Theories of Intelligence in Psychology

Theories of Intelligence in Psychology


Theories In Psychology That Shaped How We View Intelligence

What is Intelligence?

Intelligence is a psychological phenomenon that eludes a simple definition. In the simplest terms, it refers to the mental ability of a person. The American Psychological Association defines intelligence as ‘intellectual functioning’. The layperson is usually aware of the concept of ‘Intelligence Quotient’, a psychological ability that one can measure using ‘Intelligence Tests’. However, newer conceptions of intelligence have sought to change the definition of Intelligence and hence questioned the validity of Intelligence tests too.

A classic debate in defining intelligence has been amongst those who concur with the views of Lewis Terman and those who agree with Edward L. Thorndike. The former stressed the ability to think abstractly, while the latter argued that intelligence consists of the ability to learn and give good responses to questions. However, recently, most psychologists have reached a consensus that intelligence is composed of any abilities that assist one in adapting to their environment.

Read More: Intelligence Quotient vs. Emotional Quotient: Definition, Comparison and Variations

What are some Theories of Intelligence?

Different theorists have viewed intelligence in different ways. However, most approaches to understanding intelligence can be placed in either of the following two categories – Factor theories (or psychometric theories) of Intelligence, and Process-oriented theories (or cognitive theories) of intelligence. The first set of theorists have attempted to identify a factor (or multiple factors) that constitute intelligence.

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The theories included under this approach are – Charles Spearman’s g-factor theory, Thurstone’s theory of primary Mental Abilities, and Guilford’s structure-of-intellect model. On the other hand, some theorists think of intelligence in terms of processes that are involved in intellectual activities.

These include – Gardner’s theory of multiple Intelligences and Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory. Let’s take a more detailed look at these theories:

1. General Intelligence:

One of the earliest theories of intelligence was proposed by the theorist Charles Spearman. He observed that several different cognitive abilities seem to be related to one another. People who perform well on one task tend to be good at other tasks as well. For example, a student who is good at mathematics tends to score high on most other subjects.

Based on this, he proposed that Intelligence consisted of a general factor (g). He also specified that individuals have specific abilities (s) that allow them to excel in particular activities as well. His views came to be known as the G-factor theory, or the unifactor theory. It is reflected in intelligence tests which assume that a person’s intelligence can be described by a single score, such as IQ.

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2. Primary Mental Abilities:

Theorist Louis L. Thurstone’s theory of intelligence is one of the most widely regarded multifactor theories of intelligence. His work on factor analysis consisted of a set of 56 tests. He observed the patterns of correlations of the performance of individuals among these tests, and arrived at a number of factors that he called the ‘primary mental abilities’. They included verbal comprehension, word fluency, perceptual speed, numerical ability, memory, reasoning, and spatial ability. His battery of tests, the PMA (Primary Mental Abilities test), is still widely used.

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3. The Structure-of-Intellect Theory:

This theory is another multifactor theory, proposed by psychologist JP Guilford. He carried out a massive analysis of multiple previously existing intelligence tests and arrived at a cubical model of intelligence, with three dimensions. In this model, each intersection of these dimensions forms a cell and represents a factor of intelligence. The three dimensions are:

  • 5 kinds of operations, which consist of: Cognition, Memory (later divided into Memory Recording and Memory Retention), Divergent Production (the process of generating multiple solutions to a problem), Convergent Production (the process of deducing a single solution to a problem), and Evaluation.
  • 5 kinds of Contents, consisting of: Figural, Auditory, Visual, Symbolic, Semantic, Behavioral
  • 6 kinds of Products, which are: Unit, Class, Relation, System, Transformation, Implication

Thus, this theory proposes a total of 120 (5 x 5 x 6) factors of intelligence.

4. Theory of Multiple Intelligences:

In 1983, American psychologist Howard Gardner challenged the assumption of a single intelligence by proposing his now-well-known theory of multiple intelligences. He went a step further than theorists who claimed that intelligence comprised multiple abilities and enlisted several types of intelligence. Some of these resembled the factors of intelligence described by psychometricians, however, others did not. According to Gardner, multiple intelligences at a minimum included:

  • Bodily-Kinaesthetic Intelligence: The extent of control over bodily movements and the ability to handle objects swiftly
  • Interpersonal Intelligence: The ability to perceive and respond the the moods, feelings, and behaviours of others, and to communicate well.
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence: The ability to be aware of one’s feelings, desires, and motivations, and the capacity to express them well
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence: The ability to recognise patterns think in terms of abstract concepts, and follow logic
  • Musical intelligence: The ability to produce and appreciate various aspects of sound and music such as pitch, timbre, and rhythm
  • Naturalistic intelligence: Sensitivity to the features and creatures of the natural world.
  • Verbal-linguistic intelligence: The skills involved in the fluent and flexible production and use of language.
  • Visual-spatial intelligence: The skills involved in forming and visualising images, patterns, and spaces.
5. Triarchic Theory of Intelligence:

Another widely known theory of Intelligence is the Triarchic Theory, proposed by Robert Sternberg in his 1985 text “Beyond IQ: A Triarchic Theory of Human Intelligence”. Sternberg believed that certain intelligences described by Gardner, such as musical and kinaesthetic, were talents and not intelligences, as they are specific and not prerequisites for adaptation to the environment in most cultures.

Instead, he posited three aspects of intelligence – the first aspect is the cognitive processes and representations that form the core of all thought of an individual, the second aspect is the contextual application of these processes to the external world (according to Sternberg, intelligence is in capitalising on one’s strengths and compensating for one’s weaknesses), and the third aspect is the integration of the internal world and external world through experience.

What are some other conceptions of Intelligence?

1. Fluid and Crystallised Intelligence:

Theorists, particularly psychologist Raymond Catell and his associate John Horn, have also differentiated between Fluid intelligence and Crystallised Intelligence. While fluid intelligence refers to the pure ability to reason and solve problems, crystallised intelligence refers to information, knowledge, and skills acquired through education and experience. Horn suggested that crystallised abilities increase over a person’s life span, whereas fluid abilities see an increase in earlier years of an individual, but decrease as one grows older.

Read More about Fluid and Crystallised Intelligence

2. Emotional Intelligence:

In 1990, psychologists John Mayer and Peter Salovey introduced the concept of emotional intelligence, which refers to the ability to effectively regulate one’s own emotions and interpret the emotions of others. They identified four aspects of EQ –

Read More about Emotional Intelligence

  1. recognizing emotions of oneself as well as others,
  2. applying emotion appropriately in reasoning,
  3. understanding complex emotions and observing their influence on behaviour and succeeding emotional states, and
  4. emotional management ability.
Concluding remarks

Constant exploration of the phenomenon of intelligence has led psychologists to expand their understanding of the term. Newer forms of intelligence keep getting recognised, such as Machiavellian intelligence (strategies for manipulating others for personal gain, even at times against the other’s self-interest), and practical intelligence (problem-solving and common-sense strategies). Intelligence tests which only indicate one type of intelligence have been questioned as appropriate measures of a person’s mental abilities. Thus, one must remember that each one of us possesses certain abilities, and the focus must be on utilising our strengths to the best of our abilities.

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