Updating our representations of intelligence is not useless in the current context of a knowledge economy. It is now common to hear about smart objects, homes or smart cars. But then does not the human being have an intelligence different from that of machines, objects or even animals, even plants?
If everyone – humans, objects, animals and plants included – shows intelligent … it really means to be smart in the XXI th century?
In the early 1980s, the psychologist René Zazzo already warned that this term is unenlightening as it takes different forms in everyday life, but also according to the authors who conceptualize it. One path he wanted to follow was to take a closer look at the concrete situations in which people manifest intelligent behavior. A way to reveal the fulfillment of these different forms of intelligence, including humor, rather than sticking to a general definition.
Moreover, to refine our understanding of intelligence, he advocated studying … bullshit! A recent book has seized this objective and one learns moreover that intelligence or bullshit, in both cases, it is always in the eyes of the other that it is played!
To what extent do representations about the intelligence that I convey in my remarks influence, for example, those of my children? Am I, as a parent, smarter than my own parents but less intelligent than my children? Is the human really the only intelligent animal? The list of questions and received ideas seems inexhaustible, but let us take some examples to show that psychology can propose tools of critical analyzes on these questions.
The amazing skills of babies
Not so long ago, the human baby was considered a poorly intelligent being. It was not until the famous Jean Piaget’s work that our eyes on them changed: they were able to act quite surprisingly on the world around them. Piaget spoke of “sensorimotor intelligence” to describe the intelligence of babies before entering representations and language.
Today, some authors even talk about “baby surveyors” or “physicists” or “psychologists” as the current techniques of studying infant knowledge have evolved. They have shown, for example, that from the age of 4-5 months, they are surprised when an object does not function properly in relation to what usually happens or when the person acting strangely or unexpectedly.
Another example is that infants recognize people around them early and are able to interact with them in a conversation. All these researches have thus upset our representations both on what a baby is capable of doing and on our own representations of intelligence.
But, if a 4-5-month-old baby is surprised when a glass floats suspended in the air and does not fall, does that mean he understands the universal law of gravitation? What are the differences between this first form of understanding of the world and that of explaining, with words, the physical properties of objects, then solving problems that make it possible to compare and classify them according to these? Does intelligence become verbal with age when it is expressed differently in the baby? Is it unitary? Plural?
Parents and children
Research in psychology makes it possible to identify different forms of intelligence and also proposes to question certain evidences that, until then, were self-evident: “the intelligence you have it or you do not have it”, “the children are smarter than their parents “; “IQ evaluates intelligence” …
We now know that representations of intelligence conveyed by parents have an impact on their children. Thus, when the school record of their offspring contains “bad” grades, some parents see the opportunity to work more, to make efforts to learn from this failure while others will rather interpret this failure as a fatality ” I knew you’re not good at maths, it’s like that! “, Thus highlighting their child a finding of incompetence well anchored.
Parents are not the only ones involved! Already old studies have revealed that these fixed or stable conceptions of intelligence – “you have it or you do not have it” – also exist among teachers. These researches highlight that what is problematic is not to experience failure but to associate it with an intrinsic deficit or incapacity of the child.
The very definitions of intelligence change depending on the story, the tools we use to say something about it, or what we value in a given culture as a so-called “smart” answer. Thus, if we refer to the work of Jim Flynn , one of the specialists in intelligence, the Flynn effect refers to the fact that if you pass today the same intelligence test that your parents spent when they had your age, your performance will be on average ten points higher than theirs.
In addition to the debates aroused by this observation and possible explanations, this researcher illustrates these differences in intelligence test performance, from one generation to the next, with several examples, one of which is repeated here: if you asked, in 1900 , to a child what rabbits and dogs had in common he would have told you that dogs are used to hunt rabbits; today, the only answer that yields points in an intelligence test is: both are mammals.
We note here that there is no “good” answer in “oneself” but that the expected answer, according to the times, is based on the values of a given society. But then, how do I know if I’m smarter than my parents and less than my children? It deserves to take a closer look at scientific work and to be critical.
Author Bio: Christine Sorsana is a Lecturer-HDR in developmental psychology, University Toulouse Jean Jaurès, University of Lorraine and Valérie Tartas is a Professor of Developmental Psychology, Federal University Toulouse Midi-Pyrénées