Defining Intelligence

If you ask people what intelligence is, the answer depends on whom you ask and the answer differs widely across disciplines, time, and place. We begin this article by discussing the diversity of views regarding what intelligence is because empirical studies often assume rather than explore the nature of the

In some cases, Western notions about intelligence are not shared by other cultures. For example, at the mental level, the Western emphasis on speed of mental processing is not shared in many cultures. Other cultures may even be suspicious of the quality of work that is done very quickly. Indeed, other cultures emphasize depth rather than speed of processing. They are not alone: Some prominent Western theorists have

Encyclopedia of the Human Brain Volume 2

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pointed out the importance of depth of processing for full command of material.

Yang and Sternberg reviewed Chinese philosophical conceptions of intelligence. The Confucian perspective emphasizes the characteristic of benevolence and of doing what is right. As in the Western notion, the intelligent person spends a great deal of effort in learning, enjoys learning, and persists in life-long learning with a great deal of enthusiasm. The Taoist tradition, in contrast, emphasizes the importance of humility, freedom from conventional standards of judgment, and full knowledge of oneself as well as of external conditions.

The difference between Eastern and Western conceptions of intelligence may persist even in the present day. A study of contemporary Taiwanese Chinese conceptions of intelligence found five factors underlying these conceptions: (i) a general cognitive factor, much like the g factor in conventional Western tests; (ii) interpersonal intelligence; (iii) intrapersonal intelligence; (iv) intellectual self-assertion; and (v) intellectual self-effacement.

The factors uncovered in both studies differ substantially from those identified in U.S. people's conceptions of intelligence—practical problem solving, verbal ability, and social competence—although in both cases, people's implicit theories of intelligence seem to go far beyond what conventional psychometric intelligence tests measure.

Another study varied only language. It explicitly compared the concepts of intelligence of Chinese graduates from Chinese-language versus English-language schools in Hong Kong. It was found that both groups considered nonverbal reasoning skills as the most relevant for measuring intelligence. Verbal reasoning and social skills were considered second in importance, followed by numerical skill. Memory was viewed as least important. The Chinese-language-schooled group, however, tended to rate verbal skills as less important than did the English-language-schooled group. Moreover, an earlier study found that Chinese students viewed memory for facts as important for intelligence, whereas Australian students viewed this skill as of only trivial importance.

A review of Eastern notions of intelligence suggested that, in Buddhist and Hindu philosophies, intelligence involves waking up, noticing, recognizing, understanding, and comprehending, but it also includes determination, mental effort, and even feelings and opinions in addition to more intellectual elements.

Differences between cultures in conceptions of intelligence have been recognized for some time. One study noted that Australian university students value academic skills and the ability to adapt to new events as critical to intelligence, whereas Malay students value practical skills as well as speed and creativity. Another study found that Malay students emphasize both social and cognitive attributes in their conceptions of intelligence.

The differences between East and West may be due to differences in the kinds of skills valued by the two kinds of cultures. Western cultures and their schools emphasize what might be called "technological intelligence"; thus, things such as artificial intelligence and so-called smart bombs are viewed, in some sense, as intelligent or smart.

Western schooling also emphasizes generalization or going beyond the information given, speed, minimal moves to a solution, and creative thinking. Moreover, silence is interpreted as a lack of knowledge. In contrast, the Wolof tribe in Africa views people of higher social class and distinction as speaking less. This difference between the Wolof and Western notions suggests the usefulness of examining African notions of intelligence as a possible contrast to U.S. notions.

Studies in Africa in fact provide another window on the substantial differences. Some psychologists have argued that in Africa conceptions of intelligence revolve largely around skills that help to facilitate and maintain harmonious and stable intergroup relations; intragroup relations are probably equally important and at times more important. For example, one study found that Chewa adults in Zambia emphasize social responsibilities, cooperativeness, and obedience as important to intelligence; intelligent children are expected to be respectful of adults. Kenyan parents also emphasize responsible participation in family and social life as important aspects of intelligence. In Zimbabwe, the word for intelligence, ngware, actually means to be prudent and cautious, particularly in social relationships. Among the Baoule, service to the family and community and politeness toward and respect for elders are seen as key to intelligence.

Similar emphasis on social aspects ofintelligence has been found among two other African groups—the Songhay of Mali and the Samia of Kenya. The Yoruba, another African tribe, emphasize the importance of depth—of listening rather than just talking—to intelligence and of being able to see all aspects of an issue and to place the issue in its proper overall context.

The emphasis on the social aspects of intelligence is not limited to African cultures. Notions of intelligence in many Asian cultures also emphasize the social aspect of intelligence more than does the conventional Western or IQ-based notion.

It should be noted that neither African nor Asian notions emphasize exclusively social notions of intelligence. A current project is studying conceptions of intelligence in rural Kenya. The Kenyans that have been studied have variegated conceptions of intelligence, distinguishing school intelligence (rieko) from other nonschool kinds of intelligence (such as luoro, which has more of the quality of character). Near one village (Kisumu), many and probably most of the children are at least moderately infected with a variety of parasitic infections. As a result, they experience stomachaches quite frequently. Traditional medicine suggests the usefulness of a large variety (actually, hundreds) of natural herbal medicines that can be used to treat such infections. Children who learn how to self-medicate via these natural herbal medicines are viewed as being at an adaptive advantage over those who do not have this kind of informal knowledge. Clearly, the kind of adaptive advantage that is relevant in this culture would be viewed as totally irrelevant in the West and vice versa. Children who do better on tests of adaptive knowledge of this kind actually do worse on Western tests of intelligence and in Western schooling in English and mathematics.

These conceptions of intelligence emphasize social skills much more than do conventional U.S. conceptions of intelligence, while simultaneously recognizing the importance of cognitive aspects of intelligence. However, it is important to realize that there is no one overall U.S. conception of intelligence. Indeed, one study found that different ethnic groups in San Jose, California, had different conceptions of what it means to be intelligent. For example, Latino parents of schoolchildren tended to emphasize the importance of social-competence skills in their conceptions of intelligence, whereas Asian parents tended to heavily emphasize the importance of cognitive skills. Anglo parents also emphasized cognitive skills. Teachers, representing the dominant culture, emphasized cognitive more than social-competence skills. The rank order of children of various groups' performance (including subgroups within the Latino and Asian groups) could be perfectly predicted by the extent to which their parents shared the teachers' conception of intelligence. In other words, teachers tended to reward those children who were socialized into a view of intelligence that happened to correspond to the teachers' own view. However, as we shall argue later, social aspects of intelligence, broadly defined, may be as important as or even more important than cognitive aspects of intelligence in later life. Some, however, prefer to study intelligence not in its social aspect but in its cognitive one.

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