Measuring Intelligence

Measuring a person’s capabilities is a thing that we do very often, either to admit him to a school or to employ him. The process starts pretty early, at least in India, with tests being administered to hardly 3 or 4 year olds before being admitted to nursery schools. There has been a lot of debate and discussion on the matter whether making the environment so competitive with tests always in the offing, to judge and classify you, is good or bad to the development of the individual and the society as a whole.

But such aptitude exams cannot be done away with completely because they are the only tools we have of handing out school seats or responsibilities in an organisation to a more ‘worthy’ candidate. But one thing that has to be conceded is that measuring a person’s capabilities, more so his intelligence is no easy task and definitely cannot be represented by a simple number like an IQ or a percentile score because human intelligence is multi-dimensional.

Administering such tests and measuring intelligence gains importance because intelligence is the biggest factor that decides the chances of success in a man’s life. Of course luck and good fortune play their part but success is not possible without intelligence. Malcolm Gladwell discusses this matter at length in his book The Outliers. In this book Gladwell claims that the chances of success of a person is directly proportional to his IQ up till the value of 120 and thereafter it depends on the windfall of opportunities that may chance upon in the individual’s life. I do not completely agree with that. Even after the IQ of 120 it is intelligence that decides a man’s success, but an aspect of intelligence that is not captured by the IQ test.

I had not been able to put my finger on what exactly this aspect of human intelligence was. But some time back I read this article in New York Times by Timothy Williamson, a Professor of Logic at Oxford, that shed light on this matter. The article is about imagination being a very powerful tool of human intelligence. The article basically breaks down our decision making process and relates it to our imagination. Here is an excerpt from the article –

Imagine being a slave in ancient Rome. Now remember being one. The second task, unlike the first, is crazy. If, as I’m guessing, you never were a slave in ancient Rome, it follows that you can’t remember being one — but you can still let your imagination rip. With a bit of effort one can even imagine the impossible, such as discovering that Dick Cheney and Madonna are really the same person. It sounds like a platitude that fiction is the realm of imagination, fact the realm of knowledge.

On further reflection, imagining turns out to be much more reality-directed than the stereotype implies. If a child imagines the life of a slave in ancient Rome as mainly spent watching sports on TV, with occasional household chores, they are imagining it wrong. That is not what it was like to be a slave. The imagination is not just a random idea generator. The test is how close you can come to imagining the life of a slave as it really was, not how far you can deviate from reality.

A reality-directed faculty of imagination has clear survival value. By enabling you to imagine all sorts of scenarios, it alerts you to dangers and opportunities. You come across a cave. You imagine wintering there with a warm fire — opportunity. You imagine a bear waking up inside — danger. Having imagined possibilities, you can take account of them in contingency planning. If a bear is in the cave, how do you deal with it? If you winter there, what do you do for food and drink? Answering those questions involves more imagining, which must be reality-directed. Of course, you can imagine kissing the angry bear as it emerges from the cave so that it becomes your lifelong friend and brings you all the food and drink you need. Better not to rely on such fantasies. Instead, let your imaginings develop in ways more informed by your knowledge of how things really happen.

Constraining imagination by knowledge does not make it redundant. We rarely know an explicit formula that tells us what to do in a complex situation. We have to work out what to do by thinking through the possibilities in ways that are simultaneously imaginative and realistic, and not less imaginative when more realistic. Knowledge, far from limiting imagination, enables it to serve its central function.

To change the example, what would happen if all NATO forces left Afghanistan by 2011? What will happen if they don’t? Justifying answers to those questions requires imaginatively working through various scenarios in ways deeply informed by knowledge of Afghanistan and its neighbors. Without imagination, one couldn’t get from knowledge of the past and present to justified expectations about the complex future. We also need it to answer questions about the past. Were the Rosenbergs innocent? Why did Neanderthals become extinct? We must develop the consequences of competing hypotheses with disciplined imagination in order to compare them with the available evidence. In drawing out a scenario’s implications, we apply much of the same cognitive apparatus whether we are working online, with input from sense perception, or offline, with input from imagination.

