Intelligence has much to do with discrimination. No, really. Here’s what I mean. I was once told by someone who picked up my book and was supposed to be kind of a modern “seer” or inexplicably wise person or something (not that I think all that much of “woo”) that my greatest gift was that of discrimination.
So, of course, I joked about it. I probably said something like “Yah when I owned a diner back in 1950, it was for whites only.”
I jest. What she meant it turns out is that I have a well-developed skill at discriminating between this and that, as it were. I was trying to think about what that means. At the risk of being immodest, I think that whether or not that IS true about ME, the idea of discrimination is one of the pillars of intelligence.
In psychology, there is something called stimulus discrimination. It involves “classical conditioning” – you may know about Pavlov and the salivating dogs experiments in the early 1900s. Basically, one thing is paired with another, such as a ringing bell and the presence of food (with salivating being the result). The subject can discriminate between, say, a ringing bell and at a certain octave or tone or whatever, and one of a similar but different tone. If you can tell the difference, auditorily, you don’t salivate, because your mind doesn’t associate the stimulus in question with an impending reward.
Fun fact: (well, not so fun) experiments have shown that dogs become very anxious when they are the subject of an experiment and they can’t successfully discriminate between two stimuli – and one of the stimuli results in a punishment (a mild but still frightening electrical shock) but the other one does not. Dogs, like people, can deal with a certain amount of stress, but it is helpful when they can at least predict when it’s coming. If that skill is stymied, it causes great anxiety. I, too, don’t like being out of control. And yes, research psychology has a lot to atone for when it comes to some of its experiments with both lower animals and humans. Related link.
Okay, where I am going with this blog is this: I think intelligence does involve the ability to discriminate well. Specifically, if one is out there in the world, the more intelligent one is, the better one is able to tell this from that. Distinguish or perceive or scrutinize might be synonyms.
Diction is a good example. Many people think diction means your voice tone or something like that. It actually refers to one’s ability to discriminate between various words that are in one’s vocabulary. That is, one’s vocabulary is a storehouse of every word a person knows how to use correctly, and diction is one’s ability to use them correctly. So, a person with excellent diction would say something such as “That speech was eloquent; I was moved to great emotion; I still feel it resonating with me.” A person with less developed diction would say: “That was a great speech. It was very exciting. They are very talented.” Diction can discriminate between similar-but-different words such as trite and pedantic; superfluous and irrelevant; wise and informed; angry and indignant.
Think of when you were new on the job (or think of someone who recently started working in your field) – did you not have trouble distinguishing a lot of stuff? I remember being new to a lot of things during my 44 years, and being a novice or a newbie is a unique feeling. You may have had a bit of background, capacity, and interest, but you were way out of your league. It takes practice to develop, as they say. So, experience does count for a lot, and is easily confused with intelligence to some degree. A prison guard with a 90 I.Q. can be a very skilled and proficient guard after five or more years on the job, whereas a person with a 110 I.Q. would be absolutely lost on their first day in a prison situation.
Thus, I don’t want to go too far and link the ability to discriminate well to intelligence such that I am implying that when someone is new at something and don’t know what they are doing that that is truly intelligence at work. In fact, take anyone and put them in an airline cockpit and they aren’t going to know anything about how to fly the thing. So, skill and practice are truly important when it comes to mastery.
But take two people, one whom you would consider to be intelligent for sure, and one who is not really terribly intelligent. If you present them with a unique situation, verbally let’s say, think about the questions they will both come up with. Wouldn’t you agree that the more intelligent the person is, the greater their ability is to see the nuances, the big picture, the issues? Even aside from experience, skill, and so on. Ask them both about the difference between happiness and success, and see how they tackle that.
I believe that this phenomenon is evident when neither person knows much at all about the subject – be it astrophysics or basketball. Two novices will approach the same thing with differing levels of astuteness, wisdom, care, capacity, and acumen depending on their intelligence. The smarter person will “get it” better, ask better questions, and zero in on the nuances to a more impressive degree.
Obviously, as one gains experience, the scenario remains the same but also changes. What I mean is, if you take two stonemasons, or English majors, the one with more experience is going to be better at discriminating between this and that. But with two novices in some fairly abstract subject, the one who is smarter will be better able to discriminate between what they are seeing and hearing.
I think this all takes into account that the more intelligence one possesses, the more they will tend toward certain careers and the greater their ability to excel, all things being equal.
Finally, let me share a couple of examples and clarify my thesis.
Adam Smith wrote, “All for ourselves, and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind.” That’s pretty deep. What is he saying?
