COVID-19 Has Taught Us What Intelligence Really Is

Psst, here's a hint: forget about standardized tests, writes Robert J. Sternberg.

August 31, 2020

COVID-19 has taught us something important about intelligence. It’s not just that we can get by without IQ-test proxies like the SAT and ACT that go by a number of different names to avoid being called IQ tests. (Research by Douglas K. Detterman, professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University, and others shows that these tests are essentially disguised tests of general intelligence.) It’s not that such tests administered online at home will almost certainly be invalid. Rather, it’s that the tests never measured what’s important in the first place, and we should have known better. Actually, we did know better.

Ever since psychologists started measuring intelligence, including the academic skills measured by IQ tests and their proxies, they have known that intelligence is not really your ability to solve obscure multiple-choice problems with largely trivial content that will have no impact on your future life whatsoever. Instead, intelligence is the ability to adapt to the environment.

And that’s what Alfred Binet and David Wechsler, the founders of the intelligence test movement, said. Any evolutionary theorist should be able to tell you that: organisms that don’t adapt die. Species that don’t adapt die off. That’s also the consensus of psychologists in scholarly symposia that have sought to understand what intelligence is. Trivial academic problems don’t measure well your ability to adapt to the environment.

Why are these tests such mediocre measures of your ability to adapt to the environment -- of true intelligence? Compare a real problem, like that of dealing with COVID-19, to the characteristics of standardized-test problems. The characteristics of real-world problems are entirely different from the characteristics of problems on standardized tests. Standardized test problems are mostly multiple choice or short answer and have a right or wrong answer. Real problems require extended answers; there is no perfect answer, and sometimes, not even a very good one. Standardized test problems are decontextualized, emotionally bland and have no real-life stakes. Real-world problems are highly contextualized, emotionally arousing and may have high stakes. Standardized test problems are solved quickly and then you are done; real-life ones often take a long time and, after you think you have solved them, often come back.

Most important, real-world problems require you actively to deploy your intelligence -- to decide seriously to use it. Standardized tests measure an inert form of intelligence -- one that may exist in your head somewhere but is rarely actually put into real-world use. Intelligence is not just about an inert ability to take tests; it is about the active deployment of that ability to solve problems of life.

In research in my labs at Yale and Cornell Universities on intelligence as adaptive knowledge and skills, we have consistently found, over a period of many years, that scores on academic types of tests do not show much positive correlation, if any at all, with tests of adaptive skills. For example, some years back, my colleagues and I conducted a study of young people far away in rural Kenya. We discovered that an important life skill in rural Kenya, knowing how to recognize and treat parasitic illnesses with natural herbal medicines, actually was negatively correlated with IQ. The better you did on the practical test, the worse you did on the academic test, and vice versa.

At the time, a journal reviewer thought that the test was too “far out” -- that knowing how to treat illnesses was not what intelligence is about. He was wrong. You know who the really adaptively unintelligent people are today, in the age of COVID-19, not only in Kenya but also right where you live? Not the ones who get low standardized test scores. Rather, they are the ones who refuse to wear masks, who don’t socially distance and who don’t trouble themselves to wash their hands. They are the ones who, from a Darwinian adaptive standpoint, are unintelligent, regardless of their IQ or standardized test scores. They have inert intelligence but do not choose actively to deploy it in the real world. They thereby not only risk their own health and life; they also put other people’s lives at risk when they breathe on them. They might literally be the cause of others’ deaths. The principle behind the tests we used in Kenya applies anywhere: in the end, intelligence is about adaptation to the environment, not solving trivial or even meaningless problems.

In our current research at Cornell, we are measuring people’s adaptive intelligence both at a micro level and at a macro level. A micro-level problem might concern an interpersonal issue, such as how one deals with two friends who are fighting and both expect you to take their side. A macro-level problem might deal with two nations who are having a dispute over shared water resources, where one nation is accused of taking more than its fair share of water. Solutions are free response and are scored for the extent to which they seek a common good -- balancing the interests of the various parties over the long as well as the short term -- through the use of positive ethical values (such as acting toward others as you wish them to act toward you).

Is adaptive intelligence really important? Well, you be the judge. Which skill is more important for the great majority of students in college once they have graduated: the ability to solve artificial verbal and math problems or, alternatively, to address and try to solve problems of global climate change, air and water pollution, global pandemics, bacterial resistance to antibiotics, gun violence against schoolchildren (other than the usual pathetic “our thoughts and prayers are with them”), and the return of would-be autocrats to declining democracies?

Are you going to buy in to the notion that what matters is standardized test scores? They measure a small part of intelligence, but only a very small part. IQs increased 30 points around the world in the 20th century (the so-called Flynn effect), and given the current problems in the world, that increase does not appear to have bought us much.

In my in-press book, Adaptive Intelligence, I argue that all us, including colleges and universities, ought to focus not on producing test takers who are content to see the world go to hell in a handbasket so long as they get their degrees and make their money. Look around us. It’s not working! Instead, we need to develop and assess students’ adaptive skills in and willingness to make the world a better place. If not now, when?


Robert J. Sternberg is professor of human development at Cornell University and honorary professor of psychology at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. His upcoming book, Adaptive Intelligence: Surviving and Thriving in Times of Uncertainty, will be published in February 2021 by Cambridge University Press.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Back to Top