Book of the week: - What Intelligence Tests Miss

A high IQ doesn't always make for smart choices, Wendy Johnson finds

August 20, 2009

We all know what Keith Stanovich is talking about in this book, and we all have our anecdotal examples: the economics professor who repeatedly bounces cheques; the theoretical physicist who is convinced her house is haunted; or the surgeon who goes out for fish and chips right after completing a heart bypass. And of course, there's that recent US President who can't seem to express a coherent thought yet reportedly has an IQ of 120. Intelligence tests don't seem to pick up either good judgment or the ability to think clearly and consistently, and people with high IQs often do very stupid things.

Stanovich thinks he can tell us why, and goes a long way towards doing so. Using evocative language such as "myside bias" and "infected mindware", he demonstrates, using vivid examples, how lazily we often use our minds and what this apathy costs us. He also shows how the way we test for educational potential and teach even those we deem most educable has not kept up with our modern probabilistic and relativistic world.

Anyone interested in human intelligence and how we assess its individual differences should pay close attention to what he says, which is that intelligence tests don't measure rationality. Rationality is the mental ability to organise behaviour to use the available physical resources to maximise the probability of achieving the most desirable outcome in a situation. This isn't exactly Stanovich's definition, but it is pretty close and it's the one that matters. He tells us that intelligence tests simply measure accumulated knowledge and the ability to apply algorithms or mental simulations of hypothetical outcomes.

Of course, accumulated knowledge often closely reflects previous opportunities to have engaged in such simulations in the past, including, although Stanovich doesn't say so, chances to have learnt how to engage in such simulations and to have become good at them purely through practice.

And the testing situation is contrived: the problems the tests present are artificial, involve limited numbers of possible simulations, and we know that it is in our interests, for the duration of the test at least, to carry out as many of these simulations as well as we possibly can. So we all do so, being good little soldiers who want to prove our merit and get the job or the university admission we want. There are big individual differences in the ability and knowledge that is measured, and Stanovich knows this matters.

But once we leave the examination room, Stanovich says, no matter how well we did there, the situations and problems we are presented with in real life are much more open-ended. We often don't even know where to look for the best possible outcome. With the context not clearly defined and many goals and behavioural options in front of us at any given time, most of us don't apply our abilities to run through those hypothetical simulations.

We are generally all too willing to rely on automated, habitual responses or cognitive shortcuts that ignore possibilities that are not glaringly obvious. Or we let emotional responses, such as fear of one outcome or desire for another, dictate our behavioural responses so that we end up with the very outcome we fear the most. In other words, we don't behave rationally and we suffer for it as individuals, and we suffer for it as a society because, over and over, the people in charge of things are not necessarily the ones most likely to behave rationally, whatever their ability to do so.

Stanovich complains about society's overreliance on intelligence tests at the expense of tools that measure rationality. But he misses the fact that, were we to teach rationality and measure it systematically in the way he suggests, the very people who do well on intelligence tests would also do well on his kind of rationality tests. That's what rationality is: the ability to organise behaviour to maximise outcomes.

We have a window now where people with high IQ scores aren't always the most rational by Stanovich's lights, but it wouldn't last long if the measurement shifted overtly to include his measures of rationality.

However, he misses something else that may be even more important. Stanovich expresses surprise at our failures of rationality and bemoans them, as if we ought to do better because we are rational humans and not irrational animals. I think he is right that we can do better, and that with appropriate educational approaches we would. But is there really something uniquely human about our occasional flashes of rationality? Duane Rumbaugh and David Washburn think not. In their book Intelligence of Apes and Other Rational Beings (2003), they address many of the same definitions of rational behaviour as Stanovich - but they describe these behaviours in non-human primates. Indeed, that book is ideal companion reading to What Intelligence Tests Miss. It is written for the same audience - namely, anyone interested in human intelligence and its manifestations - and its examples are equally vivid. But for Rumbaugh and Washburn, the surprise is the expressions of rationality they see. Where Stanovich gripes about our failure to see beyond the ends of our own noses, they celebrate glimpses of wisdom, insight and understanding that can be used as tools to manipulate the world. Both are, of course, correct.

Rationality may be, to our minds, the sine qua non of human intelligence. We don't expect non-human primates from bonobos to rhesus monkeys to display the kinds of sentient, synergistic behaviour that maximise the probabilities of the most desirable outcomes. But with appropriate environmental stimulation and the right knowledge background, Rumbaugh and Washburn show that they can and do.

These non-human primates learn to manipulate arbitrary linguistic and numeric symbols, comprehend speech, and form cognitive maps of conceptual as well as spatial relations. Moreover, like us, they learn how to learn: the first tasks they master come with difficulty, but subsequent tasks are mastered much more quickly, even immediately, because the primates have learnt how to approach them. Most importantly, however, they learn to pay attention to stimuli they would likely otherwise never have even noticed, and they come to put their skills to use in ways they haven't been taught, to achieve goals of their own choosing. In other words, at least with appropriate training, they display rationality. Rumbaugh and Washburn focus on non-human primates because they know them best, but they also make it clear that it's not just primates. We aren't unique in this rationality stuff, after all.

But like us, primates and other animals aren't rational all the time. They suffer from Stanovich's "myside bias": they rely on instinctive and automated responses whether they actually think they can get away with them or not, and they get swept up by their emotions, just like we do.

Maybe we would better understand ourselves and the animals with which we share our world if we stopped thinking we were so different from them, and realised how often we behave like irrational (yet sophisticated) automatons who can only make up stories to justify their behaviour after the fact. Maybe the surprise is not our failures of rationality, but that we are able to be rational at all.

The Author

Keith E. Stanovich is professor of human development and applied psychology at the University of Toronto. He is the author of more than 175 scientific articles, six books and is a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the Association for Psychological Science.

Stanovich is perhaps best known for his work on the psychology of reading and reasoning, and his research has been recognised by a host of awards.

He has twice won the Albert J. Harris Award from the International Reading Association and has also been elected to its Reading Hall of Fame, the youngest person admitted.

Besides drinking draft Smithwick's Ale, Stanovich's greatest pleasure is walking coastal paths with his wife. He claims to have no quirks, but his wife, who has been walking exclusively on his right side for 36 years, disagrees.

What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought

By Keith E. Stanovich
Yale University Press
ISBN 9780300123852
Published 3 February 2009

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