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Explaining complicated subject matter simply since 1986

What Is Intelligence?

Human intelligence is the skilled use of knowledge and reason. It is also the ability to learn from experience, understand and apply abstract knowledge, and use that knowledge to deal with things skillfully and efficiently. Abstract knowledge differs from concrete knowledge because it exists not as material objects, but as ideas, feelings, qualities, and concepts. Abstract knowledge exists only in the mind, and includes such concepts as truth, justice, and the American Way.

On the largest scale, the concept of intelligence describes human cognition that results in an ability to function in the world, adapt, and achieve goals. On an individual level, intelligence is the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. It is also the power of thought and reasoning.

Is intelligence book smarts or street smarts?

People with limited formal educations are fond of saying that book smarts are less important than street smarts, while those with higher education feel the other way. Both are true and predictable – from their limited perspectives.

Some psychologists say a fuller definition of intelligence must include both book smarts and street smarts. They believe that individuals possess more than one type of intelligence, rather than a single, general intelligence. 

Psychologist Robert Sternberg takes it one step further with his Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

He says there are three distinct types of intelligence: practical, distinct, and analytical.

  • Practical intelligence is the ability to use and implement the things you already know to function in the real world and solve practical problems in everyday situations. Also known as contextual intelligence, it is a measure of a person’s ability to navigate adverse environments with competence and confidence. It is sometimes called common sense thinking. 
  • Creative intelligence is the ability to invent, create, and use past experiences to solve new problems. Also known as experiential intelligence, it has the ability to recognize problems and search for, generate, and implement solutions.
  • Analytical intelligence is the ability to recognize patterns, compare and contrast, evaluate, and judge. Also called componential intelligence, it is made up memory, verbal fluency, and so on.  

Sternberg’s position was that true intelligence is the combination of all three, and it takes all three to achieve your life goals.

Cognitive psychologist Howard Gardner believed human intelligence is a collection of multiple intelligences 

He came up with eight types of intelligence (he called them abilities) that are relatively independent of each other and typically not included in conventional theories of intelligence. Each of these types represent ways different people process information. Here are the labels, with examples of the types of careers that rely on each:

  • Bodily-Kinesthetic: Athletes, mechanics. 
  • Interpersonal: Teachers, salespeople.
  • Intrapersonal: Entrepreneurs, therapists.
  • Linguistic: Writers, lawyers.
  • Logical-Mathematical: Accountants, scientists.
  • Musical: Musicians, singers.
  • Naturalist: Astronomers, biologists. 
  • Spatial: Architects, pilots.

What I like best about theories with so many dimensions like this is how I can immediately see that there are more types of intelligence that I don’t have than I do.

What used to be called genius is now called intellectually gifted

Either way, they are super-smart. Lots of people have tried to define intellectual giftedness, each favoring certain elements over others. One thing they all agree on is that the super-smart have superior metacognitive skills, which is their knowledge of their own mental processes and how to regulate them for optimal decision-making. 


Metacognition helps us think better, make better decisions, and solve problems more efficiently. It is the practice of being aware of, monitoring, and controlling our own thinking, sometimes referred to as thinking about thinking. It includes not only what we know, but also what we don’t know. Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner and author of the best seller Thinking, Fast and Slow, said “One of the puzzling limitations of our mind is our excessive confidence in what we believe we know and our apparent inability to acknowledge the full extent of our ignorance.”

Metacognitive strategies are techniques used to develop awareness of our own thinking processes

The ability to self-reflect leads to our being able to recognize errors in our thinking as well as knowing what we still need to learn. Here are three specific metacognitive strategies used by the intellectually gifted:

  • Selective Encoding: The ability to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information.
  • Selective Comparison: The ability to discover new and non-obvious connections between old and new information.
  • Selective Combination: The ability to pull together seemingly disparate elements of problems to achieve novel solutions.

Another key point of differentiation between the intellectually gifted and the rest of us is that geniuses develop their own highly-successful problem-solving processes.

Organizational intelligence

This is the ability of a business or organization to learn about and understand complex situations. It requires the ability to develop and use the knowledge needed to respond to change and achieve an organization’s goals.

Organizationally, intelligence is the collection of information of value for a particular purpose

If an organization collects no information of value when it has a particular purpose, such as developing strategies and improving processes, what is its organizational intelligence level? Zip, zilch, nada.

Why is it called common sense when so few people seem to have it?

In 1776, American revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote a 47-page pamphlet that put forth the notion that Americans had the opportunity to create a new type of nation in which the people were not only free, but also were given the power to rule themselves.

Psychology Today says common sense is not at all common

The author of the article, Reid Daitzman, adds that few can even agree what common sense is because it’s such an ambiguous term. One thing about common sense is that the more people want to do something, the more likely they are to say it requires only the common sense they already have.

They’re wrong, though, because generally speaking, people are inclined to see only what they want to see. Their tendency is to seek only information that confirms what they already believe and ignore information that contradicts what they already believe. Regular readers know this is called confirmation bias

Many of the people who think common sense is enough to make sound judgments are people who don’t have the experience, knowledge, or expertise to assess problems, situations, and circumstances so that they may draw sound conclusions and make informed decisions.



Socrates: I know that I am intelligent, because I know nothing.

Steven Hawking: Intelligence it the ability to adapt to change. 

George S. Patton: If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.

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