Intellect: qualitative, quantitative or complex

-by Waleed bin Khalid

1) Rearrange the following letters to make a word and choose the category in which it fits. RAPETEKA

A. city             B. fruit              C. bird              D. vegetable

2) Which word does not belong? Apple, marmalade, orange, cherry, grape

A. apple            B. marmalade                C. orange          D. cherry           E. grape

I am certain all of you have faced questions like these either in standardized tests or in random books and online quizzes that boast of measuring your intelligence. But my question is: what is intelligence in the first place?

Figure 1Source:
Figure 1Source:

I recently attended a seminar by Mr. Umair Jallianwala, a renowned motivational speaker and trainer, where he emphasized how subjective and qualitative intelligence is. He highlighted Howard Gardner’s (Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education) study to categorize intelligence into 8 forms: musical, mathematical, linguistic, naturalist, interpersonal, intrapersonal, spatial, kinesthetic abilities. This got me thinking that if intelligence really is such a complex notion and if so many people claim it cannot be quantized, why do we try to explain it the way we do?

So I ask you to bear with be as we explore the nature of intelligence.

The English psychologist Charles Spearman was of the opinion that intelligence is a quantitative thing and that it can be measured via statistical means. Spearmen argued that we do have one united form of intelligence and called it the G factor. The G factor was basically the manifestation of all the intelligence of a person in a single score, basically a number reflecting all your capabilities. To Spearman this was the sole variable that determined how intelligent a person would be and he believed that a person with a low G factor would perform poorly in all fields of expertise.

Before you disregard Spearman’s theory as being too rigid, you would be surprised to find out that researchers did find that there often was a correlation between the different forms of intelligence amongst people. Meaning, if a person was good at linguistics he had a good chance of being good at other things like mathematics or emotional intelligence thus backing the G factor theory to some extent.

However, clearly the notion has major discrepancies.

The Savant Syndrome directly contradicts the G factor theory. Savant Syndrome is when a person is restricted in a certain mental ability but excels in some other ability. If you have seen the movie Rain Man (and I recommend that you do), Dustin Hoffman portrays how Raymond, who is suffering from autism, excelled in mathematical abilities even though he was blank when it came to things like emotional intelligence. Raymond was a classical Savant.

Look around you, maybe your friend who aces every single test is socially awkward or is less emotionally stable. He or she is excelling at many realms of intelligence but lacks in the emotional intelligence arena. This is in direct contradiction with the G factor theory.

This ultimately did lead to the more modern theories of different types of intelligences such as Howard Gardener’s theory as mentioned earlier.

So if intelligence really is so complicated, are the tests that measure it accurate? Well for an intelligence test to be applicable it has to have three basic things. The test should be:

  • Standardized: It should be applicable for all the people taking it and hence the results should be reproducible.
  • Reliable: It delivers what is being predicted.
  • Valid: The test tests what it should.

Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon, were two French psychologists, devised a way of measuring intelligence amongst kids using a standard chronological age scale. They called it the Binet-Simon scale. Basically, if a child tests as an average 8 year old, his mental age would be 8. Binet and Simon however believed that this was only a way to measure the current intelligence in a child and that attention, practice, self-discipline and experience could help boost intelligence.

Binet’s theory was further used by William Stern to create the famous Intelligence Quotient. The formula goes something like this.


So if I am 20 and my mental age measures out to be 20 (via IQ tests) then my IQ would be 100. This formula proved to work brilliantly for kids but fell apart when it came to adults. Adults, it was realized, did not hit intelligence milestones like children did. A person will not differ much in intelligence levels from the ages 34 and 35, vis-à-vis a child will see major changes in his or her intelligence level form say the age of 5 to 6.

Now there is a much darker side to these testing methods.

Lewis Terman, an American psychologist started using this method in order to test soldiers during the First World War. The first mass administration of IQ testing was done with 1.7 million soldiers. The recruits were given group intelligence tests and recruits who earned scores of “A” would be trained as officers while those who earned scores of “D” and “E” would never receive officer training.

Terman was a Eugenicist. That is to say he supported the philosophy of improving of the human race through the promotion of higher rates of sexual reproduction for people with desired positive traits or reduced rates of sexual reproduction and sterilization of people with less-desired traits. He basically supported a form of selective breeding amongst humans.

In his book the measurement of intelligence, Terman wrote:

“High-grade or border-line deficiency… is very, very common among Spanish-Indian and Mexican families of the Southwest and also among Negroes. Their dullness seems to be racial, or at least inherent in the family stocks from which they come… Children of this group should be segregated into separate classes… They cannot master abstractions but they can often be made into efficient workers… from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding” (The Measurement of Intelligence, 1916, p. 91-92).

His propagation of the IQ method led to mass sterilization of people, especially black immigrants, poor white women and prostitutes even until the 1970’s. Immigrants were classified as feeble minded if they could not answer questions like “Who was the first American president.” The Nazi’s went a step further and they simply eliminated any person who went below par in their self-designed intelligence tests. Tests more related to acceptable social norm.

Before we simply negate Terman’s arguments and the philosophy of Eugenics, let’s look at them objectively.  Is genetics the only determinant for intelligence? Do upbringing and environment play any role?

To understand this, psychologists conducted studies to find a correlation of intelligence amongst the three pairs:

1) Children and their birth parents.

2) Adopted children and their birth parents

3) Adopted children and their adoptive parents.

Figure 2 Source:
Figure 2 Source:

The graph above clearly shows that the most dominant correlation was based on biological variables. Children did have intelligence levels that matched their biological parents and rarely manifested the intelligence of their adoptive parents.

This all seems a bit scary. Can you really do nothing about your intelligence? Don’t worry. Genetics might be an important factor but it is by no means the only factor that determines how smart you are. Environment, it was shown, matters almost as much as genetics do in determining intelligence.

Jamie McVicker Hunt conducted a study in a destitute orphanage in 1970’s. The orphanage had extremely poor living conditions and minimal care was given to infants. The cries of the orphans were never responded to instead they were fed and taken care of by routine in a mechanical fashion. As a result the children of that orphanage never learned to communicate. Jamie trained the caregivers to talk to the infants and participate in the upbringing of the orphans. Quiet remarkably the orphans started learning quickly and their communication skills developed brilliantly. The study highlighted how malleable early childhood can be for intelligence.

So should you have a fixed mindset that we can’t change how intelligent we are or should we go with a growth mindset believing that we grow as we progress? Carol Dweck of Stanford University puts the balance of a fixed mindset and a growth mindset brilliantly in her book Mindset: The new psychology of success. She writes:

“Believing that your qualities are carved in stone — the fixed mindset — creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over.

[…]The growth mindset is based on the belief that your basic qualities are things you can cultivate through your efforts. Although people may differ in every which way — in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments — everyone can change and grow through application and experience.

Do people with this mindset believe that anyone can be anything, that anyone with proper motivation or education can become Einstein or Beethoven? No, but they believe that a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable); that it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil, and training.”

So on a concluding note it would appear that intelligence is a real measurable phenomenon. But no one can claim that they have disentangled all the intricacies of intelligence. There is so much more to this realm than what we have barely scratched. The human mind is a mystical land where ideas unfurl and seemingly psychotics like Vincent Van Gogh can produce marvels like the Starry Night. You are much more complicated than any test score and so as the saying goes, don’t let a test score define you.

All you have to do is realize your potentials and bring them to reality, and as always, DFTBA.

PS: in case you were wondering, the answers to the above questions are (Parakeet) C and B.


The twins study:

The measurement of intelligence by Lewis Terman:

Carol Dweck’s book:


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