The intelligent attitude

What is the intelligent attitude? Psychologists have been measuring intelligence for over 100 years. Intelligence measurements have been widely used for years for admission to educations and selection decisions. In a new article, Robert Sternberg (2022) argues for a broader view of intelligence. I discuss some of the main points from the interesting article.

Intelligence: not only an ability but also an attitude

Robert Sternberg argues for a broader view of intelligence:
  • Sternberg's central message is that intelligence consists not only of an ability, a capacity, but also of an attitude.
  • Intelligence as an ability refers to skills such as acquiring knowledge and thinking critically or analytically about that knowledge.
  • The intelligent attitude refers to the extent to which, the way in which and for what purpose people use their intelligence.
  • Sternberg argues that psychologists and laymen alike tend to overlook this fact and that this is a problem. 
  • According to Sternberg, many of the problems we face in the world today stem not so much from a lack of intelligence as ability, but from a lack of an intelligent attitude.
  • In other words, people choose not to use the intelligence they have, or in a biased way. 

What is the intelligent attitude?

Sternberg distinguishes three important aspects of the intelligence attitude:
  1. The desire to acquire relevant information. Some reasons why people do not always choose to acquire accurate information are a tendency to rely on authority and belief rather than critical analysis.
  2. The integrity of the processing of the information. The desire for information that is internally consistent (ie meaningful) and externally consistent (ie true).
  3. The positivity to which the information will be spent. The extent to which people strive to use their intelligence for good purposes.

Other aspects of the intelligent attitude

Although Sternberg sees the above aspects as most important, he mentions many other attitude aspects that play a role:
  1. expect constructive criticism of one's views from others;
  2. have an open mind;
  3. want to learn from and collaborate with others;
  4. feel free to change views over time;
  5. metacognitive thinking – striving to understand and control one's knowledge and thoughts;
  6. be willing to learn from his mistakes;
  7. strive for criticism of one's own ideas;
  8. adapt to alternative contexts and realize that an answer that works in one context may not necessarily work in another;
  9. be willing to think flexibly;
  10. know when and how to change perspective;
  11. are willing to learn from their own failures and those of others;
  12. finding out how to effectively learn what one does not know;
  13. realize that his knowledge is incomplete and try to supplement it as far as possible;
  14. welcoming intellectual setbacks as a way to grow in his thinking; and
  15. be willing to overcome obstacles.

Why we don't always use intelligence

Sternberg lists the following reasons why people may choose not to use their intelligence properly:
  1. Intellectual laziness: it is easier to parrot others or to believe an authority than to make the mental effort to use our intelligence ourselves
  2. Myside bias: only consulting sources with whom we have an ideological affinity.
  3. Unsafe cultures: In autocratic societies such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, it can be dangerous to display an intelligent attitude
  4. Education: people are sometimes spoon-fed to believe what religious and ideological leaders say
  5. Conformity Pressure: It's easier to go along with the majority view than to think for yourself.
  6. Bad Intentions: Intelligence does not protect against evil. Some things that seem silly may actually be immoral.

Seemingly intelligent people who say and do foolish things

An elderly lady recently asked me: “How is it possible that Thierry Baudet [a Dutch populist politicians with fascist inclinations] says such strange things? He is intelligent, isn't he?"
Sternberg's article provides a good explanation for a seemingly intelligent person saying such foolish things. Maybe his intelligence is high but something is wrong with his attitude of intelligence.

Implications for practice

Sternberg draws some conclusions and makes some recommendations:
  • we must develop not only intelligence as an ability but also intelligence as an attitude;
  • we also need to start making the attitude component of intelligence measurable (Sternberg and his colleagues are already working on this);
  • we need to revise the theories of intelligence and include intelligence as an attitude, not just an ability or skill;
  • we must adopt an intelligent attitude ourselves.

My reflections

I think Sternberg has written a valuable contribution.
  • If we try to understand the importance of the intelligent attitude, we can use the metaphor of a car. Sometimes we pretend that it is only about the power of the engine (intelligence). But this is a misconception. If your car has a big engine but you neglect it, it wears out. If you don't drive it, you won't get anywhere. If you drive in the wrong direction, you will not arrive at a good destination. If your car has a smaller engine, it shouldn't stop you getting anywhere. You can still get anywhere you want to go. This requires you to drive in the right direction, drive until you get there and take good care of your bike.
  • But while this metaphor underlines the importance of the intelligent attitude, the metaphor is actually too simple. Because the metaphor suggests a too static image of intelligence (like the power of a motor). Human intelligence arises more organically and is more dynamic than a car engine. We can develop intelligence (as an ability). A stimulating environment plays a decisive role in this (read more).