The Nature of Intelligence

Chapter 8. Inhibition and Intelligence

L.L. Thurstone

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Suppose that the motive on a particular occasion is to resolve a difficulty for which one would ordinarily think of money as the solution. The motive can define itself in any one of many different particular forms such as to borrow the money from a friend, at the bank, earn it, delay some other payment, give a note, charge it, and so on. Suppose that the motive defines itself in the idea of borrowing the money from a friend. Additional attributes are necessary in the form of deciding from whom to borrow.

At each step in this process of particularization the motive discards all but one of the several possibilities until it issues in overt form. Now suppose that the motive to get some money for an emergency is allowed to issue impulsively and without conscious selection at the successive stages. It may then issue as a request of a friend who happens to be near just at this moment. It might be an inopportune moment, and it might be the wrong friend. The overt expression of the motive results in failure, i.e. the motive is not neutralized and its pressure is still felt. We may formulate this unintelligent particularization as follows :

1. Emergency
2. Emergency + money
3. Emergency + money + borrow it
4. Emergency + money + borrow it + of a friend
5. Emergency + money + borrow it + of a friend + this friend
6. Emergency + money + borrow it + of a friend + this friend + right now


The particularization is unintelligently said and done, and it results in failure. The above definition of the motive follows the line of least resistance without inhibition, foresight, or conscious choice of means to an end.

Now suppose that we introduce a modicum of intelligence into this adjustment. This would consist of an inhibition of a late stage of the motive as, for example, at step number 5. You are going to ask this particular friend for the money but you anticipate the embarrassment of fulfilling your motive right now while he is talking with a group of people. You decide to approach him during the course of the evening. The motive has been allowed to express itself by following the line of least resistance, by impulsive and unconscious particularization to the perceptual stage. Conscious guidance appears first only as you are about to step over to this friend with your errand. Then you foresee the consequence and inhibit. You allow the motive, as it appears at 5, to particularize itself again along some other route— such as asking this friend later in the evening. If that is not inconsistent with your various motives such as getting the money and your desire for social approval, the motive will express itself overtly in this way.

Let us now introduce more intelligence into this adjustment. Instead of taking for granted impulsively that the money is to be obtained from this particular friend, we "stop" to consider. Perhaps some other friend would be a better expression of the motive. Here you will notice that the motive becomes conscious at a less defined stage such as at step q.. In the previous case we allowed the motive impulsively to pass by the stage at which some other friend

(125) might have been selected. The earlier in the psychological act we introduce conscious choice of particulars, the more intelligent is the adjustment, the fewer will be the objectively recorded failures, and the greater will be the number of available solutions which are not thought of in unintelligent and impulsive conduct.

We shall now consider a still more intelligent adjustment. Assume that the motive to get some money is inhibited at step 3. The idea is then to get out of the emergency by getting some money which we propose to borrow. At this point we stop the impulse and ask " where ? " We can particularize this impulse along several routes such as a friend, or the bank. We live mentally each of the routes that may appear, and our motive expresses itself along that course of action which is least inconsistent with the action patterns that characterize our personality. By stopping the impulse at this stage we may come upon a type of solution which would be entirely missed if we allowed the impulse to become more defined before giving conscious aid. The first requisite for the appearance of an idea is to stop and wait for it to appear. The clever idea may or may not appear depending partly on our mentality, the incentives, and the amount of thought that we have given to the problem; but to inhibit the impulse and to wait for a new idea will at least give that new idea a chance to become focal. If the motive is arrested at step 2 for rational guidance, we shall not be taking it for granted that the money is to be borrowed. There are other ways of getting money besides borrowing it. I am not here implying that borrowing is necessarily an unintelligent thing to do. What I am

(126) interested to show is that the impulsive and unintelligent satisfaction of a want takes for granted any solution which seems handy, and fails to discover the possible solutions which might have appeared by stating the motive in its most abstract and generalized form. If the money-getting motive were in a still more abstract form as step z, we should not even take for granted that money is necessary. If the emergency is realized in the most abstract way possible we may think of some clever manoeuvre which solves the difficulty without money. The less intelligent conduct would assume many of these particulars and would represent the problem already filled with specifications that are taken for granted. The result is that unintelligent behaviour controls only a limited range of possible adjustments.

Consider again the situation of retaliation for an insult. The pressure of an instinctive adjustment usually causes the motive to define itself through the ideational stages without rational choice of means. The motive becomes conscious at the perceptual stage in aiming the fist. If the motive were inhibited at a less defined stage we should have it in the form of an idea to injure our opponent— just how ?that is what we are now thinking about. We might discover ways of damaging his business or reputation which would in the long run be satisfactory and less dangerous for us physically. But it is characteristic of typically instinctive behaviour that it is driven by considerable emotional pressure, and it is therefore especially difficult to inhibit the instinctive motive at an abstract or imaginal stage of completion. For this reason it is not so often accomplished. When it is accomplished, we speak of it as a feat of self-

( 127) -control. I believe that instinctive and rational conduct are by no means mutually exclusive. An instinctive act is also rational if it has been defined by conscious choice of means to an end at the imaginal level of its expression.

Intelligence can in this sense be defined as a capacity which can be considered as superimposed on the ideo-motor tendency. Try to entertain the concept " lamp " for example. It tends to define itself as a particular lamp— a floor lamp— tungsten— silk shade— blue shade— it is lit— it is here— and so on. It requires inhibition of no mean order to retain a concept as such, unless we are aided by habitual manipulation of its properties, such as in mathematics or language. The same applies to sensation. It is after all quite a feat to be conscious of the sensation red without letting it become a red something.

The cortex has been described by neurologists as having for one of its functions the inhibition of the lower centres. If this is so, it is not inconsistent with the assertions here made concerning the close relationship between inhibition and intelligence, but such correspondence is only incidental if it does exist. Psychology is concerned with mental life, and it is only incidentally curious about its neurological. equivalents.


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