What Is Intelligence? Definition, Features, & Theories

What is Intelligence? Definition, Features, and 6 Major Theories (Explained)

What is Intelligence?

Intelligence can be defined as the capacity of an individual to use his cognition in a way that best fits with the particular environment. An intelligent individual can adjust to the situation and the unintelligent one blames the situation.

On one positive side of the spectrum, we describe people as bright, witty, quick, sharp, or, slow, dull, blunt, on the other end of the spectrum. We like to refer to as an intelligent individual and value intelligence. Some people can excel and secure excellent remarks while others fail in the same subjects. Successful people seem to have the overall ability to do extremely well at a variety of tasks, especially those related to managing, relationships with others, and dealing with the environment.

The concept of intelligence is a controversial topic, defined in a variety of ways. When asked what intelligence means, most people emphasize problem-solving abilities and knowledge about the world. They also sometimes distinguished academic intelligence as “Book smart” and social intelligence and personal skills as separate types of intelligence.

A distinguished panel of experts refers to intelligence in individuals “as the ability to understand complex ideas, to adapt effectively to the environment, to learn from experience, to engage in various forms of reasoning, to overcome obstacles by careful thought (Neisser et al., 1996).

Benjamin B. Lahey (1995) in his “Psychology an Introduction” refers to intelligence as the “total of cognition”. According to him, intelligence refers to the cognitive abilities of an individual to learn from experience, reason well, and cope effectively with the demands of daily living. In short, it deals with how well a person can use his cognition to cope with the world. From the above discussion we can point out it as follows:

  • Intelligence is the ability to learn from experience.
  • It is the adapt effectively with the environment.
  • It is the ability to reason, understand complex ideas, and think abstractly.
  • It is the total sum of cognition that refers to the individual’s overall capacity.

Theories of Intelligence In Psychology

Let’s look into the intelligence theories,

Two Factor or G-Factor Theory of Intelligence

English psychologist Charles Spearman (1927) advocated this theory. He believed that performance on any cognitive task depended on a primary general factor and one or more specific factors relating to particular tasks. Spearman uses the term “g” to refer to the general factor of intelligence, and “s” to refer to the specific factor. Thus, this theory also referred to a “g” and “s” factor of intelligence.

General factor describes intelligence as a general phenomenon that exists among individuals in different amounts. This makes each different, so each person’s performance varies. The general factor is the kind of mental energy that coordinates and influences mental abilities. Spearman observed that people who perform tasks well on one type of intelligent tasks tend to do well on most other tasks, although their scores on these tasks are seldom the same.

Spearman proposed another type of factor “s” for specific, to explain the differences in correlations between different pairs of tests which served as measures. According to him, the “s” factor reveals specific abilities unique to certain tests. Individuals vary in their overall intellectual capacity (“g” factor) but some people are better at mathematical tasks, while others are better at verbal tasks (“s” factor).

Group Factor Theory

Other psychologists argue that intelligence is not a single general factor as theorized by Spearman but a collection of many separate specific abilities. L.L. Thurston (1938) argued against Spearman’s emphasis on general intelligence. Thurstone theorized that it can be broken down into many primary abilities. He developed an alternative to Spearman’s, called the “Primary Mental Abilities Test” which measures seven primary factors of intelligence.

  • Verbal Comprehension – The ability to understands the meaning of words, vocabulary test can measure an individual’s proficiency using this ability.
  • Word Fluency – The ability to think words rapidly, as in solving anagrams or thinking of words that rhyme.
  • Number – The ability to work with numbers and perform mathematical computations.
  • Space – The ability to visualize space, form relationships, as in recognizing the same figure presented in different orientations.
  • Memory – The ability to recall verbal stimuli such as word pairs or sentences.
  • Perceptual Speed – The ability to grasp visual details quickly and to see similarities and differences between pictured objects.
  • Reasoning – The ability to find a general rule on the basis of presented instances, as in determining how a number series is constructed after being presented with only a portion of that series.

Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence

A third definition that addresses intelligence as multifaceted is advocated by Howard Gardner (1993, 1999). He suggested that there is more to intelligence than single scores or current tests of it. People can manifest it in many ways that are not measured by such tests.

