An Intriguing Thought on The Thinking Process: Is Intelligence Overrated?

Posted on June 2, 2012 in Specials

By Tarun Cherukuri:

“Two percent of the people think; three percent of the people think they think; and ninety-five percent of the people would rather die than think.” George Bernard Shaw, the famous British playwright once made a sweeping indictment of how much we utilize our mental faculties.

In an era of high stakes testing in India todaywhere children are preparing for IIT-JEE and AIIMS from 6th grade, sacrificing many pleasures of growing up with levity, it is a good time to ask the question, “What do we understand about intelligence and is the way we know it overrated?”

Indeed, when two dozen prominent intelligence theorists were asked to define intelligence in the late 1990s; they gave two dozen somewhat different definitions. Several current theorists argue that there are many different “intelligences” (systems of abilities), only a few of which can be captured by standard psychometric tests.

Obvious examples include creativity, wisdom, practical sense, and social sensitivity. Others emphasize the role of culture, both in establishing different conceptions of intelligence and in influencing the acquisition of intellectual skills.

Robert Sternberg’s (1985) triarchic theory proposes fundamental aspects of intelligence — analytic, creative, and practical — of which only the first is measured to any significant extent by mainstream tests. His investigations suggest the need for balance between analytic intelligence, on one hand, and creative and practical intelligence on the other.

He argues that our traditional tests tend to test for analytic intelligence, in which problems have been formulated and clearly defined by other people. Whereas, practical problems require problem recognition, formulation and are more likely to be poorly defined.

In addition, analytical problems that all of us get trained for in tests and at schools/universities come with all the information needed to solve them and usually having a single right answer. Practical problems in contrast at workplace and in life require information seeking and have various acceptable solutions.

Patricia Greenfield (1997) found for example, that children in Mayan cultures were puzzled when they were not allowed to collaborate with parents or others on test questions. What we consider universal mode of testing, is not so much across all cultures.

Not all cultures value equally the kinds of expertise measured by conventional IQ tests. In a study comparing Latino, Asian, and Anglo subcultures in California, for example, they found that Latino parents valued social kinds of expertise as more important to intelligence than did Asian and Anglo parents, who more valued cognitive kinds of expertise (Okagaki & Sternberg, 1993). Cognitive expertise matters in school and in life, but so does social expertise.

Infact, most of us who have been at workplaces long enough would argue that intelligence is not necessarily a predictor of job success. To state the obvious, personality traits like conscientiousness and emotional stability have proven to have strong correlation with intrinsic and extrinsic job success in a meta analyses of empirical studies between personality traits and job performance.

So, what narrow mindsets might our children grow up with if they detach from literature and social sciences as early as 6th grade? Maybe, GB Shaw was right. We need to redefine what intelligence and thinking means. Maybe, we valued practical, creative and social intelligence as well. What use are our analytical intelligence and our degrees, if we cannot think and engage with the practical problems of our society?

What have you chosen to think – Is intelligence overrated?