Monday, October 10, 2011


Many psychologists believe intelligent people have two main abilities: they can adapt to their environment; and they can learn from their experience. How on earth so we measure such abilities? Most tests are indirect - that is, they don't measure intelligence as we measure something like height: it isn't that kind of thing. Instead, tests measure mastery of the kind of problems which demonstrate adaptability, and the ability to learn quickly.

You may have noticed that intelligent people seem to be able to pay attention intensely to problems. Many experts now believe that intelligence and attention are very closely linked. If someone is unable to pay attention in a focused way, they are unlikely to be able to solve problems and learn. Also, 'working memory' (the bit of our short term memory which handles temporary information and manages attention) seems closely linked to intelligence.

While some people think of intelligence as a single ability, others model it as a large number of different skills which all come together to make a person more adaptable. One very comprehensive theory is called the Cattell-Horn-Carroll (CHC) theory - involving over 70 different abilities, all of which in some way aid performance in mental tasks. People who perform well in CHC-related tests also seem to be good at reading and maths, for instance.

Some psychologists feel that traditional views of intelligence are too narrowly focused on academic skills, and that there should be more focus on creativity and practical skills. For example, Sternberg's 'triarchic theory' splits our world of intelligence into three -

1. Our internal world (do we have good, stable mental processes?)
2. Our experience (does the way we experience life make good use of our our mental processes?)
3. Our external world (do we work well with our culture and society to make the best of ourselves?)

Sternberg believes that no person exists in isolation, and that, as we exist on all three levels - individual, experiential and cultural - then it is better to evaluate our intelligence on all three levels. He believes, too, that we should learn on all three levels, and that schools should pay attention to giving us positive experiences and cultural integration, as well as just individual skills.

Emotional intelligence (EI) is personal, unlike general intelligence (see above), which is more abstract. EI concerns emotions, family and relationships, and how we manage them. Like general intelligence, it involves the ability to adapt to and learn from experience. But the experience concerned is less to do with abstract concepts, and more to do with social understanding and behaviour.

Salovey and Mayer first identified EI as a construct, and noticed that there is a hierarchy of levels. At a lower level, there is the ability to perceive the emotional realities of a situation - for instance, understanding other people's intentions, feelings and inner thoughts. But perception is not enough. Two people may see a situation accurately, but only one may know how to influence the situation to improve matters. At a higher level, then, beyond mere perception, there is emotional management - in other words, actually knowing what to do to manage social situations for the best.

There is a problem with tests for EI (for instance, the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso Emotional Intelligence Test (MSCEIT). The problem is that they are based on self-report. Is an individual really the best person to evaluate themselves? Possibly not! - but such tests do seem to have predictive value in terms of stress levels, leadership skills, and even the quality of romantic relationships (Brackett et al., 2005). Such tests, though, could be criticised for excluding the complexities of social interaction, where quantitative assessment is notoriously difficult.

There is another problem with EI - no one agrees on a definition! Is it personality traits? Ability to perceive emotional information? These are different things - you can be emotionally perceptive, but at the same time have a borderline personality! Equally, you can have a great personality, but have no emotional perception… However, this is not a new problem - it is an issue that also applies to general intelligence, where psychologists have argued for 100 years about definitions, and even about whether intelligence really exists as a definable concept.

Some models of EI take a mixed approach - they think of emotional intelligence as a mixture of communication skills, and personality. However, they all give slightly different priorities to different qualities. For example, how important is it to be assertive? The problem is, as soon as you start scoring people on behaviour, you are making assumptions about which behaviours are functional, and which are not. The whole thing starts getting very close to an 'emotional health' assessment, and, in general, there is still quite a confused relationship between emotional wellbeing, personality, and emotional intelligence.

Some have found that, despite these definitional problems, EI tests predict success better than general intelligence tests. But, again, who are we to decide what 'success' is? We are back to subjective, normative judgements! Was Jesus successful? It depends how you evaluate a 'career'! With such a dependence on cultural and normative values, it might be better to admit that EI tests involve a big value-judgement, rather than an assessment of some kind of objective processing ability. When someone gets a high mark for EI, perhaps we should just say that they appear to be the kind of person society values as socially functional and useful. Such judgements arguably tell us more about our society's values than an individual's performance; until we can be more scientifically robust, it would go too far to suggest that EI tells us much about individual differences.

Some interesting links re intelligence:

For more about Sternberg's views on general intelligence (and love!):

For discussion of emotional intelligence issues in general: