Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 28 May 2014

IQ: Outdated, irrelevant, in need of review

The standard measurement of intelligence, IQ (Intelligence Quotient) was devised more than a hundred years ago, when the memory of facts and computational ability were key indicators. Technology has now eliminated the need for much of what IQ stood for. Google and electronic calculators do the work for us.

The new IQ is working memory. This is the ability to work consciously with information that is already saved in your brain and to process it effectively. It enables you to manipulate information, make calculations and can reformat what is already known in order to focus on a particular problem. It gives mental agility and generates many of the skills previously supposed to have been the result of IQ. The old IQ was about facts. Working memory, being the new IQ, very simply, is about information processing.

The authors Tracy and Ross Alloway, a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida and the CEO of Memosyne, respectively, have written the book The New IQ: Using your working memory to think stronger, smarter and faster. In it they describe the use of working memory. They say that the working memory is like the conductor of an orchestra playing all the various remembered ‘instruments’ of knowledge in your brain to compose the desired ‘symphony’. It is not IQ, they say, that enables you to manage yourself through all the complex elements of a busy day; to negotiate a new raise with your boss, or to juggle the various demands on your time and resources, to deal with a difficult client or organise your fractured life; it is your working memory.

Working memory, according to the Alloway description, “gives you the advantage of control over the daily information onslaught; the e-mails, the ringing phones, the schedule that is constantly changing, the new maths lesson that has to be learned, your friend’s disheartening Facebook update, and the presentation that must be rapidly assembled for a potential client. In this ocean of information, where everything seems equally important, your working memory has two main functions: It prioritises and processes information, allowing you to ignore what is irrelevant and work with what is important. It also holds on to information so that you can work with it.”

But if the concept of IQ is to be made redundant, the question is: what about all the educational and business assessment platforms that are driven by it? IQ has for many years been the standard measure used to predict educational achievement, special needs, job suitability and many other performance indicators.

The controversial book The Bell Curve, written in the nineties by Richard J Herrnstein and Charles Murray, claimed that intelligence is influenced by both inherited and environmental factors and that it is the ultimate predictor of many elements of human behaviour. These included, according to them, financial income, job performance, chance of unwanted pregnancy, involvement in crime, socioeconomic status and many others. Their most controversial conclusions included racial stereotyping

They were roundly condemned for their stereotyping and respectable psychologists wanted nothing to do with their findings. The notion of a bell-curve, however, established itself in the language and practice of institutions of learning, business schools, recruitment practices in human resource facilities and popular jargon. It helps one understand that the extremes of any measurement are smaller at either end and that the big bulge in the middle is the average. The bell curve is a theoretical concept that creates an immediately understood mental picture of a bell. Intelligence distributed “on the curve” has for many people made sense of something that would otherwise be difficult to understand.

But IQ always had a somewhat sinister aspect to it. As a kind of “black box” of human achievement and endeavour, people tended to treat it with a respectful awe but also a measure of suspicion. Proud parents and teachers sometimes referred breathlessly to the “high IQ” of their charges and how “gifted” they were. Everyone understands the IQ-jargon. Einstein, it is said, was a genius with an IQ through the roof. People are always very keen to find out what their IQ is. It is a measure that can define self-esteem and one’s place in the jungle of life.

In some places, the “IQ-industry” has spawned all kinds of enterprises. There have even been charlatan businesses that guaranteed that they could “raise your child’s IQ” and presumably they could have a happy life forever after. Doubtful organisations like “Mensa” only admitted members that were above a certain level of IQ. Who knows how many ambitious people tried to prove their credentials and compensate for whatever by making the sacrifices to become such members?

But it has been disconcerting at times, when IQ was clearly not correlating with performance as predicted. The question, then, to be addressed is why some people with supposedly high IQs ended up performing poorly and why it is, by the same model of reasoning, that some that are supposedly of low IQ do very well. Every functioning adult remembers bright achievers from school that didn’t make it in real life and that there were those less impressive students who really did shoot the lights out after school. What was it that propelled them? There are PhDs who can’t find employment and people with minimal education who become high level business executives. There are legendary tales of university drop-outs who become world-famous inventors and entrepreneurs. One can’t help wondering how it all works.

We know now that working memory must have had a critical impact on the lives of many and that traditional measurements of ability only told part of the story. We make fun of politicians who failed in their schooling careers and have no proper cognitive credentials. Yet they conduct themselves with a measure of expertise and manage somehow to rise to the occasion.

While the concept of working memory is being understood increasingly, there are now many research initiatives to examine how working memory is established in the human being (it starts, research has found, in the womb) and how it evolves during the course of life; especially in old age. No doubt we will be learning how to build it and in due course how to measure it.

Will this knowledge change our approach to education? Will it also create new methods of assessing suitability for jobs and the careers that are now so heavily influenced by academic and IQ assessments? DM

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