Research Approaches to Intelligence: Definitions & Differences

Research Approaches to Intelligence: Definitions & Differences
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  • 0:01 Measuring Constructs
  • 1:49 Psychometrics
  • 3:35 Information Processing
  • 4:56 Cognitive Structural…
  • 5:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

In this lesson, we will explore three different ways that people have gone about measuring intelligence. This requires some focus due to the soft science nature of psychology.

Measuring Constructs

Psychology has taken a lot of flak over the years because it is a 'soft science.' We typically do not have physical things to measure or to look at like the 'hard sciences.' Many people, in my own opinion, chalk this up to psychology being hippies who don't understand science, who just focus on feelings and making sure everyone gets along.

Let's lay that all to bed. Psychology is a soft science because it is measuring the most complicated structure in the known universe. The brain consists of something like 86 billion neurons, each with 5 to 10,000 connections. All of the neurons working together have something called emergent properties, or an unforeseeably complex system arising from simpler structures. These emergent properties are a result of smaller systems all working together.

One emergent property from the billions of neurons working together is intelligence, or an innate ability to learn and retain information to deal with problems or situations. Intelligence is an emergent property, or to say it differently, intelligence is spread out across the brain. This makes it difficult to measure it with calipers. People have tried to, and I encourage you to look into Gall's phrenology, which was a pseudoscientific effort to measure personality, intelligence and other processes by measuring the bumps and structures of the skull.

But back to the main point of this lesson: measuring intelligence. Because it is a non-physical construct, we must find other ways to measure it. The three main ways we are going to discuss are psychometric, information processing and cognitive structure.


One way we can measure intelligence is by using comparative psychometrics, which is a field of psychology focused on quantitative testing design, administration and interpretation. Some of the most common intelligence tests ask you a ton of questions and then record your answers. For example, who was George Washington? What is light made up of? What is the diameter of the earth?

The focus of psychometric tests is comparing your answers to peers. Let's take our three questions and give them to a 10-year-old, a 30-year-old and a 60-year-old. We will say each age gets one additional question right. So, the 10-year-old knows who Washington is, the 30-year-old knows what light is and the 60-year-old knows the diameter of the earth.

What psychometric tests would do is give you the same questions and compare. If a 10-year-old did not know who Washington was, then they would be below average. If a 10-year-old knew what light was made up of, they would be above average. What is happening is individuals are being compared to their own peers. Scoring higher than them means they have a higher than average intelligence. As a note, I pulled these questions out of thin air, so if you're 60 and don't know the diameter of the earth, it doesn't mean anything.

One drawback of psychometric tests is that they focus on what you have been taught. An individual who went to a different type of school or didn't go to school would score lower because they have not had all the same testing and experiences. This is part of the reason why there is such a cultural bias when it comes to intelligence testing. People who grow up learning different things have a different understanding of the world. Or, there could be other issues, like environmental distracters, that are difficult to predict.

Information Processing

Psychometric tests are dependent on how others answer, which means they are highly subjective to influences like education, time of day, focus and so on. Information processing is a theoretical approach to measuring intelligence by examining how an individual takes in and interprets information. Here, the brain is treated like a computer, with information given and the individual attempting to figure it out.

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