetical) children’s lives. Intelligence is a useful marker, so long as we don’t water it down to uselessness. But it’s much more useful for researchers than individuals. Encouraging effort rather than establishing essentialism allows oneself and others to achieve the most we possibly can, regardless of intelligences. We’d be better off focusing on that.

The world may not be a meritocracy—some are certainly better off than others, due to no fault of their own—but we benefit as individuals from acting like it is so. Socially we should work for equality and to support those without the opportunities of their fellows. But every individual must believe that he or she will succeed by trying, by working, by exploring. This is an intelligence worth teaching. This is what we must “wish to do well.”