A Review of Edward L. Thorndike's
Intelligence and its uses
SOCIAL CONTEXT |
ACADEMIC CONTEXT |
THE AUTHOR |
THE ARTICLE |
Darnel Degand @darnel25 | December 16, 2015
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Intelligence and its uses
Thorndike discussed the following topics in this article:
- There are 3 types of intelligence: mechanical, social, and abstract.
- Determining the intelligence level needed for different jobs can help place children on the track to future careers that are best suited for them.
- The most intelligent citizens are more likely to be the wealthiest and the most benevolent.
1. The 3 Forms of Intelligence
Thorndike argued that intelligence is very difficult to quantify since there are differing opinions on what it is. A major reason for this is because academic success is often thought to be equivalent to intelligence but it has been proven many times that book smarts do not automatically translate into success in the real world. In response, he proposed that there are 3 forms of intelligence:
- Mechanical intelligence
- Social intelligence
- Abstract intelligence
Mechanical intelligence, Social intelligence, and Abstract intelligence
- "the ability to learn and understand and manage things and mechanisms such as a knife, gun, mowing-machine, automobile, boat, lathe, piece of land, river, or storm."
- "the ability to understand and manage men and women, boys and girls – to act wisely in human relations."
- "the ability to understand and manage ideas and symbols, such as words, numbers, chemical or physical formulae, legal decisions, scientific law and principles, and the like."
as defined by Edward Thorndike
Additionally, Thorndike acknowledged the advancements that were being made in formal assessments of knowledge during that period. He remarked that abstract intelligence exams were more mature, at that time, than any existing exams for mechanical intelligence and social intelligence. However, he also explained that some limitations were present in abstract intelligence exams. Some abstract intelligence tests did not account for how quickly a student could correctly complete it. Furthermore, it would be difficult to design an abstract intelligence exam that could fairly cover multiple abstract subject areas and, as a result, test takers who were more interested in the subjects that happen to be included on the test on any given day would have an unfair advantage. Moreover, individuals who had taken a test multiple times in the past would be more familiar and better prepared for that test. Yet, even though limitations existed, Thorndike still believed that abstract intelligence exams were effective enough for use in classrooms. He also indicated that they were useful for job searches and that the army was using specially designed abstract intelligence exams to select the best new soldiers.
Meanwhile, mechanical intelligence tests were in their early stages and had not yet been standardized while social intelligence exams were seen as the most difficult to design because of their social nature. Social intelligence could not be thoroughly assessed through paper exams and expressions in photographs. Thorndike believed that social intelligence could only be assessed correctly when there were other humans to respond to in a natural social setting.
2. Matching Intelligence Levels with Life Paths
Thorndike went on to explain that different types of jobs would require different types of intelligence. For example, a carpenter, mason, or plumber would need mechanical intelligence and a politician or salesman would need to have social intelligence. He also suggested that a plumber could transition into a carpenter, mason, car mechanic, or another job role with ease if they all share the need for mechanical intelligence. Likewise, a politician should be able to easily transition into a salesperson or any other job position that requires social intelligence. However, he also believed that the level of intelligence needed for each type of job varied. Thorndike posited that if tests were conducted on enough people who were successful in specific roles (e.g. 1000 clergymen), we could determine the level of intelligence required for that position. He argued that this knowledge would make it possible to place individuals into the jobs that they were best suited for and that they would be happier with their lives because the level of intelligence an individual could reach was finite.
Furthermore, Thorndike argued that an individual’s potential for success as an adult could be determined from as early as childhood. He believed that the levels of success a child had when compared with other children her/his age would indicate the levels of success they would most likely continue to have as an adult when compared to other adults her/his age. With this in mind, he posited a child’s intelligence levels could be used to “prophesy and direct his career.”
3. The smartest are usually the wealthiest and kindest
In addition to Thorndike’s belief that individuals had finite intelligence levels, he also believed that high levels of intelligence increased the likelihood that an individual would be wealthy and benevolent. He acknowledged the existence of tyrannical leaders throughout history, however, he argued that the majority of leaders had been kind to their followers and that the wealthiest members of society often acted in the best interest of their communities. He also contended that the research he and other academic researchers were engaged in continued to prove that the levels of intelligences between races and genders were unequal. The objectives and conclusions of their research were the continued belief that White wealthy men were the most intelligent and that the world would be better off with them as leaders:
"It seems entirely safe to predict that the world will get better treatment by trusting its fortunes to its 95- or 99-percentile intelligences than it would get by itself. The argument for democracy is not that it gives power to all men without distinction, but that it gives greater freedom for ability and character to attain power."
Thorndike believed that the rise and fall of nations throughout world history were always managed by men of great intelligence who were able to lead the masses. He attributed their intelligence and success to nature and biology.
The next section will present my thoughts on how Thorndike's upbringing, his education, and the social context he lived in influenced his writing. I will also compare and contrast American life in 1920 with American life in 2015.