Who Are You Calling Smart?

The concept of intelligence is a powerful social force throughout our lives.  Starting in grade school, it’s used as a filter, separating the more capable from the less capable.  Children immediately get a sense of self-worth and possibility as they are labeled in terms of their intelligence.  The trend continues through high school as standardized exams (effectively intelligence tests in disguise) act as restricted gateways to elite universities.  And it continues as elite firms look to elite schools as entry points to their organizations.  The end result:  Many of the most desirable, highest paying positions go to people with high intelligence.

So, what’s wrong with this picture?  Shouldn’t elite schools want intelligent students who’ll be able to handle their rigorous curriculum and leave the school academically richer upon graduating?  And shouldn’t elite firms want the smartest trainees who can help the firm innovate, thrive and profitably grow?  The answer is a qualified yes.

Before we look at the value of intelligence in the workplace and society at large, it would be useful to have a clear definition for it.  There are some classic stereotypical notions of high intelligence and those who possess it.  A typical example is the “Revenge of the Nerds” geek, a socially awkward guy with phenomenal math and science skills, capable of remarkable inventions.  Another is the bookworm, frequently a reclusive girl with great knowledge of the classics and a superb vocabulary.

Putting aside cultural stereotypes, researchers have done significant work to attempt to put some classifications to intelligence.  One well accepted idea is known as the Cattell/Horn/Carroll theory of intelligence.  This theory posits that the primary components of intelligence are fluid and crystallized intelligence, typically abbreviated as Gf and Gc.  Fluid intelligence involves the ability to reason, use logic and solve novel problems.  It bears some similarities to the intelligence shown in our “Revenge of the Nerds” example.  Crystallized intelligence reflects an individual’s skills, knowledge, vocabulary and experience.  It is more reflective of the bookworm or the classic “walking encyclopedia.”  To bring things back to pop culture, the person with high Gf would be great at solving riddles, while the person with high Cf would be a great team mate in Trivial Pursuit.

In fact, Gf and Gc are the prime capabilities measured by such popular IQ tests as Stanford-Binet and the Wechsler Intelligence Scales.  SAT tests are also focused on measuring the subject’s strengths for Gf and Gc.  A host of academic research has linked high IQ to a number of other strengths and positive life outcomes.  It is highly correlated to SAT scores, moderately correlated to academic and job performance as well as income.

But are traditional notions of intelligence a thorough measure of an individual’s effectiveness in their personal and professional lives?   Many would argue no, that a significant component goes unmeasured, creating distorted notions of people’s strengths and weaknesses.  One attempt to expand beyond the bounds of traditional intelligence measuring is the concept of Emotional Intelligence.  This idea measures the ability for an individual to recognize,  analyze and control the emotions of themselves as well as others.  It is a measure of social awareness, self-awareness, interpersonal skills and self-regulation.  Many of us can recognize the classic person of high traditional intellect and low emotional intelligence.  Whether it’s the brilliant geek that can barely carry on a conversation or the cunning, rage-a-holic boss, we’ve seen these prototypes many times.

But there exists an alternate notion of individual effectiveness that receives short shrift in popular media or corporate recruiting and training programs.  A growing body of research has looked at the concept of rationality as an important, but ignored factor in personal effectiveness.  In numerous posts, I’ve covered  the concept of cognitive bias, a critical idea emerging from the fields of behavioral psychology and neuroscience.  The concept identifies a wide range of ways in which people tend to behave in irrational and counterproductive ways.  Many of the biases can have unfortunate impacts in the workplace, causing people to make inaccurate judgments, predictions and decisions.

Building on these ideas, Keith Stanovich, a professor at the University of Toronto, has looked at the notion of rationality as an alternate measure of personal effectiveness.  Stanovich breaks down rationality into two components.  First, intrumental rationality involves behaving in a way that maximizes your goals.  Epistemic rationality involves an individual’s ability to perceive the world in an objectively accurate manner.  Taken together these two forms of rationality describe a person’s ability to have their beliefs correspond to reality and to have their actions leading to the accomplishment of their goals.

In his book What Intelligence Test Miss:  The Psychology of Rational Thought, Stanovich looked at a number of thinking dispositions that were representative of greater rationality.  These qualities included being open-minded, seeking alternative ideas and explanations, weighing evidence judiciously and seeking nuance and avoiding absolutism. Additionally, 40 years of research has identified a number of cognitive biases that produce a typical pattern of irrational thinking and behavior in people.  Among these limitations are a tendency to be irrationally overconfident, an inability to leverage basic probability theory, a tendency to overweight short term benefits, and the propensity to see patterns in random events.

Stanovich argues that possessing these rational thinking traits and avoiding the pitfalls of cognitively biased thinking are critical to our personal success.  He also notes that rational thinking skills are only weakly correlated to traditional measures of intelligence.  That is, one can be conventionally “intelligent” but behave in a thoroughly irrational manner.  This should be no surprise to those of us that have watched politicians and corporate heads make disastrous personal and professional decisions that were highly counterproductive.

Stanovich goes on to make the case that our society would be better served by teaching the skills that are the hallmark of rational thought.  In doing so, people would be better equipped to make sound investment decisions, assess medical and environmental risks more accurately, be more informed jurors and avoid falling prey to con artists.  Unfortunately, many firms are completely unaware of the downsides of irrational thinking.  Most of the thinking on professional effectiveness in enterprises focuses on technical skills and “book knowledge”.  A smaller component of training looks at areas covered by emotional intelligence.  Forward thinking firms would strongly benefit from integrating rational thinking concepts into their recruiting, training and organizational development programs.  Doing so, would lead to improved risk assessments, enhanced analytical capabilities and ultimately to more effective decisions and behaviors.

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