Why intelligence does not equal better thinking

2010

Here's a fundamental question that we rarely try to answer: 'Are intelligent people capable of better thinking?' The assumed answer is 'yes', because that is part of our definition of intelligence. An intelligent person is someone who seems more capable of thinking than other people. Yet in my experience across a very wide range of people, the obvious answer is not true.

There is analysis. This is the ability to understand things. Certainly intelligence, understanding and analysis do seem to go together. Yet somebody may be very good at analysis but poor at design thinking or operational thinking –the type of thinking involved in making things happen.

With 'design' you put things together to deliver a desired value. Excellence at analysis does not mean excellence in design. Some countries teach philosophy as part of the school curriculum. The intention is very good because the plan is to teach thinking. But philosophy teaches analysis; it does not teach design thinking.

Then there is information. Intelligent people understand and absorb information more readily. So they tend to have more information to play with. Often the right information acts as a substitute for thinking.

Intelligent people working in a particular field pick up the idiom of that field and then become capable of juggling information in that field. The result can be a powerful new idea. But take that same mind and apply it to a completely different field and the generalised skill of thinking is not there.

Intelligence is like the horsepower of a car. In other words, intelligence is a 'potential' (which may be determined by the speed of transmission along the neurones in the brain).

Thinking is like the skill with which the car is driven. The driver of the fast car may, in time, acquire the skill needed to drive the fast car. But that is not the same as 'driving skill' in its broad sense of reacting to conditions and other road users.

Thinking and intelligence do overlap in the area of understanding, but can diverge in other areas. For example, an intelligent person may take up a view on a certain subject. This view may be determined by personal experience, emotions and even prejudice. The intelligence is then used to defend this view.

This is not an example of good thinking. Good thinking would involve exploration of the subject, the generation of alternative views, listening to the views of others, considering the context and purpose of the thinking – and then designing a way forward. Defence of a point of view, no matter how brilliant, is not enough.

There are general habits and intentions which good thinkers are supposed to have. These might include considering all factors, generating alternatives, listening to others and defining the objective. While these may exist as intentions, they are not necessarily used by thinkers.

There is a huge amount that can be done to improve human thinking. Intelligence, information and analysis are not enough.

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About The Author

Edward de Bono
Edward de Bono

Edward de Bono is a leading authority in the field of creative thinking. Over 35 years after the publication of his first book, "The Mechanism of Mind", the basic principles he outlined are now mainstream thinking in the mathematics of self-organising systems and in the design of neuro-computers. His many subsequent books have been translated into 26 languages.

Older Comments

But surely all skills are context-specific? The notion that skills are transferable is a nice idea that promotes learning skills over anything else, but everyone learns skills in a particular context. Take them out of that context and it will take them time to adjust to the new context. They may have a headstart over someone who does not possess that particular skill set, but they still have to learn to walk in their new environment before they can run.

It is the same with thinking. In another article on Management Issues (see www.management-issues.com/2010/9/8/research/innovation-stifled-by-senior-management.asp) a discussion about innovation indicates that senior management do not let staff do the thinking necessary to generate innovation. And these are people who have been involved in the process for some time. If you put someone new in, you might get some innovation, but only because the new person starts asking questions about why this, and why that - until they have been there some while, they will not understand how their thinking fits in with the organisation's thinking.

Transferable skills do not really exist. You have skills, yes, but you need to adapt them to new situations when you change roles or organisations.

Cheryl-Anne London UK