Against intelligence: Why metacognition matters

Preface: I wanted to address this topic early in the lifespan of ThereforeThink, as I don’t want all the talk about reasoning, the brain, philosophical ideas or intelligent decision-making to be comprehended as IQ-elitism. Hopefully this article clears up any potential concerns in that regard. To be concise, though, anything that is said here at ThereforeThink is intended to be useful, irrespective of IQ. The goal is to make this information accessible and applicable to anyone who is willing to read it.

Colloquially, we recognise someone’s IQ as how smart they are. But what is it exactly? How concerned about our own should we be? Are there more important considerations?

You’ve heard of IQ. But do you know what it really means?

IQ stands for Intelligence Quotient. This is a numerical representation of your estimated “intelligence”. Your score is determined by performance on a standardised test. The mean (average) score is 100 and scores follow a standard bell-curve distribution either side of that point (i.e. 68% of people fall between 85 and 115 and only about 1%  fall below 60 or above 140).

Something we need to be clear on, is that performance on an IQ test returns an estimation of intelligence, not a measurement. The concept of intelligence is so broad, and abstract, that it cannot be completely captured by a single test.

Although the tests are standardised, there is still a wide-variety of IQ tests. This means that their demands may be more specific to certain individuals or demographics than others. This can be true irrespective of attempts at standardisation.

For example, requirements can range from detecting the obscure pattern in a series of strange shapes, to tests of arithmetic and general knowledge. The latter of these requires more “traditional schooling” than the former, influencing the success of various sub-populations. The most widely used test is the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS) and it measures things such as processing speed, verbal comprehension, working memory and perceptual reasoning.

The primary argument against these tests is that, even with broad categories, they are abysmally narrow at detecting all of our cognitive capacities. Or, phrased in the opposite manner, what it takes to be truly intelligent is too vast to be captured by such tests. The subsequent counter-argument — and I am simplifying to a significant extent — is that the tests still appear to predict very important things. They might not measure intelligence, per se, but they measure other valuable things by proxy. Or so the story goes.

What do intelligence tests predict?

In a turn of events that should be filed in any category other than surprising, IQ best predicts academic success. Given this was the purpose of its invention, we should only hope it’s the case. To a less significant degree, though, IQ also predicts various socioeconomic and health-related outcomes. These outcomes can range from how likely you are to get divorced prior to 5 years of marriage, all the way up to how long you will live. More important than what it predicts, though, is remembering that it is calculated via averages. You can certainly live a long-life, or earn a substantial income, without having the classification of “Genius”. Which was the historical classification of IQ of over 140.

To complicate things further, it is also not clear how directly IQ contributes to these financial or health outcomes. IQ may play a direct role. Possibly, though, what IQ tests measure is preferentially selected for by white-collar jobs. This notion makes a decent amount of sense when looked at through the lens of Machiavellian Intelligence, which is the idea that intelligence evolved for social posturing and political purposes. However, I will write more about that a later time and I won’t digress further here. These white-collar jobs then tend to have higher-salaries and lower-risks by comparison to blue-collar jobs, which then cause the benefits we see associated with IQ. In my opinion, there likely is some causation. However, this amount is likely superseded by the degree of correlation.

Beyond IQ

Your intelligence isn’t defined by your IQ — or your academic success for that matter. Your self-worth certainly isn’t defined by your intelligence. Furthermore, what is predicted by your IQ is often predicted more effectively by other things. 

Unfortunately, though, you can’t learn the technicalities of measuring intelligence, or the caveats of predicting life outcomes with it, just by watching snippets of Jordan Peterson lectures on Youtube. I mention Peterson appears in at least two ~12-minute videos on the topic, each with over 1 million views. This kind of reach has a significant impact on the understanding, or lack thereof, that the general public regarding the topic. Either directly, or through the broader conversations it generates.

So, while Peterson is correct in highlighting the predictive power of IQ on various socioeconomic outcomes (the same basic argument that Murray & Hernstein made over 25 years ago in their book titled The Bell Curve), there are many more intricacies to these topics than is typically understood by the lay-population. We must be careful how we speak about and interpret this information. Just as many are not even aware of where Peterson has taken his basic contention from, they are also not aware of how much criticism the book has received since its publication.