It is this aspect of human intelligence that decides a person’s chances of success over and beyond the IQ of 120. And it is this aspect of intelligence that comes into play when we have to make decisions. Gladwell theorizes that a person’s chances of success after the IQ mark of 120 depends on the fortuitous occurrence of a good opportunity. But he overlooks the intelligence and the right imagination required to spot a good opportunity and capitalize on it by making good and sound decisions.


Having the right imagination and an ability to make sound decisions is very important because a bad decision can undo a lot of good work done. This ability gains even greater importance for a person in the role of a leader because his decisions not only affect him but the whole group that he leads. The author of the above article illustrates this idea by quoting many examples from as simple situation such as how a man approaches a beast in a cave to what the implications of a NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan might be. To quote an example nearer home what would happen if we de-militarize Kashmir.

India has not been alien to bumbling leaders making idiotic decisions, not quite different from the person in the article who expects to befriend the angry bear and create a lifelong friendship. It is sad that the decision making of our leaders has been pathetic. What is even sadder is that most of us refuse to recognize these mistakes as failure of leadership and decision-making and would rather label these failures as an unfortunate turn of events.

Memories of the year 1962 will always be bitter for India. Nehru, the leader of a newly born India, believed that his romance with Gandhi’s Ahimsa would continue and the same would be reciprocated by other nations. Inspired by this wishful thinking he believed that a peaceful nation like India did not need the military. The nation’s defense was neglected and its intelligence service hardly had a presence. In spite of growing aggression from China’s side he went on and on about ‘India-Chini bhai-bhai’. And when the enemy struck our army was caught unaware and unprepared. We suffered heavy losses and an embarrassing defeat.

It does not require a genius to know that a nation requires its own army which is strong and ready to fight at all times; Nehru was a person who believed otherwise. He believed that his romance with Gandhi’s ‘ahimsa’ would continue. Many feel that this was an unfortunate turn of events and not a failure of leadership and that the world was too cruel to not reciprocate our peaceful gestures. For such people let me put it even more plainly – If Nehru was the guy in the above mentioned article standing in front of the cave and had to make a call as to whether to enter the cave and risk the beast’s wrath or find shelter elsewhere, he would have been the guy who would try ‘kissing the angry bear as it emerges from the cave so that it becomes your lifelong friend and brings you all the food and drink you need’, and the real tragedy of the whole event would be that the majority of our nation would have blamed the cruel bear for not reciprocating our friendship. This is the sadness of the whole situation. As Williamson says, it would be better not to indulge in such fantasies and develop our imagination/intelligence based on how things really happen. Similar arguments can be made about him adopting a socialistic economic model and his foreign policy of non-alignment( though initially promising, it later fell apart). He even gave up a UN Security Council seat( see here . Beat That!). A patronizing economic model made sure that even after years of independence we have a substantial percentage of the population below the poverty line.

On the other hand we should have way back in the 1960s and 70s cut ties with the communist USSR, adopt a more market friendly economy and foster ties with Israel, for both intelligence and defense ties, and exchange of technological know-how. But people who advocated such moves were persecuted and mocked by the then government and their thinking was called impractical and fanciful. 40 years hence each of those suggestions sound true and wise. The experts who suggested these moves back then were not making random suggestions; but were guided by their sound imagination/intelligence/prescience. Unfortunately even to this day we do not seem to have learnt our lesson and refuse to eschew policies that are doomed to fail.


Imagination is pretty crucial to our intelligence and most crucial to our decision-making process. I could go on giving plenty of other examples where wishful thinking, people detached from ground reality, make stupid claims and take foolish decisions and then label the obviously bad outcome as unfortunate, but I am sure I have made my point.

As Williamson puts it, the challenge with imagination is not how far from reality you can be but rather how close to reality you can get.

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