April 2013

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Measuring intelligence, are we really getting it?

We are constantly hounded about the importance of “intelligence” which has been defined as the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills in daily life. However, the comparative and competitive way in which we, react when faced with standardised assessments can often lead to upset and feelings of inadequacy. A child reaching milestones early such as walking, saying their first words and learning to read are always seen as positive signs of intelligence. During school there is a strong emphasis on achieving good exam results which are heavily limited to examining intelligence in various subjects through memorising facts and figures, for which some will be more adept than others. I know during my own schooling, the students that were good at subjects like maths and chemistry were always considered smarter than the ones who excelled in physical education or had particularly philosophical debates during religion. It could be argued that our present view of intelligence is too narrow and the current definition and assessment methods ignore many valuable forms of intelligence including emotional, social and physical. Albert Einstein didn’t speak before he was four years old and as he turned out to be one of the most brilliant minds of the last century. As proof that great minds cannot always be measured in a conventional way this begs the question, how can we really measure intelligence, and are we doing so appropriately? [1].

One of the main difficulties in assessing intelligence is due to the multifaceted nature of the trait. As with personality, there are many variables that influence intelligence. These include: genetics, education, environment, economic status and age. Assessing intelligence came to the forefront of psychology during the First World War, due to the need to evaluate the intelligence and personality of recruits in an effective way. This lead to major developments across intelligence testing which was assessed through combining specific ability(s) tests including: reading, writing, arithmetic, memory and general knowledge. The first formal factor analysis of correlations between tests of specific ability was conducted by Charles Spearmen in1904. This revealed a general intelligence factor (g) tying specific ability tests together. Raymond Cattell revised Spearmans concept of intelligence further in 1941 by splitting it into two specific cognitive abilities: Crystallized intelligence (Gc), which refers to knowledge based ability that is an outcome of education and fluid intelligence (Gf), which demonstrates an ability to solve novel problems through reasoning. It was hypothesised that fluid intelligence declined with age whereas crystallized intelligence was more resilient [2].

Intelligence Quotient (IQ) is the most well known measure of general intelligence and is derived from several standardised intelligence tests. These include abstract reasoning tasks as well as visual and verbal and take various forms including the Ravens Progressive Matricies (RPM), the Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler Adults Intelligence Scale (WAIS) [3]. These tests have been updated and adapted several times since their original design to take into consideration the increasing awareness of the variables that affect intelligence.

When measuring any trait, be it a personality, ability or IQ the normal distribution must be taken into consideration as this gives information about the individuals place within the population, IQ is no exception. Population norms have been well established for IQ’s across countries, with the normal distribution of IQ having an average of 100 with most people being within one or two standard deviations or 15 points from the mean.

Although test results from measures like the WAIS have been shown to correlate to tests of ability such as the SAT’s by about .7 (70%) which is highly significant, there have been significant controversies surrounding intelligence testing and the pigeon holing it causes. IQ testing has come under fire from a number of angles due to its inability to measure non-academic forms of intelligence such as creative and emotional IQ or EI, which is the ability to control your emotions and the emotions of others around you. EI is not measured on many intelligence tests due to the controversy surrounding the belief by some that it is not an intelligence but a personality trait.

IQ has also come under fire due to cultural variables such as language and its historical link to eugenics (the movement to improve the genetic strength of mankind by forcibly removing undesirable traits, preventing individuals with “sub standard” abilities such as the disabled, the right to have children) and controversial books such as the bell curve which discuss the gender and racial differences in intelligence.

One of the main controversies with IQ testing is that is measures only a narrow band of intelligence. Tests of ability have often been criticised for relying too heavily on memory and therefore giving those with a naturally better memory a greater chance of success in exam situations.

The American system of continuous assessment and grade point average as a measure of ability rather than the British and Irish methods of memory based exams have attempted to alleviate this problem as have multiple choice exams such as the SAT’s which break down your intelligence into reading maths and writing with a top score of 800 for each section. However the continuous assessment method is by no means full proof as this method of ability testing can encounter difficulty if students falter in their education as can frequently happen due to the tumultuous nature of the teenage years [4].

There are many controversies that surround measuring intelligence. Modern measures although reliable and statistically valid when correlated to ability tests, fail to take into account many different forms of what could be considered intelligent behaviour. It can often be seen that individuals with a high IQ although being academically brilliant often feel less at home in social situations and as a result do not work as well in tasks requiring social skills, similarly an individual who is great at making people feel comfortable may struggle with tasks requiring a high level of mathematical ability. Both could be called intelligent, just in different ways. Despite all the controversy, standardised intelligence testing has been shown to be valid and reliable measures of the traits they measure with most intelligence tests will significantly relating to one another across time. It is clear that in order for the education system to work that intelligence must be measured. However, it is important to remember the different facets of intelligence and to strive to incorporate more of these into standardised measures in order to effectively grasp what intelligence really is.


[1] Albert Einstein Biography, available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Einstein Accessed on 23/3/2013.

[2] Fluid and crystallized intelligence, available from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fluid_and_crystallized_intelligence Accessed on 23/3/2013.

[3] The Weschler intelligence scales, available from http://www.iupui.edu/~flip/wechsler.html Accessed on 23/3/2013

[4] The SAT’s, available from http://sat.collegeboard.org/home Accessed on 23/3/2013.


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