The recent publication of the book “What Intelligence Tests Miss: the Psychology of Rational Thought” by Keith E. Stanovich had the effect of renewing interest in the concept of IQ – for example, see the New Scientist article Clever Fools: Why a high IQ doesn’t mean your’re smart or Coert Visser’s interesting summary of the issue.
This gives me the opportunity to share some thoughts about another “controversy” in Psychology, namely the question about the relevance of IQ and intelligence testing. I personally think it is a “nontroversy” and, like the question about the importance of inner motivation vs. external rewards, the answer is: it depends. It depends on the context, on why the question is asked, and on why we are considering testing for IQ.
I will try to clarify my thinking by using a metaphor suggested by David Perkins, introduced in the New Scientist article mentioned above as someone “who studies thinking and reasoning skills at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachussets”: “A high IQ is like height in a basketball player”.
Exactly. That implies the following:
– intelligence, as measured by Intelligence tests, is something real, just like the height of a person is real. Here i quote from the excellent book “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Conceptions about Human Behavior“, p.84: “although far from perfect measures, IQ tests yields scores that are among the most valid and cost-effective predictors of academic achievement and job performance across just about every occupation studied – factory worker, waiter, secretary, police officer, electrician and so on and on”. Nothing controversial here, I think – if your kid is very tall and she asks for your advice on which sport to practice, it makes sense for you to encourage her to try out basketball. Of course that does not imply that all tall people do well in basketball – there are excellent basketball players that do extremely well, thanks to a lot of passion, dedication and practice, despite being not that tall.
– as Steven Pinker recently pointed out, when people are assessed using a standardized test, the goal is not clairvoyance but cost-effectiveness. If I am with a group of new friends at a City Park on a Sunday, we decide to play basketball, I am chosen as team leader and I have to select the members of my team, in the absence of other information I will pick the taller guys. Of course I might be wrong and not know that shorty over there is a former college basketball star, but not having the luxury and the time of asking each and everyone to demonstrate their skills on the court, my choice of going for the taller guys is reasonable & cost-effective.
– of course a player’s fixed height does not imply that he does not need training. Not because he would grow taller, but because height is only part of the story: a player needs to practice endlessly, learn the basics, perfect his skills, learn how to read the game, learn how to read opponents, learn different game plans, learn how to decide on the spot; he needs to keep in shape and train his body to the max. No one in his right mind would suggest that because height is an important predictor of basketball success, and Mr X is very tall, then Mr X does not need to practice, to train, to improve on his game – he can just sit on a couch all day long watching TV. The same goes with IQ – yes it is there, yes it is pretty much stable, but there is a WHOLE LOT we can do to improve how we use our intelligence: learn decision-making skills, learn how to overcome our biases, learn problem-solving skills (or solution-focused skills!!), learn critical thinking, and so on and so forth. And that is what Stanovich’s book highlights.
Which reminds me that this blog is actually a website where I am also supposed to pitch my services: no matter what your intelligence “height” is, a coach can help you reach new “heights” in life!! :)
Update on the 24th of November: you can find a very interesting interview of Keith Stanovich by Coert Visser here.