The misunderstanding of IQ

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6 November 2009

Bloom's Taxonomy

There are many people in my industry who are “smart” but are often unable to actually be effective. I have numerous examples: developers who can’t balance perfection and progress, entrepreneurs who can’t see that their idea is useless, executives who can’t see the inevitable failure of their plan, and people who just can’t figure out how to turn their great idea into something real. I run into such people, in varying degrees, nearly every day.

In fact, I have struggled with this myself. When I first started my career as a developer, I had a hard time balancing the intellectual purity of an idea against the “messy” path to actually bringing that idea to implementation. It’s hard to accept that the perfect idea really isn’t feasible, and instead opt for something less-perfect in order to actually get something done. But I have learned this lesson (repeatedly!), and much of my success in business has come from learning to understand and accept that some progress toward a slightly better place is much better than no progress toward a perfect place. In fact, I’m now more often a proponent of the other side of the coin – I’d much rather just do something (useful) than try to engineer a perfect solution. So long as smart, capable people are involved in the doing, the end product is usually awesome.

So I am very intimately aware that “high IQ” is not the same as “highly effective.” I’ve known it for a long time, but I’ve never been able to clearly understand exactly why that is. Well, Keith Stanovich figured it out for me. He studied this issue, and learned something relatively obvious – that IQ is a measure of intellectual capacity, but capacity is not the same as ability to use it. (Size doesn’t matter, right?) He uses the term “rational thinking” to describe the ability to use intelligence to solve problems, and this article at New Scientist covers the topic very well.

Go read that article. It will hopefully help you understand that IQ is only somewhat related to success, and that rational thinking is more important. And rational thinking can be learned, and improved on, relatively easily. So there’s hope for all of us, to actually learn to be effective!

Having read that article, I am pleased to have sorted out an intellectual conundrum, but I’m also somewhat embarrassed – I’ve been teaching people this idea for years now, and I just didn’t realize it. See, when I teach people what to look for when interviewing, I refer them to Bloom’s Taxonomy, specifically to the six levels of cognitive skills:

  1. Knowledge
  2. Comprehension
  3. Application
  4. Analysis
  5. Synthesis
  6. Evaluation

To be successful in the roles I’m usually hiring for (Analyst, Project Manager, or similar), the person needs to be highly capable in the top three levels – analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. There are good ways to try to evaluate those things in an interview, and I have a very specific set of interview questions and activities that try to draw them out. (This idea has worked very well, by the way – I’ve been very successful at interviewing and hiring, using this approach.)

So it seems to me, now that I’ve thought through the idea of rational thinking, that Bloom’s Taxonomy isn’t really about intelligence at all. Instead, it is focused on the skills required to apply intelligence effectively. That is corroborated by the fact that the Taxonomy is often used in education as a way to judge how well a student is learning fundamental skills, and not as a way to judge their intelligence.

So the embarrassing part is that I’ve been using Bloom’s Taxonomy (and teaching it to others!) as a way to evaluate people’s effectiveness, all the while trying to understand why high-IQ people aren’t always effective. If I had just once put the two ideas next to each other, I probably would have figured out the answer for myself. Huh.

Maybe that’s just proof that I still need to work on both, myself ;)

P.S. – I also owe a big debt of gratitude to the late Mrs. Lilly, the teacher who taught me about Bloom’s Taxonomy in elementary school, and who I know was responsible for accelerating my early development in analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. Thank you, Mrs. Lilly!

The image of Bloom’s Taxonomy was reused (from Wikimedia Commons) under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 license

  1. Amitai Schlair says:

    I would go a step further: a high IQ tends to impede effectiveness. The higher the IQ, the harder it is to tame. I’ve probably told you about an incredibly smart friend of mine who’s at the mercy of his profound intelligence. He’s not driving the car; it goes wherever it wants, taking him along for the ride. A quote from the article put me in mind of him:

    As Daniel Kahneman at Princeton University puts it, intelligence is about brain power whereas rational thinking is about control.

    I would summarize my reasoning thus: the more your brain could be doing (or is doing) the more it requires of you to decide what it should be doing.

    I’m speaking from personal experience here too, as you know. After years of practice deciding what’s important for me to focus on, I’m quite sure my IQ has decreased some (my performance in Honors Math being a strong clue). I’m also pretty sure my life is far better as a result — not of my lower IQ, but of the decisions (which happened to also have an effect on my IQ). This took a lot of work. Fortunately I wasn’t overly smart to begin with! My friend isn’t so lucky. I wonder whether he’ll ever be able to rebootstrap himself.

  2. Nathan Arthur says:

    Agreed on all points :) And I like your explanation, it fits with my experience. In fact, the biggest motivator for me to learn to control my intelligence was the emotional pain caused by failure, in cases where I was too far on the IQ-side of the spectrum. That pain, plus a realization that the failure really was my problem to fix, motivated me to try to understand why I failed, and I eventually realized that my commitment to perfection (or intellectual ideals) was actually getting in the way of making rational decisions.

  3. Marilyn Arthur says:

    It’s a good article. And I didn’t do well on any of the 3 quesitons, but purposely did them intuitively rather than reasoning them through because I really don’t like to spend much time on those types of questions. So what does that say about me? Hence my dislike of the puzzles that you so enjoy!

    At the elementary education level, where life deisions are often made about students based on IQ tests, we are, honestly, quite aware of the information in that article. And we are doing a better job of looking at the whole child rather than the IQ as a stand alone, but we have a long way to go.

    As I work with students with language delays, one of the most fascinating aspects of our cognitive development, or lack of it as the case may be, is the metacognitive. Our ability to think about what we are thinking about is a gateway step in our rational thinking process. It is where, as educators, we would love to be able to take our students but it’s not easy to find those steps that lead a child (or adult) there. We can only think rationally when we can think about what we are thinking.

  4. Nathan Arthur says:

    P.P.S. – I also owe a big debt of gratitude to my old friend and co-worker Nate Allen, who actually originated the idea of applying Bloom’s Taxonomy to interviewing. I had forgotten where the idea came from, and just assumed that it was mine from somewhere. Not so, though!

    Thanks, Nate – it’s made a big difference for me. I’m sorry I didn’t give you appropriate credit in the article, originally.

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