What’s ability got to do with it? Why we should be mindful of measuring intelligence

For some, the theory of multiple intelligences is a source of frustration rather than illumination. kidpixo

We have had the Singing Detective. Now we can have singing intelligence. We can also have the circular argument that grounds it: we can sing because we have singing intelligence, and we have singing intelligence because we can sing.

Once the idea of multiple intelligences(MI) is embraced there is no limit to the number which can be invented: political; organisational; business; money-making; criminal; alcoholic; psychiatric; religious. When reading the books on MI, one is drawn to the conclusion that there are as many types of human intelligence as there are types of human ability. Is the ability to make a cup of coffee an example of “coffee-making intelligence”?

The study of intelligence began before World War I, with the French government believing that some children were too dull to benefit from its grand schools, and therefore deciding to construct a short test to separate those having natural ability from the unfortunates who did not.

Accordingly, Alfred Binet and Theo Simon constructed tests of cognitive functioning and formed them into a scale for schoolchildren. As cognitive ability increases with age, norms had to be obtained for different ages and individuals’ scores related thereto. Later, the practice was adopted of dividing the “mental age” by the chronological age to obtain a ratio called the “intelligence quotient” or IQ. The Binet test was revised at Stanford University in 1916 and this version was widely used by American psychologists.

The construction of intelligence tests depended on the use of statistical techniques of correlation to assess the extent to which one item ‘went with’ another. The aim was to select a number of different problems for their power to tap a similar type of ability and graduate them according to difficulty. Items that failed to meet these criteria were discarded as not tapping the same kind of ability. The research therefore produced separate tests of skills: numeracy, vocabulary, pattern perception.

To the surprise of many psychologists, the scales which had been purified to assess separate abilities always correlated positively with one another. The correlations were not high, but were never negative. This led English psychologist Charles Spearman to invent a mathematical method of extracting what was common to groups of tests. This process of ‘factor analysis’ produced a large common factor, which he called g (for general intelligence) and a smaller specific factor for each test. Spearman concluded that a two-factor theory of intelligence was needed: each performance consisted of an element of general intelligence and an element specific to the task.

In Chicago in 1938, L.L. Thurstone used a different statistical method and found five factors that were more involved than others in successful performances and named them “primary mental abilities”.

The disagreement between Spearman and Thurstone triggered a heated debate. The Americans were offended by Spearman’s theory, and the English (except Spearman) were unmoved. Some bemused observers speculated that the different results arose from cultural biases: English society was divided by social class and regarded the generalist as having the higher intellect, whereas American society was aggressively democratic and preferred a theory which gave relatively equal status to specialised accomplishments.

In the 1920s, Cyril Burt argued that inheritance was a strong influence in intelligence, but this idea has never been popular in the US. Long after Burt’s death, American psychologists claimed that he had fudged the figures to favour his theory. The circumstantial evidence appears to support this accusation. Whether a vested interest in egalitarianism led the Americans to play detective cannot be known, but falsifying one set of scientific results is not sufficient to invalidate the theory that heredity is a factor in general intelligence. It is much more difficult to imagine that heredity is an important factor in, say, moral intelligence.

Are you a good listener, or are you emotionally intelligent? Bindaas Madhavi

American psychologists and educators have consistently proselytised for the adoption of MI. The rationale is that if teachers are encouraged to view intelligence in this light, they will be less likely to downgrade students who show weakness in one subject, but will seek to locate their possible strengths in other subjects. As is well known, teachers’ attitudes to students’ IQs can generate self-fulfilling prophecies in students’ levels of performance – known as the Pygmalion Effect.

In 1983, the American theory was revived with the publication of Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind in which seven intelligences were identified: linguistic; mathematical; musical; kinesthetic; spatial; interpersonal; intrapersonal. While the MI theory became popular with educationalists, theoretical psychologists were less impressed and asked Gardner why he promoted only seven intelligences. Their irony was overlooked as other intelligences were quickly invented: emotional; spiritual; moral; existential; naturalist. Howard has accepted the latter but has reservations about the others.

In the 1990s science journalist Daniel Goleman wrote Emotional Intelligence and asserted (without evidence) that EQ is twice as important for worldly success as IQ. After more than twenty years of research, there is no accepted definition of emotional intelligence and no definitive test of EQ. Some psychologists believe that EQ includes everything related to ‘success’ that is not measured by IQ. Others have concluded that EQ is theoretically unsound and empirically unsupported.

One of the appealing aspects of MI theory is that it allows all people to be intelligent in their own way and thus maintain self-esteem. One may be deficient in mathematical intelligence, but espousing particular values can serve as a self-enhancing substitute. For example, many lost souls have been told that their ability to inspire others, and be inspired in their turn (by charlatans, leaders, psychologists) is a sign of their “spiritual intelligence”.

When we leave the intellectual slums of spiritual intelligence, we encounter such books as Moral Intelligence by Doug Lennick and Fred Kiel, who assert that morally intelligent individuals value integrity, responsibility, compassion and forgiveness. The authors insist that if people wish to prosper, they must praise and promote these values and to assist readers they offer a test of moral intelligence. Unsurprisingly, morally intelligent people invert the values espoused by Machiavelli and popularised by such television programs as Yes Minister.

So, who is intelligent? People with high moral intelligence who believe that honesty is the best policy? Or people with low moral intelligence who agree with Machiavelli that those who tell the truth get their heads bashed in?