What is intelligence?

It is almost impossible to answer that question because nobody really agrees on the definition. The intelligence was defined and continues to be defined in diverse ways by different researchers in psychology and currently the definitions of intelligence are based on the normative ideals of Western societies (Gregory, 2007), e.g. materialism and rationalism. African societies grant, for example, more attention to social aspects (Sternberg and Kaufman, 1997). However, researchers agree on the fact that that definition should include two factors: the ability to adapt to the environment and the ability to learn from experience.

Although the definition is not consensual, intelligence tests seek to measure and understand it; these tests define intelligence operationally, e.g. intelligence is what a particular test measures. So rather than understanding its nature, these tests confirm their own definition of intelligence. If we accept a definition of intelligence that focuses on the experience and adaptation to the environment, at least in Western cultures, then intelligence tests should understand the learning abilities and adaptation of individuals. It is not so; or at best they do it indirectly (Gregory, 2007). Moreover, while there is a consensus among theorists on the fact that there must be multiple components intelligence (Sternberg, 2000), there is no consensus either on what these components are or how numerous they are.

Some historical reminder to situate where the research stands for: For Spearman (1904), intelligence would have two components: a general component or factor G and other more specific factors. From this theory Cattell (1971) developed a three-layered model that is still used today with a general ability at a first level (factor G) while crystallized abilities (acquired knowledge and its applications) and fluid abilities (mainly non-verbal skills which are thought to be culture-free) are at the levels 2 and 3. The theory includes over 70 abilities.

Another interesting approach is Sternberg’s one (1999). According to him the tests that examine the intelligence out of context cannot adequately assess intelligence which consists of three components: the internal world of the individual with its cognitive processes that do not change, the external world and experience that varies and that links the two worlds. Tests for children have been developed on this basis demonstrating the impact of education on the type of intelligence developed by children, more or less analytical or creative depending on the children’s social environment (Sternberg, 1998).

What about emotional intelligence? Popularized by David Goleman from the theories of Mayer and Salovey (1997), emotional intelligence is naturally harder to define than global intelligence. We know from studies on memory that emotions influence how memories are encoded and retrieved. Is it the same for emotional intelligence? Is emotional intelligence a cognitive intelligence with an emotional component? Is it a qualitatively different concept and does it include as indicated by Goleman skills that can be taught or is it a personality trait?
The same questions arise about a more recent concept: spiritual intelligence.

We could define emotional intelligence as the way we interact with others. It is then a psychological phenomenon that involves social cognitive processes (perception, interpretation, decision making). Our behaviours and interactions vary depending on the situational and interpersonal context: We act differently at home or at work, with friends or strangers. But very few researches have been conducted to study emotional intelligence in a social context. However, many studies have been done on its role in workplaces and according to the researchers, the scores of emotional intelligence tests give better predictions about the success in the workplace than scores of standard cognitive intelligence tests (Dulewitz and Higgs, 1999). They also thought that emotional intelligence would explain the effectiveness of the behaviour of some leaders (Palmer et al. 2001).

But the results of researches can be amazing depending on the conditions of realization of experiments. Thus, studies by Nikolaou and Tsaousis (2002) show that in three groups composed of doctors, social workers and administrators, only doctors would get largest scores in terms of emotional intelligence … because they have a higher control on their emotions.
What about spiritual intelligence? Can we apply the same theories than on emotional intelligence such as for example the Mayer’s model (2008)? According to this model, emotional intelligence includes four levels of abilities: ability to perceive our own and others’ emotions but also in the art; ability to use emotions for facilitating reasoning, communication or decision making; the third level is the understanding of emotions and involves the language and thoughts as well as the ability to analyse emotions. The last level or upper level relates to the management of emotions and emotional responses whatever the social context. People with high emotional intelligence will adapt their responses and therefore their behaviour to their social or interpersonal environment. Which may be suitable in one context is not in another.

This model has not yet been transposed to the spiritual intelligence which only begins to be studied from the years 2000 onwards between psychologists, social science students and neuroscientists. All of them seek to understand the role of spirituality in human evolution.

Here also we cannot escape to definitional problem. Emmons (2000) believes that spiritual intelligence is characterized, among other things, by a transcendent capacity, the ability to enter into altered states of consciousness and the ability to invest every daily activity, event or relationship with a sense of the sacred. Noble (2001) adds the conscious recognition that physical reality is embedded in a broader and multidimensional reality and the choice of developing a psycho-spiritual consciousness in order to promote global or individual health. How? By searching the meaning behind each experiment.

Spiritual intelligence is difficult to measure empirically although there were various attempts. Researchers in this field are still being ostracized by the scientific world issued from the Cartesian materialism. But some theorists braver the others (Fortunately for us we find a lot of these people who do not scare taboo) dare to face ostracism and derision. Kerr for example has « operationalized » spiritual intelligence by defining it as the deliberate management of states of consciousness in the service of personal development and that of others. But the definition although useful for brain imaging measurements remains restrictive and excludes qualitative aspects such as surpassing oneself which is difficult to measure.

Another issue is whether the intelligences, analytical, emotional or spiritual, are merely personality traits as some researchers have argued (Schutte et al, 2006). Still, the study of intelligences, especially spiritual, is a nodal point around which several disciplines meet. It has profound implications for biomedical research and neuroscience, studies on conflict prevention, ecology and training of health and education professionals. Let’s hope that more researches will be devoted to studies on intelligences and its multi-dimensions.


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Dulewicz, V. and Higgs, M. (1999) ‘Can emotional intelligence be measured and developed?’, Leadership and Organization Development Journal, vol.20, pp.242–53.
Emmons, R. A. Is spirituality an intelligence? Motivation, cognition, and the psychology of ultimate concern. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 10 (1) (2000). 3–26.
Gregory, R.J. (2007) Psychological Testing: History, Principles and Applications (5th edn), Chicago, IL, Pearson.
Kerr, B., & McAlister, J. (2001). Letters to the medicine man: The shaping of spiritual intelligence. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.
Mayer, J.D. and Salovey, P. (1997) ‘What is emotional intelligence?’, in Salovey, P. and Sluyter, D.(eds) Emotional Development and Emotional Intelligence: Educational Implications, New York, Basic Books.
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Spearman, C. (1904) ‘‘‘General intelligence’’, objectively defined and measured’, American Journal of Psychology, vol.15, pp.201–93.
Sternberg, R.J. (1999) ‘A triarchic approach to the understanding and assessment of intelligence in multicultural populations’, Journal of School Psychology, vol.37, pp.145–59.
Sternberg, R.J. (ed.) (2000) Handbook of Intelligence, New York, Cambridge University Press.
Sternberg, R.J. and Kaufman, J.C. (1998) ‘Human abilities’, Annual Review of Psychology, vol.49, pp.479–502.


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