Abilities and Multiple Intelligences
What is mental ability? How would you characterize someone who is mentally able? A moment of reflection tells us that there are lots of tasks for which we use our minds, and most of us are good at some of them and not so good at others. In other words, we have to talk about mental abilities, not mental ability. We've all known people who seemed gifted with words but could barely handle the math necessary to balance a checkbook, or who could pick out a tune on any musical instrument but seemed to fall all over themselves when attempting anything athletic.
The logic underlying the idea of mental ability is as follows: if there is a single ability—call it intelligence, if you like—underlying different mental activities, then someone who is good at one type of mental activity (for example, math) should be good at all mental activities. But if some people are good at one mental activity (math) and poor at another (reading comprehension), then those activities must be supported by different mental processes. For more than one hundred years, psychologists have been using this logic to investigate the structure of thought. In a typical study, an experimenter takes one hundred people and administers to each of them, say, an algebra test, a geometry test, a grammar test, a vocabulary test, and a reading comprehension test. What we would expect to happen is that each person's scores on the English tests (grammar, vocabulary, and reading comprehension) would hang together—that is, if a person scored well on one of the English tests it would mean he was good at English, so he would tend also to score well on the other English tests. Likewise, people who scored well on one math test would probably score well on the other math test, reflecting high math ability. But the scores on the math and English tests wouldn't be so highly related. If you did this experiment, that's more or less what you'd see.
This sounds like pretty obvious stuff. When I was in graduate school, one of my professors called commonsense findings "bubbe psychology." Bubbe is Yiddish for "grandmother," so bubbe psychology is giving fancy labels to stuff that your grandmother could have told you (Figure 6). As far as we've gone, it is pretty obvious stuff. It can get a lot more complicated when we try to get more detailed (and the statistical techniques are pretty complex). But roughly speaking, what you noticed in school is true: some kids are talented at math, some are musical, and some are athletic, and they are not necessarily the same kids.
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