According to him, a person with high interpersonal intelligence may become a superb salesperson despite having only average logical/mathematical abilities or a brilliant composer may have poor linguistic skills. Gardner suggested that different types of intelligence are mediated by different parts of the brain.

Originally, Gardner proposed seven multiple intelligences, later adding one, making eight instead of seven, which consist of:

  • Verbal/Linguistic – Mastery, love, and ability to use language and words, found in poets, speakers, writers, and rap singers.
  • Musical – High level of competence in composing and performing, sensitivity to pitch and tone, evident in composers, singers, and musicians.
  • Logical/Mathematical – Used in solved mathematics problems and in logical thinking for instance, in science and mathematics, especially highly advanced mathematics.
  • Visual/Spatial – Ability to grasp how objects orient in space, which can be very useful in art and navigation, therefore observed in artists, pilots, and astronauts.
  • Movement or Bodily-Kinesthetic – Ability to control body motions and to handle objects skillfully, found in dancers and athletes.
  • Interpersonal Intelligence – Sensitivity to people and an ability to understand what motivates them, how to work effectively with them, and how to lead and follow.
  • Intrapersonal Intelligence – Understanding one’s emotions and being able to draw on them to guide one’s behavior.
  • Naturalist – Ability to recognize patterns in nature, to identify and classify plants, animals, and minerals, and to use this information in activities such as farming or landscaping.

Triarchic Theory

Intelligence is always used to solve a problem or accomplish a task. It is the capacity for goal-directed adaptive behavior (Sternberg and Salter, 1982). Robert Sternberg has emphasized the importance of “practical intelligence” which is more important in real life, usually outside the classroom.

A new model, called the “Triarchic theory of intelligence”, was proposed by Sternberg. This model comprises three analytical, creative, and practical intelligence.

  • Analytical – The ability to breakdown a problem or situation into its components. It is usually measured by most current intelligent tests.
  • Creative – The ability to cope with novelty and to solve a problem in new and unusual ways. People who are exceptional scientists and inventors lie in this category.
  • Practical – This category comprises a public understanding of the account. Common sense or street smartness or tacit knowledge is missing in standard intelligence tests usually shown as a result of practical know-how from everyday experience.

Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence: Cattel’s Approach

One of the influential and recent views on intelligence suggests that it consists of two components namely fluid and crystallized intelligence (Cattel, 1967, 1987). It is an integrated approach, both of them work together as a coordination system.


Crystallized intelligence refers to accumulated knowledge and information due to our past experiences. It includes the use of information learned previously to make decisions and solving problems. For example, classroom tests, vocabulary tests, discussion about the solution to a particular topic like street children, etc.

Fluid intelligence refers to our inherited abilities to think and reason. It is the hardware of our brain that sets the limit to our information processing capabilities. It includes reasoning capabilities, forming concepts memory, identification of similarities, and solving analogy. It is more intuitive, creative than simply using existing knowledge.

Research suggests that skill relating to fluid intelligent comes to a peak at the early adulthood and declines in old age. On the other hand, skills relating to crystallized intelligence remain steady and in some cases actually improve.

The Cultural Concept of Intelligence

It is also culturally defined. How a person’s defined, varies across cultures, differing in time and place.

People of different cultures from the far-western to far-eastern locations have their own definition of intelligence. Japanese place greater emphasis on the process of thinking than people in the United States. Japanese have several characteristics of intelligence related to thinking such as good judgment and good memory, while Americans placed greater importance on external appearances and outcomes (looking good, smart gestures, result-oriented).

Taiwanese Chinese included interpersonal, intrapersonal talent, and self-assertion in their definition. Africans focus on skills that facilitate and maintain harmonious group relations. Most African cultures define intelligence as a form of perceptual abilities, which are adaptive for people who must hunt and avoid dangerous animals.

In a rural Kenyan village, a person who can recognize how to use natural herbal medicine to fight illness is considered an intelligent person rather than someone who performs well on a western-style vocabulary test. Cultural groups who depend on the sea for their livelihood often show an extraordinary ability to remember relevant landmarks or channel locations in navigating the ocean.

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