The more intelligent person will have a greater ability to hold all those words in their mind’s eye at the same time, if you will. One who has a real fluency with verbal intelligence can parse it and focus on it and tease it apart. One who has less verbal intelligence will be stumped. (By the way, I think he is saying):
Me, me, me! Forget about you other human beings! It’s my way, or the highway! I got mine, and I don’t care if you are making it or if you suffer has been what marked the jerks in every society. People with more power tend to be more selfishness, even though it sucks that that is the case. The Scrooges in society may have more power and influence, and it’s too bad because we are social creatures, and to some degree, our fates rise and fall together. United we stand, divided we fall, Pink Floyd put it. So, if you ever make a big success out of yourself, surprise the rest of us and be a nice and compassionate person. I think he is [right or wrong] and here’s why…..
That was pretty discriminating, right? The simple and shallow answer would be something much less enlightening, careful, deep, and precise.
Further, the person who is more intelligent would be better able to navigate around that concept Smith is referring to; to ask questions of an economics or history expert; to research it online. I could easily see a person of average or subpar intelligence saying: “I actually have no idea what he is saying.” Nor would they be particularly able to know what it is they don’t know or what they need to know in order to make sense of it. An intelligent person would be not only more facile, but more capable of getting to the bottom of a mysterious concept or phenomenon.
None of this is meant to mean that I think I am a genius. I mean, obviously I think I am fairly smart; I have a huge website and series of books on wisdom comprised of over 10,000 hours and $50,000 of seed money; I’m obviously not a slouch. But I know there are folks out there who are even swifter than I am, because I sometimes feel not very intelligent when I come across them. As a matter of fact, I have had a self-esteem problem for most of my life (it just never gets better, to some degree, in fact). But, in keeping with my thesis, I would say that one’s ability to entertain the idea that one is or isn’t intelligent is, yes, a form of discrimination 🙂
All of this has much to do with wisdom, I think. Ω
Here is a blog you might appreciate, it’s about passion and intellect.
I will leave you with a few quotations that you can take either as grist for your mental mill, or as examples of wisdom in action. If I were your teacher, I would ask that you compare and contrast, or scrutinize, or argue for or against the author’s thesis. Sorry, I’m sure that brings up a bit of school phobia in some of you 🙂
“A half-century ago, many teachers in these fields still believed in the possibility and value of an organized study of the mysteries of life. But under pressure, first, from the modern research ideal whose authority today dominates the humanities as it does all branches of learning, and, second, from the culture of political correctness that has been so particularly influential in these disciplines for the past forty years, the question of the value and purpose of living, of the sources of fulfillment available to us as mortal creatures with ambitions of the most varied kinds, has been pushed to the margins of respectability even in the humanities.”
“The problem with our leaders now…is also a lack of ability to think outside disciplinary boundaries. Alan Greenspan, to take the most spectacular example, has admitted that he was mistaken to assume that rational self-interest was enough to shield the bankers from disaster. As the journalist Chris Hedges pointed out, Greenspan simply couldn’t see beyond his theoretical assumptions, couldn’t factor in the kind of folly to which a moment’s reflection would have alerted him.”
“Our power comes from our ability to transform what we have felt into what we know. It’s an alchemy of sorts, where we acquire the skill of transforming the lead of our experience into the gold of our wisdom.”
“Wisdom means keeping a sense of the fallibility of all our views and opinions, and of the uncertainty and instability of the things we most count on.”
“In Vivian Clayton’s view, wisdom was different from intellect and necessarily went beyond mere cognitive ability. While intelligence, she wrote, could be defined as the ability ‘to think logically, to conceptualize, and to abstract from reality,’ wisdom extended knowledge to the understanding of human nature, of oneself as well as others, and yet operated on ‘the principles of contradiction, paradox, and change.'”
“Of all the capacities our big brains endow us with—language, tools, culture, the ability to shape our environments and structure our lives, and so on—the exercise of reason is our most astonishing power. Still, the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know.”
“In our assessment, results on implicit conceptions of wisdom and wise persons permit five conclusions about the concept of wisdom: (a) Wisdom is a concept that carries specific meaning that is widely shared and understood in its language-based representation. For example, wisdom is clearly distinct from other wisdom-related psychological concepts such as social intelligence, maturity, or creativity. (b) Wisdom is judged to be an exceptional level of human functioning. It is related to excellence and ideals of human development. (c) Wisdom identifies a state of mind and behavior that includes the coordinated and balanced interplay of intellectual, affective, and motivational aspects of human functioning. (d) Wisdom is viewed as associated with a high degree of personal and interpersonal competence, including the ability to listen, evaluate, and to give advice. (e) Wisdom involves good intentions. It is used for the well-being of oneself and others.”