As an aside, but general rule of clear thinking: Never make someone your guru. Do your own research.

This is not to say that Peterson is wrong, quite the opposite actually, from what I can tell anyway. The problem is that what he says is often misunderstood and misrepresented, often unknowingly by his followers. Unfortunately, people, myself included, tend to consume information almost solely for the purpose of crystallising our worldview. When something agrees with their preconceptions, we accept it. If not, we reject it. You know, Confirmation Bias 101 stuff. 

In my opinion, this has contributed to some significant misunderstandings about the role of IQ in modern-society. Unfortunately, many falsely believe their futures are written for them, based on IQ or a different score they received from an aptitude-based test. This may not always be an IQ-test, but also ATAR or SAT scores. However, a high-IQ/ATAR or prestigious education do not guarantee you a glorious life. Nor does dropping out of high-school guarantee you a disastrous one.

So remember, you can be both healthy and wealthy irrespective of your IQ. It is a committing of the ecological fallacy to assume that because certain groups are characterised by particular traits, that individuals within the group must have that trait. High-wage earners may be characterised by a high-IQ, but you can still be a high-wage earner without a high-IQ. Various traits may be supportive, but not definitive.

To clarify quickly, a fallacy is an error in reasoning which invalidates a particular argument. Errors in reasoning are given different and specific names so that they can be labelled clearly. Doing this allows us to make each distinct from something else. This is important, because in order to think and reason well, we need precision about what is wrong. We cannot just rely on broad labels of “good” and “bad” — although they can be useful starting points.

Being aware of fallacies and their many forms is important when it comes to establishing the truth. We often make grave errors in our reasoning, and thus act on invalidated arguments. Unfortunately, this leads us down a path that is discontinuous with reality. A path that leads to a brutal wake-up call when the illusion is ripped away.

On the topic of reasoning well, and important to our purposes here, emerging research shows that it is likely much more important than “intelligence” for determining life-outcomes. So while IQ is rather rigid — in that, it is highly heritable and likely can’t be improved much with environmental factors — other aspects of cognition are much more malleable and susceptible to development. Promising news indeed.

Magical metacognition

Metacognition is awareness of your own thought processes. It is the skill of insight into the conclusions you come to as well as how and why. Importantly, metacognition is something that can be improved and developed over time. Learning to be actively open-minded, how to self-distance, think critically and emotionally-differentiate are techniques that can be learned regardless of IQ. Additionally, they show a degree of association with positive life-outcomes that exceeds that of intelligence.

When it comes to avoiding the kinds of thought processes that result in bankruptcy, the trialling of diet-fads, poor financial investing, substance-addictions or unplanned pregnancies, metacognitive skills appear to be far more important than any measure of IQ.

Not only are these skills something you can improve, but they seem to be of more importance than intelligence anyway when it comes to improving the trajectory of your life. More promising news.

These skills are something that I believe everyone should look to learn, and promote in those who they care about. That is why we will be sharing many tips on how to cultivate them at ThereforeThink.

I am fascinated by the power of knowledge; in particular, how through its implementation we can build a better life for ourselves and others. Most specifically, I am interested in ideas related to rationality and morality. I believe we can all be benefited by having a concern for both probability as well as people. As a student, I am studying Artificial Intelligence. As a professional, I work in mental health case management. When I am not doing one of these things, I am very likely writing for my blog, recording an episode for the "PhilosophyAu" podcast, hanging out with my nan, reading a book or, occasionally, attending a rave. A previous version of myself obtained a bachelors and a masters degree in sport science and was the Manager of Educational Services for a leading health and fitness company.
4 Responses
  1. Anshuman Radhakrishnan

    Great post! I think you’re touching on a lot of territory that Keith Stanovich also covers in his book “What Intelligence Tests Miss”. I’m personally unsure to what degree instrumental and epistemic rationality can be trained- I think that (to use Kahneman’s terminology) System 2 processes can definitely be improved, but I think there is some disagreement among experts about how large that improvement can be.

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