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Rethinking IQ: The rise of ‘rational intelligence’
George Dvorsky   Feb 1, 2009   Sentient Developments  

Our conceptions of intelligence certainly aren’t what they used to be—and they’re continuing to evolve. Prior to the advent of computers it was thought that number crunching and pure logic was the penultimate measure of intelligence. But after the invention of the calculator, which could suddenly do math thousands of times better than we ever could, we were forced to shift our definitions of intelligence to other seemingly more intractable cognitive functions.

These days a number of psychologists have gone even further by de-emphasizing the importance of IQ tests altogether. Instead, they talk about “supracognitive” characteristics—theories about emotional and social intelligence, which weigh interpersonal skills and the ability to empathize. These cognitive abilities are now typically placed alongside other ‘harder’ measures of intelligence.

Now add to this list what Keith E. Stanovich calls ‘rational intelligence.’ Stanovich, author of What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought, believes that the concept of intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, fails to capture key aspects of mental ability.

That said, he doesn’t discount the tests’ credibility: “Readers might well expect me to say that IQ tests do not measure anything important, or that there are many kinds of intelligence, or that all people are intelligent in their own way,” he writes.

Rather, Stanovich suggests that IQ tests should be adjusted to focus on valuable qualities and capacities that are highly relevant to our daily lives. He argues that IQ tests would be far more effective if they took into account not only mental “brightness” but also rationality — including such abilities as “judicious decision making, efficient behavioral regulation, sensible goal prioritization ... [and] the proper calibration of evidence.”

Stanovich believes that our conceptions of intelligence are confused and that we’ve conflated the whole idea of “smarts.” IQ tests, he argues, do not measure the rationality required to abstain from dumb decisions. But in practical life, we define intelligence more broadly and look out for these kinds of rational weaknesses: “Blatantly irrational acts committed by people of obvious intelligence ... shock and surprise us and call out for explanation.”

And as long as we continue to worship IQ tests that do not assess rational thought processes, warns Stanovich, we will continue to misjudge our own and others’ cognitive abilities.


George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.

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