Can we define Intelligence?


Human Intelligence ‘A Virtual Roundtable’ - Week 1

Three Cambridge University Press authors and leading experts on Intelligence take on our virtual roundtable on 'Human Intelligence'. Week one of the six part series asks the question 'Can we define Intelligence?



James R. Flynn, University of Otago, New Zealand

Richard Haier, University of California, Irvine

Robert Sternberg, Cornell University, New York

Can We Define Intelligence?

James R. Flynn:

Jensen rejected the concept of intelligence because it attracted no consensus and could not be directly measured. He was mistaken:  we have to define intelligence on two levels.  Scientific theories do need mathematically measured concepts so we can verify whether IQ scores predict school achievement, job eligibility, and so forth. Competing theories (like Sternberg’s) offer a test score that may make better predictions (by including items about practical intelligence (how to write a reference) and creativity (write an essay on the octopus’s sneakers).

Over and above these scientific measures of intelligence stands a general concept whose role is not to make predictions but to put all intelligence tests into context. My definition of intelligence on that level runs thus:  determine the hierarchy of cognitive problems that a particular time and place wants you to solve in order of priority; see which person learns to solve those problems better or faster given equal opportunity.  For example, Australian aborigines put the sort of logical analysis we use in schools well down compared to map reading (need it to avoid dying of thirst).  Americans in 1900 (who had little schooling) put it below the practical intelligence you need to run a farm or do a factory job.  Any test must measure these abilities in order of priority, so none would bridge cultural divides.

Europeans tried to produce a culturally reduced test to compare all cultures (Raven’s Progressive Matrices).  My research (massive IQ gains over time) showed that it was more culturally sensitive than any other test because it tests school-type logic.  In Holland, the average Raven’s score was 80 in 1952 compared to 100 in 1982.  This did not mean that the average Dutchman of 1952 was close to mental retardation.  Over 30 years, Holland had re-prioritized the cognitive problems considered significant.

Intelligence is the ability to think analytically, creatively, practically, and wisely so as to learn from experience and adapt to, shape, and select environments. – Robert Sternberg  

Robert Sternberg:

Analytical thinking is what you use when you analyse, compare and contrast, critique, judge, or evaluate.  Creative thinking is what you use when you create, invent, discover, imagine, or suppose.  Practical thinking is what you use when you put into practice, apply, use, utilize, or contextualise.  For example, when you try to convince someone else that an idea you have is a good one, you use creative skills to come up with the idea, analytical skills to make sure the idea is indeed a good one, practical skills to put the idea into practice, and wisdom-based skills to ensure the ideas help to achieve some kind of good, over the long-term as well as the short-term, through the mediation of positive ethical values.

Adaptation occurs when a person changes him or herself to fit the environment.  When that does not work, people often move to shaping, which involves changing the environment better to suit oneself; and if that still does not work, one may choose to select a new environment.

In my own theory of successful intelligence, I emphasize the unique nature of each person’s intelligence.  Intelligence involves formulating a plan for one’s life that fits oneself and the environment in which one does or can live; executing that plan; and then evaluating how well it is working and changing the plan as needed.  A smart person, on this view, is someone who creates the best possible life for him or herself, given the constraints of the environment.  The person recognizes his or her strengths and weaknesses, and then capitalizes on the strengths and compensates for or corrects the weaknesses.  People do not have complete control over their lives, but they need to use what control they have to create the best possible life—that’s what intelligence really is about.

Richard Haier:

Intelligence is the opposite of stupidity. If stupidity was a designated disease, we might have a National Institute of Stupidity to fund research on a cause and a cure. This would fund intelligence research. Most intelligence researchers define intelligence as a set of mental abilities (factors) that includes a general ability for problem solving. This is called the general factor of intelligence (g) and it is strongly related to another factor called fluid intelligence. The g-factor accounts for at least half the differences among people on intelligence tests and it is the focus of most intelligence research. However, there are other important intelligence factors like verbal ability, numerical ability, and spatial ability. Every person has their own pattern of mental ability strengths and weaknesses but the g-factor is the most predictive of academic and life success indicators like GPA or income. Some researchers, like my friend Bob Sternberg, question whether g is in fact the most important factor or best predictor of real world variables and this is a good debate. Other researchers study how g might develop and how malleable it might be. However, debates about these questions do not mean there is no agreement on how to define intelligence for scientific study. There is agreement enough for over a hundred years of research progress. The definition evolves as more empirical findings are discovered. This what happens in all scientific fields and why the definition of an “atom” or a “gene” has changed dramatically over time. In my view, we may have a more precise definition of intelligence as neuroscience studies of mental abilities advance. That’s a theme of my book.

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Week 1 – Can We Define Intelligence?

Week 2 – What role does neuroscience play in understanding intelligence and our capacity to learn?

Week 3 – What role do IQ tests play in measuring intelligence?

Week 4 –How are technological advances, access to instant information and media forces affecting human intelligence?

Week 5 – How can current research inform the development of new methods to assess intelligence?

Week 6 – What does the future hold in the research of intelligence? How much smarter will we be in 100 years’ time?

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About the Author: James R. Flynn

James R. Flynn is the author of Does Your Family Make You Smarter? He is professor emeritus at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and a recipient of the University's Gold Medal for Distinguished Career Research. He is renowned for the 'Flynn effect', the documentation of massive IQ gains from one generation to another....

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About the Author: Richard Haier

Richard J. Haier earned is Professor Emeritus at the University of California and author of The Neuroscience of Intelligence....

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About the Author: Robert J. Sternberg

Robert J. Sternberg is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, New York. Formerly, he was IBM Professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University, Connecticut. He won the 1999 James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award and the 2017 William James Fellow Award from APS. He is editor of Perspectives on Psychological Science. His main fields ...

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