Are you smarter than me?
And how much does it matter?
Intelligence is a hot button topic. Nobody wants to be stupid, but not everybody can be smart. Probability theory teaches us that in any sufficiently large group of numbers, they will be distributed about the mean. In other words, half of the numbers will be higher than the mean, and half will be lower. (The "mean" is the number where exactly half the numbers are higher and half lower. This is different from the average.) But probability theory also teaches us that most of the numbers will be clustered about the mean.
In any population, half the people will be have above average intelligence, and half the people will have below average intelligence. But most people overestimate their intelligence. I remember reading that something like 80% of us consider ourselves to be above average. I remember reading that people often overestimate their intelligence by 30 points. You might say that people aren't as smart as they think they are.
Intelligence is often confused with learning, as if a college degree is a sign of intelligence. Sometimes people go so far as to assume that schooling actually increases intelligence. These examples point out the problems with defining and testing intelligence. The common measure, the IQ test, is "designed to measure the capacity to make abstractions, to learn, and to deal with novel situations" (Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004). The IQ test measures those aspects of intelligence that are easily testable. IQ tests pick the low hanging fruit.
But a more general measure of intelligence is adaptability. How well do you adapt to new situations, to new environments? By this measure human beings are vastly superior to animals, as they have adapted to every type of climate and area on this earth. This measure of intelligence is more than simply knowing facts, more than measuring intellectual capacity. Adaptability requires character and desire as well as native ability.
People often reach a comfort zone where adaptation stops. They stop growing, they stop changing, they settle in. Does this mean these people are less intelligent? Perhaps it matters in what situation they find themselves in. If a woman stays in an abusive relationship because she is afraid to leave, we would characterize that decision as stupid. If a person chooses family and friends over career advancement, some might call that decision stupid, while others would consider that decision wise. I suppose it depends on what sorts of things one values.
Perhaps it would be more valid to evaluate people not on any one decision, but on an accumulated lifetime of decisions. If a person who makes one bad decision after another, over and over again, we might legitimately question their judgment. If, however, that person learns from their mistakes, changes their behavior, and begins making good decisions, they should be respected both for their judgment and adaptability.
If adaptability is our preferred measure of intelligence, then perhaps we should take into account how far a person rises above their initial station in life. We should also take into account the overall environment. A member of a stone age tribe in New Guinea would have less opportunity for advancement than a person in a western industrialized society. So by that standard we should alter our definition a bit. Perhaps intelligence is a measure of how a person takes advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. Or, to put it another way, how a person lives up to their potential.
By this measure, what is commonly thought of as intelligence could be summed up as potential. When I was a boy my report cards often contained comments from my teachers stating that I was failing to live up to my potential. My teachers expected something more from me than I was willing to give. What I lacked was character, not intellectual capacity. Others with perhaps less raw talent than I consistently outperformed me in school. They were more adaptable than I. Their character more than compensated for the perceived differences in our potential.
If we were to play Hi-Lo with a person's IQ scores, I'd win 97 times out of a hundred. By an odd coincidence, this is about the same payout at the slot machines in Vegas. IQ is a game of chance. Smart people have stupid children, and stupid people have smart children. But in life, IQ alone is no guarantee of success. What matters more is a person's character.
You might not believe this, but high intelligence can be as much a problem as low intelligence. The person with below average intelligence does not see enough of the picture to make good decisions. The person with high intelligence sees more details in the picture than the person with average intelligence. These details must be analyzed and integrated, and each level of analysis raises more questions needing to be answered. Analysis paralysis can prevent an intelligent person from making good decisions.
It turns out that having a slightly above average IQ is more advantageous than having a high IQ. And that a person's character and desire can more than make up for a perceived lack of potential. Ability is no substitute for hard work, but hard work can substitute for ability.
So you smarter than me? A more important question is, how much does it really matter? Not so much, as it turns out.