Chris is an educator with a background in psychology and counseling. He also holds a PhD in public affairs, and has worked as a counselor and teacher for community college students for more than 10 years.
What is Intelligence?
What is intelligence? Is it getting a perfect score on the ACT? Is it having the ability to play a complex piano sonata? Or does being able to solve complex puzzles make you intelligent? Actually, it is a little bit of all of these things and more.
As cognitive psychologists began to better understand intelligence, it quickly became clear that there are many distinct sub-types of intelligence. It is generally agreed that intelligence is not one thing, but rather intelligence comes in many forms and is comprised of a variety of cognitive skills and abilities.
What is Fluid Intelligence?
The study of intelligence and how we measure it is still a relatively new field, only around 100 years old. The intelligence quotient (IQ) was proposed as a way to measure a person's cognitive abilities as compared to others of the same age. When early theorists were assessing IQ, a variety of factors were taken into account, but initially only one score, or IQ, was derived. However, two people with the same IQ can function very differently, which led researchers to examine why these differences might exist in spite of the same overall IQ score. Raymond Cattell was one of the first psychologists to describe intelligence as being comprised of multiple constructs.
Cattell proposed the idea that intelligence can be divided into two types, which he referred to as fluid and crystallized. Crystallized intelligence is what Cattell referred to as the ability to make use of acquired information or knowledge. Crystallized intelligence is still what many think of when they think of someone who is intelligent and is sometimes referred to as book smarts.
Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, has to do with the ability to be adaptable and solve problems, even in an unfamiliar situation. If you hear people talk about street smarts, they are more or less describing fluid intelligence. People who possess high levels of fluid intelligence are people who are good at solving problems and spend time thinking outside the box. Fluid intelligence gets its name from the non-linear nature of these thought processes, which are ever changing, just as the nature of fluid is always changing to adapt to the shape of its container. Fluid intelligence requires a sense of awareness and open-mindedness, neither of which are necessarily required of crystallized intelligence.
Examples of Fluid Intelligence
Let's look at a couple of examples to help drive home the meaning of fluid intelligence. As mentioned, fluid intelligence represents the ability to think on your feet, think outside the box, and develop creative approaches in new situations. As an example of fluid intelligence in action, think of your favorite modern luxury. Maybe it's the airplane or possibly something newer like Facebook. It doesn't really matter what it is; the people behind those creations possessed, among other things, a certain degree of fluid intelligence.
Fluid intelligence allowed the creators of the first airplane and the inventors of Facebook to think creatively and see a new solution to an old problem. Existing knowledge, or crystallized intelligence, was certainly helpful to a degree, but it was their open-minded approach to solving the problem at hand that led to the creative breakthroughs. Had the Wright Brothers not applied their knowledge of bicycles to bigger dreams, we might all be isolated to only land and sea travel. Had those college kids at Harvard not been interested in digitizing their college yearbook, we might all still be using MySpace!
Good problem-solvers are also people who possess high levels of fluid intelligence. The Maier string problem, first developed in 1931, is a classic test of sorts used to exemplify creative problem-solving and fluid intelligence.
Imagine that you are standing still with a string hanging down from the ceiling on either side of you, one just to your left and another just to your right. The strings are far enough apart that you cannot reach them both at the same without moving your feet. There is also a table on your right side that has a pair of pliers on it that is within your reach. Your task is to tie the two strings together without moving your feet. What are you going to do?
How quickly and accurately you develop a solution to this problem is in some way an indication of your fluid intelligence abilities. If you haven't figured it out yet, the standard answer to the problem is that you could tie the pliers to one of the strings, and using the weight of the pliers, swing it back and forth while you reach over and grab the other string. The momentum will keep the string with the pliers on it swinging long enough that you will be able to grab it as it swings close to you. Once you have both strings, you can take the pliers off and tie them together.
Seems like a pretty simple thing to do, right? It is a simple solution, but it requires an open-minded approach to envision a new use for pliers. The knowledge bank of information regarding pliers doesn't typically include 'string weight' as a possible purpose. The problem-solver needs to see the pliers through a different lens.
Let's review. Intelligence is a conglomeration of a variety of skills and abilities. Raymond Cattell first coined the terms fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence as a means of distinguishing between the varieties of intelligence types. Fluid intelligence refers to the ability to develop solutions to problems using new approaches and thinking critically. Having an open mind and high level of awareness are key aspects of fluid intelligence abilities.
Once you are finished with this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe fluid intelligence
- Explain how fluid intelligence is different from crystallized intelligence
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