Sunday, January 15, 2012

Stupid intelligent versus intelligent stupid

The topic of intelligence is one is I intend to look at from time to time and from various angles. There are scientific and factual issues, many quite controversial, which can be addressed, but also conceptual issues and questions of attitudes to the importance of (various types of) intelligence.

Let me begin by referring back to a piece I wrote over a year ago, drawing on something Jason Streitfeld (a follower of the 20th-century philosopher Gilbert Ryle) wrote on the topic. The basic point I was making was that intelligent behavior is what matters, not some hypothetical quality residing inside the head. The tests for cognitive ablility conducted by psychologists are very important tools, and in my opinion they should be more widely used and applied (for example, in helping individuals make choices about careers). What they do not and cannot do, however, is to deal with the sort of complex processing involved in making the sequences of real life decisions which to a large extent determine our individual fates. (The notion of emotional intelligence, which is supposed to address some of these issues, is still in the process of being defined and there is no consensus on the value of existing tests.)

Imagine two individuals, two scenarios. One person has a very high IQ and is able to cope easily with advanced mathematics but is socially awkward, and doesn't bother to organize mundane aspects of his life like personal finances. The other person has a lowish IQ did poorly at school but is socially adept, a hard worker and a good listener. Let's say he recognizes his limitations and devotes his limited intellectual powers to seeking out intelligent and trustworthy advisers. He invests his savings wisely and lives a long, happy and prosperous life within a trusted circle of friends and family. Who would you prefer to be?

A certain level of raw cognitive ability is necessary to achieve success in life. But when people use the epithet 'intelligent', they are often indicating high levels of cognitive ability - call it cleverness or 'braininess'. My point is simply that this kind of (high level) intelligence is overrated and less important than most people think. More important - especially in respect of the wellbeing of the individual concerned - is that other sort of intelligence which incorporates a gift for friendship, which allows one to recognize one's limitations, to make astute social judgements, to put a high value on the future and financial independence, and to act accordingly.


  1. Book Smart vs Street Smart. What you want is both. Or as my Dad used to say about the Valedictorian in my class (30 years ago), "He's got a lot of common sense. He must, he hasn't used any yet."

    1. The more I look at the research, the more I doubt the coherence of the concept of 'emotional intelligence' for dealing with the 'street smart' side of things - or anything else.

      Nonetheless, understanding emotions and controlling one's own emotions are both important abilities.

      The main areas which interest me are: cognitive ability (which relates largely to the capacity to deal with abstractions); the ability to empathize and understand various emotions (which sufferers from autism spectrum disorders often have trouble with); and the capacity to engage in long-term planning and to defer gratification.