What Exactly Is Intelligence?
There is probably no aspect of contemporary psychology that is more misunderstood by the general public than intelligence. We seem awed by our perception of it in others. The notion of intelligence has a profound effect on one's social status, educational opportunities, and career choices. Even though great importance is attached to intelligence, most of us are unable to define exactly what intelligence is. There is no objective, agreed-upon referent either among the general public or contemporary psychologists. Most commonly, people accept a definition of intelligence that is synonymous with a score on the traditional intelligence test—a test originally designed by Alfred Binet to predict which youngsters in Parisian primary grades would succeed and which would fail. Binet's discovery became known as the "intelligence test" and has enjoyed great success the world over. Traditional IQ tests predict school performance with considerable accuracy, but they are only an indifferent predictor of performance in a profession after formal schooling (Jencks 1977).
The general public seems to have adopted the theory that intelligence is what an intelligence tests measures (Kail and Pellegrina 1985). A good example is Marilyn Vos Savant, the individual with the world's highest recorded score on this IQ test. She is often referred to as the most intelligent person in the world and, as such, writes a weekly syndicated column called "Ask Marilyn" for many newspapers and magazines in the United States. (Vos Savant 1998). Many people read her column and stand in awe of the logical and precise answers she offers to difficult questions. Whatever intelligence means, Vos Savant is regarded for having lots of it.
There is also confusion within psychology. Part of the confusion surrounding a definition of intelligence within psychology emanates from the fact that there are several psychological perspectives on intelligence. For example, within modern psychology, the term intelligence can be defined in two ways. The first way is to use intelligence to refer to intelligent acts, such as writing a book or designing a new computer. The second way is to use intelligence to refer to mental processes (e.g., analyzing and synthesizing information) that give rise to intelligent acts. At one extreme, there is the proposal that each intelligent act is associated with a unique mental process. The other extreme proposes that a single mental ability underlies all intelligent achievements (Kail and Pellegrina 1985). One view says that, for example, Mozart was born with a specific talent to write his music. Writing music is an intelligent act and Mozart was born with this talent. The other extreme says that Mozart's music was an accident of time and place. In other words, Mozart was in the right place at the right time to develop unique mental processes needed to write his music. Another person could have written what Mozart wrote. Neither extreme view is very attractive.
Reprinted with the permission of the Department of State.
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