Intelligence: What it Means to You

Intelligence in ActionWhat does intelligence mean to you? Take a moment to really think about that. Now, ask yourself another question – why do you think that? Where did your ideas about the nature of intelligence really come from?

There are two main ways that people think about intelligence. Perhaps the most common view is that intelligence is a fixed property of a person. It does not change, at least not by normal means. This is called the entity view.

The second way to think about intelligence is that it’s incremental by nature. According to this theory, you can cultivate your intelligence. Doing so will take some effort, but it is very possible to become smarter.

Psychologists and cognitive scientists have studied these different ideas about intelligence extensively. For the most part, their theories have shifted toward the incremental view. The current science suggests that intelligence is something that can improve. It does take hard work, but not brain surgery.

Many people hang on to the idea that intelligence is fixed. They feel there’s not much that can be done about it. The problem is that if you think you can’t change your intelligence, then you won’t even try. If you don’t try, it won’t change.

Lynsey Burke of the University of Stirling and Joanne Williams of the University of Edinburgh studied beliefs about intelligence held by 11 and 12 year olds. They also examined whether thinking skills training would change views of intelligence. They published their paper, “The impact of a thinking skills intervention on children’s concepts of intelligence,” in the journal Thinking Skills & Creativity.

To frame their study, Burke and Williams drew on prior research showing a link between perseverance and beliefs about intelligence. People who believe in the incremental view of intelligence tend to persist more on challenging thinking tasks.

You tend to stick with tough problems more when you believe you can use thinking skills and strategies to improve your intelligence.

The flip side was also shown. Folks who think intelligence is fixed tend to give up on difficult thinking tasks more readily. What’s the incentive, if you believe that you either “get things” or you don’t, and there’s not much to do about it?

Burke and Williams built on the past findings to answer a slightly different question. Can training in thinking skills help young people to adopt healthier views of intelligence?

The idea is that training in thinking skills highlights that different cognitive strategies exist. It also makes it clearer that some ways of thinking through problems are more effective than others. You can become more intelligent by changing up your thinking strategies.

The researchers tested these ideas in a classroom environment. They used two different versions of a 6-week thinking skills training program. One version was individual training and the other was collaborative. They also had a control group.

Burke and Williams previously found that the thinking skills training was generally effective at improving thinking. Here, they wanted to see whether the program would also lead to changes in beliefs about intelligence.

The students’ concepts of intelligence were measured in a couple of ways. One way was to get students to write out their understanding of intelligence. They did this before and after the training. The researchers also used some survey questions. The students said how much they agreed with statements like:

  • You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it
  • You can learn new things, but you can’t really change your basic intelligence

Hopefully, you are now feeling that you disagree with both of those statements.

The main findings were that most of the students came in believing that intelligence was fixed and inflexible. They held entity views of intelligence.

By the end of the experiment, the students who received the thinking skills training shifted towards the incremental view of intelligence. Those in the collaborative version of the training program changed their concept of intelligence the most.

In addition to the overall change, the trained students gained some specific new ideas about intelligence. When they wrote about what intelligence meant to them, they showed they had made the link between the nature of intelligence and the use of cognitive strategies. They now started to regard effective thinking as being central to intelligence.

That change in their concept of intelligence works hand in hand with the thinking skills they acquired, enabling them to become progressively smarter.

The researchers concluded that students’ beliefs about intelligence are shaped in no small part by the educational system. Many of us have had the notion that our intelligence is fixed deeply ingrained into our thinking. We were brought up with the idea that we can learn some things, but we can’t really get any smarter.

Identify and challenge that thinking within yourself. Root it out, and replace it with the idea that you can improve your intelligence. Doing so can help you to embrace and acquire cognitive skills, be more likely to persist through tough challenges requiring careful thought, and improve your overall motivation to learn new things.


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Image Credit: leedsn

Burke, L., & Williams, J. (2012). The impact of a thinking skills intervention on children’s concepts of intelligence Thinking Skills and Creativity, 7 (3), 145-152 DOI: 10.1016/j.tsc.2012.01.001

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  1. Artem Kaznatcheev says

    Nice blog post, the feedback between what somebody thinks they can do and what is possible is one of the most exciting links in psychology. This seems to apply more broadly than just individual humans, but to all of society. In the words of the historian J.M. Roberts:

    “Because what humans do is so much a matter of what they believe they can do … it is the making of a culture that is [the] pulse, not the making of a nation or an economy”

    My only concern was the vague use of the terms ‘intelligence’ and ‘smart’. These terms can be incredibly slippery and even culture dependent. How were they operationalized in the study? What did the kids equate intelligence to? It seems weird to discuss if something is static or dynamic when that something wasn’t clearly defined.

    • Winston Sieck says

      Thanks, Artem. Agree with you about the challenge with those terms. Burke and Williams approached it purely subjectively, asking the students to supply their own definitions, and then performing content analysis on the results. They got a wide variety of answers, as anticipated by your comment. Main finding was that students who received the training were more likely to incorporate notions of thinking ability into their definitions. Your point about cultural differences in beliefs about the nature of intelligence is very interesting.


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