18 February 2013

What is SMART? Intelligence and its Role in Behavior

It is time now to address the topic of Intelligence and its role in behavior. In the 4D Model of Behavior I have included Intelligence in the Personality dimension since it is a stable personal trait.

As you will read in the following paragraphs, Intelligence is very likely the most important personal trait in humans. But before assessing the role intelligence plays in human behavior, we should first try to define intelligence.

Apparently it is quite easy to define Intelligence because whenever it comes into conversation somehow everybody understands what it is. I said apparently… in fact it is not so easy to give a comprehensive definition of this wonderful human trait. The best I could do in providing a simple clear definition is that intelligence is mental capacity of processing information.

For many years the popular culture has held different understandings of what “being smart” or in more scientific terms intelligence is. Not very long ago intelligence was confused with memory. People who were able to memorize large quantities of information were considered to be smart. But, as you may know already, this is false in the sense that intelligence is about processing information and not simply storing it in the brain.

Another source of controversy and un-clarity in what Intelligence is comes from the fact that (especially in the last 10-20 years) there was an inflation of types of intelligence. The most widely spread is Emotional Intelligence, but by far is not the only one. Without saying that all these types of intelligence are artifacts to sell books and publish scientific articles, I would say that we should not ignore intelligence as a general trait.

I assume that another source of the inflation of types of intelligence is the natural desire of each individual to be smart or intelligent. To put this a bit differently, each individual wants to be able to say that “I’m not very high on IQ (intelligence), but I am high on that type of Intelligence (let’s say emotional)”.

I have news for all of human kind! With a probability of about 70% you are average… ok… I’ll make a concession. If you are reading this, there is a good chance that you are above average intelligence, but not too far from the average.

Coming back to the simple definition of Intelligence – metal capacity to process information – we have to acknowledge that because there are different types of information there are multiple sides of intelligence. Let’s make this a bit clearer. In school people are taught two types of information – verbal and quantitative (numbers). This means that intelligence comprises of processing verbal information and well as numeric – quantitative information. By numeric I mean numbers, abstract expressions and formulas. At the same time, people have not evolved in a library or in a math classroom. A lot of information we have to deal with is visual and spatial, implying that intelligence includes processing of visual-spatial information.

Now that we’ve managed to get a general idea of what intelligence is, let’s go back to the fact that intelligence is a personal trait. This means that everyone has it and at the same time there are individual differences in how much of it each individual has of it. This takes us to the field of psychometric measures or in other words IQ tests. There are several IQ testing methodologies and I don’t want to go into detail on them. What you should take into account is that all these tests measure the extent to which a person is able to process information.

As a funny note, if you want to get a higher IQ score, the best thing you can do is to take the test again …

At the beginning of this post I have mentioned that Intelligence is very likely the most important personal trait of humans. Starting from the beginning of the XX-th century intelligence has been extensively studied and there are some irrefutable conclusions that have been drawn.

First, IQ is the single best predictor of job performance. Simply put it, smarter people perform better at their job. Moreover, the more complex the task is, the higher the predictive value of IQ is in task performance. In other words, IQ predicts better job performance for complex tasks that it predicts it for simple tasks.

Second, IQ is a very powerful predictor of academic performance. This is not really surprising since in school people have to process large amounts of information. By the way, in case you have (or had) to take a standardized test to get into a higher education program, be sure that the test includes a large component of IQ testing.

Third, IQ is a good predictor of life quality. To put this simply, smarter people live better lives. This is due to a higher income (the higher the IQ, the higher the income), higher attractiveness for long term relationships, lower likelihood of committing crimes (or at least getting caught) etc.   

A fun fact about intelligence is that it is positively correlated with semen quality (in men of course).

To summarize this, overall the more intelligent the better. Of course, extremely high levels of IQ can be detrimental, but this is another story.

After learning (or being reminded of) the benefits of a higher IQ, one might want to increase his or her IQ score. In order to see if it is possible to increase someone’s intelligence we should take a look at where intelligence comes from.

Like most personal traits, intelligence is highly heritable. Now, the interesting thing about IQ is that it is more heritable than any other personal trait. Different studies found that IQ is heritable through genes from 40% to 80%. To put this differently, up to 80% of your IQ comes directly from your parents’ IQs.

Environmental factors contribute to IQ, but to a very small degree. Moreover, after childhood and adolescence the environmental factors have virtually zero influence on a person’s IQ.

Quite disappointing news if you thought that you can increase your or your children’s IQ. Well, yes and no at the same time. The evidence that IQ is highly heritable is unquestionable and we simply have to acknowledge it. At the same time, my view is that what we inherit from our parents is some sort of “maximum level of IQ”. This means that to a small extent one’s IQ can be improved through nurture and practice (doing mentally challenging things).

Let me give a numeric example. Let’s say that someone was born with an inherited IQ potential of 125. This does not mean that that person will necessarily reach 125 points on an IQ test regardless of what happens in his or her life. If that someone’s brain is not nurtured and stimulated he or she will probably score about 105 on a test. This means that the remaining 20 points of potential have to be gained through nurturing the brain.

Before ending this post, I would like to address one final issue, namely: Street vs. Academic smart. In general smart is associated with high academic performance followed by high job performance and life success. At least this is the stereotype of a “smart person”.

Academic achievement is caused by high intelligence (plus a lot of work), but high intelligence does not always ends up in the prototype of a smart person.

As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, intelligence can be simply defined as the mental capacity of processing information. Translating this into computer language it is the “speed of the processor”. What kind of information is fed into that processing is another topic.

Most people that are acknowledged to be smart (high intelligence) end up in more intellectual intensive fields. This doesn’t mean that highly intelligent people are not in other areas of society and they simply have never been educated to process mathematical equations or complex language structures.

Some people simply end up being “street smart” because despite their processing capabilities they process very different information than people with high academic training do.

Intelligence is, in my view, one of the most wonderful things of human kind. Even if we can do very little to increase our or other’s intelligence, we can do a lot in being smart at what kind of information we process.   
Note: this post is documented from:
Côté, S., & Miners, C. T. H. (2006). Emotional intelligence, cognitive intelligence, and job performance. Administrative Science Quarterly, 51, 1-28.
Miller, G. F. (2009). Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. (chapter 11) New York, NY: Viking.


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