Saturday, November 21, 2009

Components of "Smart"

I think that "smart" is one of those terms that people believe they understand, but is in fact so poorly defined that it risks uselessness as a descriptor. IQ is better defined because it refers to a score received on a test (or actually one of several tests, so some serious ambiguity remains). However, there are questions about what is actually being measured by IQ testing, so practical usefulness is limited here as well.

Measurement may be a problem, but definition need not be. There's no need to continue conflating multiple different characteristics and abilities under the term "smart", or even "intelligent".

Knowledge - This is accessible stored information. It grows with experience and study, but different people have differing abilities to absorb and retain information. There is the additional complication that possessing existing knowledge makes it easier to add and retain new knowledge, because retention is tied to the ability to index new information to information that has already been assimilated.

Processing Routines - These are sets of sequential operations that have been "burned in" to the brain by repetitive use. They can be simple or complex. Examples range from calculating multiplication tables to riding a bike. As with knowledge, different people have different abilities to create, maintain, and use these routines.

Concept Synthesis - This is the creation of a substantively novel concept through the blending of two or more existing concepts. This is probably what is most often referred to as "creative thinking". It is genuinely creative. It is the ability to recognize that many elements together don't just form a group, they form a pattern.

Relational Analysis - This is closely related to the ideas of Knowledge and Concept Synthesis. It is the ability to find or create links between distinct concepts. It reinforces Knowledge retention by increasing indexing between pieces of information. It supports Concept Synthesis by suggesting which concepts may have useful synergies.

I'm sure there's more than this. What are some other ways of looking at what it is to be smart?


  1. Wikipedia has a nice page on this:

    "Intelligence comes from the Latin verb intelligere, which means "to understand". By this rationale, intelligence (as understanding) is arguably different from being "smart" (able to adapt to one's environment). At least two major "consensus" definitions of intelligence have been proposed..."

    But even the definitions involve just a listing of the potential types of intelligences:

    "A very general mental capability that, among other things, involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience"

  2. I didn't really think too much about practical application (e.g. success in life) when I wrote the post. Maybe I should ponder that more closely. Separating 'smart' from 'intelligent' in the way you do makes some sense.

  3. I completely agree that "smart" is a useless word. I have long thought of it almost as slang, an abbreviation for something more substantive. I feel the same way about the word "nice," as in "He seems like a nice guy..." Notice how often you hear that.

    I'm wary of the definition of knowledge, mostly because things we "know" so often turn out to be inaccurate or incomplete.

    I also think that somewhere in all of this belongs something like wisdom, though that may not even be the best word. Something along the lines of an awareness that none of these things is absolute, a healthy skepticism that doesn't cause paralysis. There is a probability that what we "know" is untrue, so take it with a grain of salt. We can get stuck with our current Processing Routines, but we can also stay alert to more efficient or more accurate ones. With Concept Synthesis, people's brains are wired to find patterns, but very often those patterns are illusory. It's vitally important that we question whether the patterns we're seeing are inherent in the system or result from an internal bias. Likewise with Rational Analysis.

    For me, I think some of the most important things are to recognize what you don't know; to recognize the difference between what you know, what you think, what you feel, and what you want to be true; and to prioritize.

    More great stuff, Robert. Thank you.

  4. Bob,

    I was thinking of 'knowledge' mostly as data -- could be good data or could be garbage.

    Skepticism, especially of oneself and one's own mental processes/abilities should definitely be listed here somehow.

  5. Reading your post, I had two "gut" reactions (or were they relational analyses?): first, the type of processing used for calculating multiplication tables is different from that used for riding a bike; second, concept synthesis and relational analysis seem similar enough to be subsumed under one heading. If one believes the premise that there is "nothing new under the sun," then the creation of a "novel concept through the blending of two or more existing concepts" is essentially the result of "find(ing) or creat(ing) links between distinct concepts." The major difference between the two ideas is whether the links created are "new" or not. As an example for consideration, there are thousands of "new" songs written every day. The vast majority of these, although unique in their specific arrangement of notes, lyrics, rhythms, and sounds, are too similar to preexisting material to be genuinely new (Axis of Awesome points this out in a funny way, Most of these are merely rearrangements of ideas the "composer" had previously heard (consciously or subconsciously).

    While calculating multiplication tables can easily lead to more creative mathematical syntheses and analyses, its concept is too narrow by definition to become more than it is from the outset. Conversely, although it could be considered merely a processing routine, "riding a bike" encompasses an evolutionary scale ranging from going in a straight line and crashing into bushes, to doing crazy stunts.

    Perhaps "smart"ness can be divided into three concepts: storing information; ability to process various sequential operations (ranging from simple to complex, as has been suggested); comparing and synthesizing concepts.

  6. Thanielson,

    Interesting points. In my experience, concept synthesis and relational analysis are closely paired, e.g. if a person is good at one they're likely to be good at the other. So I see your point. However, to me they are still separate in what they generate. Perhpas the difference in our perspectives is that I don't believe the premise that there is 'nothing new under the sun'. That was my point about the difference between a group of concepts and an emergent pattern. In this sense, though many technologies are produced step by step where no individual step may look like a breakthrough, nevertheless the end result is a changed world.

    I would agree that riding a bike and calculating multiplication tables are qualitatively different. One is much more deterministic than the other, for example. However, they both rely on reusing the same mental pathways over and over. That's why I lumped them together under processing routines. Let's just say that there may be other kinds of 'smart' at work in these activities as well.