Can Intelligence Be Cultivated?

The notion of “cultivating intelligence” sounds like the next artificial intelligence innovation, but it may not be so far-fetched.

Conventionally, at least throughout the greater part of the 20th century, intelligence was measured with a simple IQ test. Intelligence quotient, it was eloquently dubbed. It spoke for itself. Score a high IQ? You are one of the gifted ones, fortunate enough to have been blessed with immense cognitive capacity. You are applauded for your praiseworthy intellect; reassured that a successful future is yours for the taking. Society has great expectations of you. Perhaps you will become a scientist, or a professor, or maybe an eccentric self-made billionaire! Your parents smirk with pride, fully anticipating their future riches at the expense of your hard work.

Score poorly, though… And an entirely different landscape fills the backdrop. Tsk. Tsk. You have become the unwitting recipient of pitiful glances and bare-minimum expectations. In time, your victimized identity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, your family loves and accepts you for who you are — even if intelligent isn’t it. And it isn’t. Because your IQ score said so. Because your grades said so. Even your teachers may have said so, as inoffensively as possible. Having been cast in this light for so long, you quietly submit to your role. You believe what you are told — you simply aren’t smart.

What an elaborate portrait of your identity to have been painted simply on the basis of a test score. Of course, it’s not simply any test. It’s an intelligence test. The intelligence test. At least, that’s the traditional thinking surrounding IQ scores. So we know what a high IQ score yields, in terms of expected intellect and contribution to society. We know that a low IQ score yields the opposite. But what happens when an individual’s test results fail to align with society’s accepted interpretations?

When I was younger, I took an IQ test for the first time at home, without an audience, in a stubborn attempt to prove my intelligence — to myself. To prove how bright I was. Of course, I never would have admitted that then. But time has taught me humility. Anyway, I eagerly calculated away, eyes scanning the problems voraciously, and gave it 100%.

My results? I was “borderline genius.” It’s in quotes not only because that statement reeks of undeserved haughtiness, but also because I simply don’t believe it. Nonetheless, at the time, it was a great confidence boost! Borderline genius, I read to myself proudly. Truly impressive. I held my head a little higher.

Fast forward to a couple years later, I decide to take the test again. Maybe I doubted my initial results, maybe I simply wanted a challenge. I don’t remember. What matters is that this time, my results were drastically different. *Gasp* My score was in the 70s. What happened to me? My intellect? My borderline genius? Am I dumb?

No, I probably performed poorly due to sleep deprivation and mental exhaustion. It was around 3 A.M. when I took the test for the second time, aimlessly perusing the internet as many high school students do. I say so fairly confidently because the next time around, the third time I took the test, I scored around 140. Phew, I’m smart again, I sighed with relief.

An interesting initial experience with intelligence testing, and one that made a lasting impression on me, I have since learned quite a bit. Namely, that IQ is nothing more than an arbitrary measurement of your mind’s cognitive performance at any given moment in time — a snapshot of your intellect, rather than a complete representation of it.

According to a study performed by Angela Duckworth, renowned author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, the book that changed the way many view intelligence, the greatest predictor of academic success is not IQ, but self-discipline. So the supposed giftedness of those with high IQs is not necessarily a golden ticket to the top. On the contrary, their genius intellect is merely a tool, one which must be coupled with self-discipline, consciousness, and drive in order to reap real results.

On the other end of the spectrum, individuals with less than favorable IQs may compensate for their lack of “natural intelligence” — as so determined by their low test scores — with copious amounts of the three character traits listed above. But Duckworth’s results are unmistakable: when self-discipline levels remain fairly constant, success rates follow uniformly, regardless of IQ.

“Without effort, your talent is nothing more than unmet potential. Without effort, your skill is nothing more than what you could have done but didn’t.”
― Angela Duckworth

Of course, I do not rebuke the argument that having a high IQ lends to its owner a significant advantage, similar to the financial advantage of having been born into wealth. Lacking the financial skills to manage and invest money wisely, your advantage eventually becomes futile. Much like the futility of a gifted mind who lacks the discipline to succeed. Your gift is wasted.

That being said, if cognitive performance is not an unchanging, permanently defined character trait, as evidenced by Duckworth’s study, then it would follow that the self-disciplined, low IQ group has in fact undergone a change in IQ. After all, IQ tests assess an individual’s logical, mathematical, and linguistic aptitude — a skillset that is highly relevant in academic settings, the medium in which this study took place. All students received the same academic assessments, regardless of IQ group, so how did those with a low-IQ perform so well despite their presupposed cognitive disadvantage?

It only makes sense that as a result of their dogged tenacity and self-discipline, through behavioral factors, they influenced their brain on a neural level, so that these cognitive processing centers truly evolved to resemble that of a high-IQ individual. In other words, they effected a positive change in their intelligence.

Which brings me to the final, essential question… Taking Duckworth’s data at face value, accepting the notion that intelligence in not in fact immutable, can we cultivate intelligence?

It appears so. According to Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, intelligence is a spectrum of eight distinct cognitive modalities, which he dubbed the intelligences. Rather than equating intelligence to the traditional model of logical-mathematical and linguistic intelligence, Gardner pays homage to eight areas of intellect: spatial, kinesthetic, musical, spiritual, interpersonal, and intrapersonal, in addition to the two listed above.

Not only does each individual possess a unique repertoire of intellectual strengths, consisting of one, two or four intelligences, but these repertoires are not fixed. One can practice their ‘weak intelligences’ and improve their skill-set over time. Furthermore, Gardner acknowledges the limitations of aptitude in any one particular area, encouraging collaboration among the intelligences.

“Part of the maturity of the sciences is an appreciation of which questions are best left to other disciplinary approaches.”
Howard Gardner

But despite the clear message that these great minds reveal about intelligence, society represents a whole slew of complex factors at play. Politics, education, business… Perhaps most importantly, the business of education. What happens when individuals are marginalized in the formal academic sphere based on low test scores? When remedial class placements and low expectations become a self-fulfilling prophecy for underachievers who lack the innate advantage of intelligence?

Perhaps the status quo remains, and the notion of intelligence as a predetermined, fixed character trait perpetuates. Or perhaps, perhaps not. Perhaps the “originals” of society, as Adam Grant dubs them, rise up and deliberately challenge the existing norm. Perhaps. I suppose it’s up to us to decide.

Literature Cited

Duckworth, A. L., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). Self-Discipline Outdoes IQ in Predicting Academic Performance of Adolescents. Psychological Science, 16(12), 939–944. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.2005.01641.x

Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY, US: Scribner/Simon & Schuster.

Holistic Wellness | Psychology | Mental Health | Mindfulness | Nature | Powerful advocate of positive psychology and intellectual curiosity :)

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