Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Our Failed Notions about Human Intelligence: The Time to Change Them Is Now!

Robert Sternberg

As I write, the United States of American has recently completed a national presidential election. There are probably ways in which it could have been done more poorly than it was done. First, the votes count unequally, with a vote in Wyoming worth 3.6 times what a vote in the State of California is worth, due to a system of voting devised in 1802 and still in place more than 200 years later.[1] Second, voter-suppression efforts by one of the political parties were remarkably successful, probably flipping the results in at least one state.[2] Third, for a technologically advanced country, taking several days to count votes might be viewed as something of a travesty. Fourth, failing to achieve sufficient votes to win, one political party has used lawsuits to try to overturn the results of the election. Well, I could go on, but this blogpost is not about bad politics. 

The blogpost is about a historical accident that has cost the United States and other countries incalculably in terms of progress of many different kinds. The historical accident was the invention of the intelligence test by Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 1905. Binet and Simon meant well—they intended to find a way to identify students who would not adequately profit from standard instruction and who needed remedial help. But the innovation caught on and its purpose was transmogrified in a way no one would have expected: Intelligence tests and their proxies, such as the SAT and the ACT in the United States, came to be used to make high-stakes decisions about young people’s futures, either allowing them to rise in a narrowing funnel or to be left behind. More generally, the academic performance that the tests were supposed to predict continued to be used in many countries to determine students’ futures.

What’s wrong with all this? Well, the academically adept who have passed through the elite goalposts of the educational system proven remarkably maladroit at solving real-world problems. During the twentieth century, IQs rose by 30 points all around the world, an incredible amount. That is the difference between being identified as being intellectually average and being identified as gifted (on the upper side) or as borderline intellectually challenged (on the lower side). The average IQ remained 100 only because test publishers kept re-norming the tests. But how much have all those billions of IQ points helped us in solving the serious problems the world faces today—whether or botched elections, global climate change, pandemics, or whatever?

The notion of IQ is so early 20th century. But the notion of an “Electoral College” is so early 19th century and the United States still uses it.  Why? Because academic intelligence and the school performance that partly derives from it measure people’s ability to succeed within a given system, instead of to question whether the system even makes sense. So, we have lots of high-IQ citizens and people busily trying to succeed within a variety of failed systems. 

In my book Adaptive Intelligence, I argue that we continue with traditional notions of intelligence at our peril.  We need to think not just in terms of what works within a given system, but how we can adapt to changes in the environment to create new systems that will preserve humanity rather than letting it destroy itself. And if the pandemic of COVID-19 has not let people to question just how smart we are, wait until global warming starts to take its full toll. If the time is not now to revise our notions about intelligence, when is it?

[1] https://theconversation.com/whose-votes-count-the-least-in-the-electoral-college-74280

[2] https://prospect.org/civil-rights/floridas-voter-suppression-obsession/

Adaptive Intelligence

Adaptive Intelligence
Surviving and Thriving in Times of Uncertainty
by Robert J. Sternberg. Publishing February 2021.

About The Author

Robert Sternberg

Robert J. Sternberg is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University and Honorary Professor of Psychology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. He is a past winner of th...

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