People have been attempting to answer the question “what is intelligence?” for thousands of years. Throughout time, different terms have been used for our cognitive capacity, but the modern conversation around intelligence began after philosophy rejected the term “intellectus” in favour of understanding, allowing psychologists to pick the term up. Sir Francis Galton was the first to try to measure intelligence in the 1800s, but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that a standard test would exist.

In 1912, Alfred Binet published a test that was supposed to identify children who would need more help at school. Binet’s test was adapted in the US to become the Stanford-Binet test, the very first IQ test. Since then, discussions about types of intelligences, measures of intelligence, and sources of intelligence have proliferated.

There are a great number of definitions of intelligence, but the most accepted sounds like the following: the ability to perceive or infer information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors within an environment or context (I’m going to talk about intelligence a lot in this article, but I won’t be trying to settle what the definition of intelligence is, so I’m just going to run with this definition). This definition is very abstract, so why does intelligence matter so much to people?

Why does intelligence matter?

To start, lets limit the conversation to the world of business. In this area, intelligence matters because people with high intelligence might be expected to deliver better results than others. But in a business context, what really matters is performance, and intelligence doesn’t clearly feed into performance. Performance is the quality of the results created, and it isn’t obvious how the ability to gain new knowledge and apply it across situations is related to business performance.

Whether in sales or software development, performance seems to rely more on talent than on intelligence. If you have a brilliant understanding of a topic, and have years of practice in that area, then the ability to rapidly gain new knowledge and apply it flexibly doesn’t really matter. But discussing performance in the area of sales and software development isn’t easy, as there are no commonly recognized metrics in these areas to compare performances (you might say that sales value is an easy comparison for salespeople, but this doesn’t allow comparison across industries, across companies, or potentially even across customers). Instead lets quickly turn to a cognitive task where performance is measurable: chess.

A common misconception about chess players is that they must be very smart to be able to play well. This isn’t true. As discussed in Peak by K.A. Ericsson, IQ only influences chess performance in the first couple of months of a chess player’s life – it effects their ability to learn the ropes. After that, the only consistent predictor of performance in chess is how much time the player has spent playing. Likewise with violin players and sports-people. Regardless of whether the realm is cognitive or physical, the one thing that matters for performance, says Ericsson, is how much intentional practice the individual has done (Ericsson goes into some detail of what intentional practice is, so if you are interested in this, I recommend reading Peak).

If all performance is based on intentional practice, why does intelligence matter? The reality is that the rules of the real world are both much more obscure than chess and are eternally changing. So, we need to be able to gain new knowledge from observation, inference, and pattern matching. Additionally, the variety of situations experienced in the real world differ much more than the number of realities experienced on the 64 squares of a chess-board: we need to be able to apply our understanding across diverse environments.

Is intelligence innate?

In most of science, the answer to the question “Is X caused by environment or genes?” has been “Yes”. That is, most traits are causes by a combination of both genes and environment interacting with each other. Intelligence however, not so much. Most of the evidence that we have about genes and intelligence show that environment has a very small effect on intelligence, and genes to most of the work.

This has been proven through a combination of genome wide association studies, which are very expensive, and much cheaper sibling studies. In sibling studies two findings prove this point. First, identical twins, even when separated at birth and brought up in separate households, have close to identical measures of intelligence. On the flip-side, the intelligences of unrelated siblings brought up in the same house are completely uncorrelated, showing how little an effect upbringing has on intelligence scores.

Intelligence is a force, F, that acts so as to maximize future freedom of action. It acts to maximize future freedom of action, or keep options open, with some strength T, with the diversity of possible accessible futures, S, up to some future time horizon, τ. In short, intelligence doesn’t like to get trapped.

Alexander Wissner-Gross – Definition of Intelligence

One caveat is that it is only true in the absence of deprivation. A person with all the genes for intelligence that is brought up in an under-stimulating environment and is malnourished will not reach their potential. This explains the Flynn Effect, which refers to the significant increase in raw intelligence scores over the last 100 years. This is not due to easier intelligence tests, but is instead due to the fact that people brought up in the bottom 10th percentile by income today have a better upbringing that those in the 50th percentile 100 years ago. This means that many more people reach their potential than previously.

Are there different types of intelligence?

Some people posit different types of intelligence, such as emotional intelligence (the capability of individuals to recognize their own emotions and those of others, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behaviour, and adjust emotions to adapt to environments) and social intelligence (an aggregated measure of self- and social-awareness, evolved social beliefs and attitudes, and a capacity and appetite to manage complex social change).

I’m not going to mention social intelligence, because a) there seems to be insufficient consensus on what it is for us to be able to effectively discuss it, and b) I think that social intelligence is likely a subset of emotional intelligence, if it exists at all.

Emotional intelligence, however, has been efficiently operationalized and there is some agreement on what contributes to EI. Some films seem to give the idea that emotional intelligence and raw intelligence are tradeoffs: the near savant that is bad with people, or the friendly common-man who has a way with people.

Some people think that emotional intelligence is a teachable skill, so intelligence might help us but only initially, much like chess (Daniel Goleman). But then Goleman’s job is to sell coaching on improving EI to corporate leaders, so I’m not sure how much we can trust him.

More scientifically, surveys have shown that higher general intelligence is correlated with higher emotional intelligence. This paper and others propose that EQ scores are completely explored by a combination of IQ scores and the degree to which a person measures as open, neurotic or extroverted (see Big Five Personality Traits).

However if we are to turn to job performance once again, there are other studies that find that even when you take into account personality and general intelligence, emotional intelligence still has some predictive power. That is, there is a part of emotional intelligence that isn’t completely explained by general intelligencer and personality.

So the boats out on this one, but its possible that intelligence is a single thing, and that intelligence and personality interact to create social intelligence. But what if we take a look inside intelligence? Are there different types of intelligence within general intelligence?

In general, the data says no. Psychologists have tried splitting intelligence into three “primitive cognitive abilities” – spatial, mathematical, and verbal – and found a high level of correlation between the three abilities. Someone who scores highly on the verbal component, therefore, will also likely score highly on the other two components.

Judgment, otherwise called “good sense”, “practical sense”, “initiative”, the faculty of adapting one’s self to circumstances … auto-critique.

Alfred Binet – Definition of Intelligence

This finding has implications for how we talk about and think about being good at subjects or skilled in certain areas. I remember at school until sixth form, I thought I just wasn’t good at languages. I was great at maths and sciences, and sometimes struggled in history, but I just thought that my brain wasn’t made for languages.

However that all changed when I took Italian at IB, where I learnt to speak conversational Italian in two years. I had to rethink my opinion of myself. I realised that the reason I thought I was bad at languages was because I hadn’t enjoyed them initially, and so hadn’t tried, and so didn’t improve.

I don’t think this story is unusual – we all know how much of a difference a good (or bad) teacher can make to both our enjoyment of a subject and our achievement. The data, so far, seems to show that people who are particular talented in one topic area have the potential to equally talented in other areas, if they only worked on improving in those areas.

There are, of course, exceptions. It is entirely possible that you are really talented in one area and really struggle with others, but on the whole this makes you an exception to the rule. Again, a caveat of this is that this is the case in the absence of specific cognitive disabilities. Most people with dyslexia struggle with reading to some degree, and can struggle with verbal tasks such as finding rhymes when spelling doesn’t help, but this has no relationship to their IQ at all.

One of the most foolish statements that I’ve heard recently is that everyone is smart and has their own type of intelligence. This approach is championed in part by Howard Gardner and it just isn’t true. I don’t mean to be nasty or cruel, but it is a plain fact that stupid people exist. I forcefully reject Gardner’s notion of multiple intelligences, not just because it is a complete fiction, but because it is an actively harmful fiction.

The idea that everyone has their own special kind of intelligence implies that everyone needs their own intelligence to have value. The idea that “it’s ok to be bad at maths because he’s good at art” is harmful because the fact is that you don’t need to be good at art either. “It’s ok to be bad at maths.” We don’t need to be smart to have value.

The ability to deal with cognitive complexity

Linda Gottfredson – Definition of Intelligence

I have the same objection when people post online about “everyone being beautiful” which isn’t true. Some people aren’t beautiful, some people are ugly. The issue with the “everyone is beautiful” rhetoric is that it implies that everyone needs to be beautiful in order to have value.

Humans have value qua humans. The harmful belief that intelligence gives us value might stem from the thought that it is intelligence that separates us from animals. We are smarter than animals, and that makes us virtuous and human, so if people are even smarter then they are even more virtuous and even more human (I know that the logic here isn’t perfect and I am reasoning pretty much exclusively by analogy, but the idea follows, and I am trying to reconstruct a logic I don’t agree with).

I disagree with this sentiment, and I think it best to nip this argument in the bud. I don’t think we are different from animals in any meaningful way, and to consider ourselves special or unique in the animal kingdom is hubris. Therefore it isn’t just humans who have value qua humans, but living beings that have value qua living beings.

I’m not completely satisfied with this reasoning. Why do you think that people value intelligence, and think that people with intelligence are “better”? Are they right to think this way?

Back to Business

To finish, lets return to business. It makes sense for businesses to try to hire for a combination of talent and intelligence as this allows them to be skilled in the area they need to be skilled in, and still be able to adapt their skills to new areas. And many companies seem to be doing this. Over the last year and a half I have applied to a bunch of jobs, and a large number of them asked for me to answer personality, maths, logic, and verbal reasoning tests.

With this information they are able to estimate who will be more likely to succeed at work and who is less likely to succeed at work. But this issue with this is that if many companies are doing this, then the people with the right personality and higher cognitive capabilities get all of the job offers.

Personality is 50% heritable, and doesn’t change much after adolescence. Since personality and intelligence are fixed, then our evidence points to the fact that people with the right genes and early upbringing are destined to have job offers from the companies that pay the most. Hard work has less of a role than we might like.

Is this situation inherently bad? I don’t know. Is it right that the smartest people with the “right” personality have access to whatever job they want? In a very unsatisfactory conclusion, I’m not sure. But what we have established is that intelligence is a terrible measure of value, and if intelligence and personality lead to higher incomes, then wealth is a terrible measure of value.

The measure of a society is their heroes. Lets take a moment and consider whether we want to continue in the cult of smart, worshiping Musk and Besos, or whether we want to be pickier with who we lavish praises on.

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