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Intelligence: a definition

Explaining the definitions of intelligence
So what is intelligence? After so many years of research and studies on intelligence, have scientists already come up with a nice and snappy definition of intelligence that they agree upon? Well, yes and no. Let’s fetch two very different definitions provided by leading scientists in the field of intelligence. According to Linda Gottfredson “Intelligence is a very general mental capability that among the other things, involves the ability to resume, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, quickly learn from experience.” It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill or test-taking smarts. Rather, it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings, “catching on”, “making sense” of things or “figuring out” what to do.
Now, let’s have a look at a very different definition and see what Edward Boring thinks about intelligence. According to Edward Boring “Intelligence is what an intelligence test measures”. Although we now tend to support a definition similar to that given by Gottfredson, if we compare the two definitions, we immediately understand that there is a certain debate around what intelligence is. In addition, we also understand that perhaps a nice and snappy definition of
intelligence will never exist: intelligence is a complex matter. There are more problems we face when we want to talk about intelligence. First of all, how can be measured? We all know intelligence tests exist, but how are they made and how can we write questions that tap something we cannot define clearly? How can we be sure that they measure intelligence? Are they reliable? Do they all give the same result? Finally, how is intelligence made? Is there a single, general intelligence or are there multiple intelligences? It’s clear that when talking about intelligence, we actually do more asking than talking.
In more than 100 years of studies of intelligence, we have developed tests that do tap the characteristics highlighted by the definition suggested by Linda Gottfredson. Given the complexity of the definition of intelligence, you may not be surprised to know that these tests are complex, requiring not only a long time, but also a skilled professional to be administered. Noticeably, these test, although different, converge and give similar and comparable results.
And this is extremely important: it means that they are measuring the same thing and that, this thing exist. Finally, studies on intelligence seem to converge on a coherent picture of the architecture of intelligence. There is something general we can call “intelligence” and some people have it more and some people have it less. However, there is not yet a single test that seems to be able to capture this general definition. In contrast, general intelligence seems to emerge from values and different things, like in the complex definition by Linda Gottfredson.

So what is intelligence?

After so many years of research and studies on intelligence, is there a good and precise definition of intelligence that scientists agree upon?

Well, yes and no. Two leading scientists in the field of intelligence have defined it in two very different manners, illustrating how challenging it is to define intelligence. This video will further unpack the complexity in defining intelligence.


  • Boring, E. G. (1923). Intelligence as the test measures it. The New Republic, 35, 35–37.
  • Gottfredson, L. S. (1997). Mainstream science on intelligence. Intelligence, 24(1), 13-23.
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