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Theory of Intelligence

How much smarter can you become? Aren’t some people naturally smarter than others? Twin studies have revealed that DNA differences between individuals account for about 50 percent of the difference in Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test scores1. But a high IQ doesn’t necessarily lead to success in the real world.

In the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant, researchers collected information on IQ, school performance, and family background from thousands of 6th-graders2. Thirty years later, researchers followed up with questions about education, employment, earnings, health, and happiness. Results showed that higher IQ was associated with better health, but had no influence on wealth or happiness. If IQ isn’t important for these things, then what is?

Successful Intelligence
Robert J. Sternberg is a professor of Psychology and Education at Yale University. Based on a review of past studies, Sternberg believes that IQ only accounts for about 25 percent of real-world performance3. The problem with IQ tests is they focus too much on academic intelligence. As many nerds will tell you, straight As in the classroom don’t lead to success in the schoolyard.

Instead of IQ, Sternberg has developed the “Theory of Successful Intelligence.” It measures intelligence by the ability to achieve success through a balance of analytical, creative, and practical abilities4. Analytical intelligence is the ability to evaluate ideas, analyze problems, and make decisions. Creative intelligence is figuring out which problems are worth solving, and generating new and interesting ideas to solve them. Practical intelligence is the ability to translate theory into practice, and abstract ideas into practical accomplishments. Different people are better at some types of intelligence than others. An artist might be creative in the studio, but struggle with paying rent, and putting food on the table.

While your IQ is relatively fixed5, you can significantly increase your successful intelligence with the right training. Sternberg demonstrated this by conducting a teaching experiment with 3rd-graders and 8th-graders in North Carolina, Maryland, and California6. Students were randomly assigned to one of three groups to learn social studies and science. The first group was taught with an emphasis on memorizing facts. The second group focused on analytical thinking. In the third group, students were taught to use a combination of analytical, creative, and practical thinking. At the end of the course, teachers used multiple-choice tests to assess memory, as well as performance-based tests to assess analytical, creative, and practical learning. Results showed that students in the third group achieved the highest scores for both the memory and performance-based tests.

There are no hard problems, only problems that are hard to a certain level of intelligence. Move the smallest bit upwards, and some problems will suddenly move from “impossible” to “obvious.” Move a substantial degree upwards, and all of them will become obvious.
-Eliezer Yudkowsky

References
  1. Plomin R, Spinath FM. (2004). Intelligence: genetics, genes, and genomics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 86(1):112–129.
  2. Hartoog J, Oosterbeek H. (1998). Health, wealth and happiness: why pursue a higher education? Economics of Education Review. 17(3):245–256.
  3. Sternberg RJ et al. (1995). Testing common sense. American Psychologist. 50(11):912–927.
  4. Sternberg RJ. (1997). Successful intelligence: how practical and creative intelligence determine success in life. Plume.
  5. Deary IJ et al. (2004). The impact of childhood intelligence on later life: following up the Scottish Mental Surveys of 1932 and 1947. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 86(1):130–147.
  6. Sternberg RJ. (2003). A broad view of intelligence: the theory of successful intelligence. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research. 55(3):139–154.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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