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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Are We Dumb to Worship Intelligence?

APA In his enthusiastic review of Elaine Castles's Inventing Intelligence: How America Came to Worship IQ, Robert Sternberg argues that Castles's main message will likely be rejected by those who most need it: specialists in intelligence. According to Sternberg:

The main message of the book is that human intelligence, as we know it, is in large part a cultural invention. This message is not new (see, e.g., Sarason & Doris, 1979; Sternberg, 2004), but it is one that the general public and most in the field of intelligence have failed to grasp. What is viewed as "intelligent" differs from one culture to the next, and behavior that is intelligent in one culture may be unintelligent, or irrelevant to intelligence, in another.
Do you agree that intelligence is a cultural invention? That what is considered intelligent varies across societies? And that we expect too much from our current tests of IQ?

Read the Review
ReviewIf You Read One Recent Book on Intelligence, Make It This One
By Robert J. Sternberg
      PsycCRITIQUES, 2013 Vol 58(6)



Organisms can be easily ranked according to intelligence: Virus, amoeba, ant, rat, dog, human. That is not a cultural invention any more than any other scientific construct such as gravity is a cultural invention. Children also plainly gain intelligence as they mature, that is also not up for debate.

Arguments about the meaning of the word intelligence are largely just debates about semantics and subtleties. Intelligence is what a 10 year old has in the way of cognitive faculties that a 5 year old does not.

The best arguments against the value of intelligence are put forth by people who themselves possess high intelligence, which does sort of undercut their position.

David Wall

Intelligence tests are accurate predictors of a person's ability to learn and function in a modern, technical society. Nearly 100 years of research are unequivocal on this point. Mental functioning and cognitive capacity are the critical functions for human survival. Assessments of these mental processes are valuable and meaningful. A separate agenda, perhaps egalitarianism, may be at work in denouncing IQ.

Michael F. Halasz

As James indicates intelligence is a biological not a cultural concept - referring to certain abilities of octopuses, crows, rats, cats, dogs, monkeys or humans. Said abilities all directly or indirectly promote survival, reproduction, etc. of species in their particular environments. Think Isaac Newton vs. Jane Austen. There are of course many kinds/forms to human intelligence which may or may not be useful in particular societies, cultures,places or times. If so,particular forms to intelligence may be treasured in certain cultures, derided in others. If we investigate why, we'll find out the practical reasons.

Christine Wai

Like Castles' message, I too believe that IQ is a cultural invention. This notion is even evident in several IQ tests that need to be modified based on culture and language. However, I notice that some aspect of IQ is more universal than others. For example, Castles listed that Kenyan children are knowledgeable in natural herbal medicine which may be of no use in New York or Paris. In other words, it is not the nature of the knowledge, but rather the amount of knowledge - and in turn, memory - that defines intelligence. And as many IQ tests show, having a good memory is a good indicator of intelligence.

Karen N. M. Lee

Intelligence is a topic which has discussed and researched by professionals and general public enormously. There are many different theories of intelligence in the past 100 years. In Castles' book, intelligence is a cultural invention that 'high' intelligence in one culture is considered differently in another culture. In addition, some intelligence theories are developed based on researchers’ ideologies initially, but not based on scientific results. It seems that intelligence is perceived in various perspectives depending on what 'lens' an individual is using to view the topic of intelligence. For example, Chinese culture is well known for its emphasis in children's academic performance that high GPA is nearly the most criteria in classifying whether a student is good or not. Although there are a lot of different opinions arguing about the disadvantages in placing too much focus on academic performance, parents and children would still experience high pressures in either trying to meet the societal expectation of high GPA or facing criticisms from others about not placing enough effort in getting high GPA. However, Chinese people also pay a price in placing too much emphasis on cognitive abilities, i.e. there are a lot of comments about Chinese students’ weaknesses in creativity. Therefore, various IQ tests may be able to show an individual's different abilities. It is more important to understand how a society or culture interprets an IQ test result, i.e. a high IQ test result would be interpreted differently in the US and in Kenya.

Bertie Wai

I am of two minds about intelligence being a cultural invention. I think different senses of intelligence can be confounded in a discussion. On the one hand, there is a) this ability, whatever it is, that psychologists attempt to measure via IQ tests. On the other, there is b) this quality that many people think exists which makes a person “intelligent,” “smart,” “clever,” etc. And then, there is another sense of intelligence captured by theories of intelligence. For example, Wechsler conceptualized intelligence as c) the “aggregate or global capacity of the individual to act purposefully, to think rationally, and to deal effectively with his environment.” The same word “intelligence” could refer to all a), b), and c), not to mention other interpretation of the word “intelligence” not discussed here. I think b) is susceptible to more cultural variance, whereas c) seems more context-independent and therefore less susceptible to cultural influences.

Natalie Loong

If it is the construct of intelligence itself rather than its operational definition or its measurement that we are referring to, then I agree with James that intelligence is not any more a cultural invention (or human invention) than other hypothetical constructs like psychological well-being. After all, intelligence like other hypothetical constructs does not have a physical existence but exists only in our minds; in this sense, it is a human invention but so are all hypothetical constructs.
While operational definition, constituents, and measurement of intelligence may vary across cultures and time, a construct may exist in all cultures at all times in history that refers to the particular set of mental functions deemed important to appropriately deal with environmental demands. For instance, writers, scholars, and philosophers of the past like Homer, Socrates, and Aristotle, have variously explored and discussed the concept of intelligence (as good thinking, quick wits, etc.) but did not proceed to define its nature. With that being said, what constitutes intelligence is likely to vary from culture to culture and time to time owing to cultural differences in environmental demands and conceptions of appropriateness. As such, the operational definition and measurement of intelligence may be by large a cultural invention.
The “worshipping” of intelligence and their measures appears to be yet another issue. In my opinion, while intelligence test scores may reliably predict academic success and other positive life outcomes, they are by far “overrated”. As many contemporary research suggest, intelligence is but one of many factors contributing to success in life with personality traits such as conscientiousness being another vital factor. It is also important to realize that the relationship between intelligence and positive outcomes in life may be mediated and moderated by other factors. All things considered, intelligence alone, is unlikely to “predict” many aspects of one’s future to a meaningful or substantial degree.

Bertie Wai

Raymond Cattell’s theory of intelligence might be interesting to consider here. His theory of intelligence identifies two different types of cognitive abilities: fluid (Gf) and crystallized (Gc) intelligence. Fluid intelligence is presumed to be an innate ability that is nonverbal, relatively culture-free, and context-independent. Crystallized intelligence, on the other hand, is an acquired ability that is influenced by cultural and educational exposures. So, presumably, Gc is more susceptible to cultural factors than Gf.

Benson’s article (link below) provides more food for thought on culture and intelligence. Regarding the question whether intelligence is a cultural invention, given the way “cultural invention” is used in the original post, I wonder if a similar question can be asked of many other things. Are adaptivity, beauty, morality all cultural inventions? Is cross-cultural variability equivalent to cultural invention?

Andrew Stock

I like the definition you provided from Wechsler, Bertie, but I'm not so sure it's as context-independent as you suspect. If an individual's intelligence is partially a measure of her ability to deal effectively with her environment, then the environment is of crucial importance!

Take the recent TV series developed by JJ Abrams, Revolution. In this story, somehow all electricity on Earth has been rendered useless. One character, an "intelligent" guy who was a head honcho at Google, has MUCH trouble dealing with this new environment, where the physically strongest and most violent people seem to deal best with their new surroundings. So who is more intelligent at that point, the guy who with an IQ of 140 who doesn't know how to start a fire, or someone more closely representing a neanderthal?

henk tuten

I totally agree. Intelligence is a concept in western cultural reality.
Chinese language doesn't have an equivalent

Have a look at: or

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Editor of PsycCRITIQUES

Danny Wedding, PhD

Chair of Behavioral Sciences,
College of Medicine,
American University of Antigua

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