The Nature of Intelligence


L.L. Thurstone

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SINCE the book-market has been flooded with psychoanalysis, it is of some interest to inquire into the relation between the points of view that psychoanalysis represents and the points of view that the older schools of psychology have adopted in the interpretation of mind. Psychoanalytic theory is strange and extreme, to be sure, both in the technical journals devoted to its professional discussion and in the popular books on the subject. But there is an underlying truth in the psychoanalytic literature which can be extracted from the strange context, and which has not been adequately noted in the more established scientific studies of mind.

The contrast between abnormal psychology and normal psychology is, in this particular regard, very striking. The study of abnormal psychology radiates largely from the central question of discovering what satisfactions the patient is trying to attain, and how it comes about that he attempts to gain these satisfactions in the particular ways that we, as outsiders, consider to be ineffective and erratic. Our interest is in the patient, and we try to see his environment as it really looks to him. We discover, usually, that the satisfactions that the patient is trying to attain are universal for all of us, but we discover also that he is less successful than we are in using that environment.

When we turn to normal psychology we have an entirely different state of affairs. No longer are we mainly interested in what the normal person is trying to do, and the satisfactions that he is trying to attain. On the contrary, we describe the normal person in scientific psychology as though he were nothing more than a responding machine. In fact,

(xii) the person who lends himself and his mind to the purposes of any experiment in a psychological laboratory is technically known as " the reagent ", and everything that he does and says is technically known as his " responses " or " reactions ". There is no fault to be found with this point of view for certain types of experimental work, but serious fault is to be found with the assumption that this point of view is at all adequate for psychology as a science.

In abnormal psychology we have, as I have said, the main emphasis placed on the patient and the exploration of his innermost self. His environment is looked upon merely as the means that happen to be available for him to satisfy his wants. We describe his erratic behaviour as the by-paths, substitutions, anomalies, and distortions that come about because of his repeated failure. We find that the patient is occasionally able so to distort his attitudes that he finds a compensatory kind of satisfaction in what seems to us queer conduct. He does attain satisfactions, however, even though he must distort his own attitudes toward life, his own sense organs and mental powers. Note that the cause-and-effect relations of such a psychological point of view start with the person himself, and that they terminate in the behaviour that satisfies him. This point of view reaches its most emphatic expression in psychoanalysis, and the fundamental truth about it that has been neglected in scientific psychology is that action originates in the actor himself.

When Jung's word-association test is given to a patient, the interest of the examiner is focussed on the patient in an attempt to learn what constitutes his desires, his failures, and his compromises with failure. But when we turn to the field of normal psychology, we find that in closely analogous experimentation the examiner is primarily interested

(xiii) in the stimulus and in the so-called responses, instead of in the person. The corresponding problems in normal psychology deal with the attempt to discover what fractional part of a second is required to perceive a word or to make a response, what particular arrangements in the stimulus facilitate or inhibit recall, and the effect that all sorts of variations in the stimulus can have on the response. The experimenter is then interested in describing the behaviour as in the nature of a response, and he attempts to describe the stimulus as the primary cause of the response. Normal psychology assumes that action begins in the environment, whereas abnormal psychology more often implies that action begins in the actor himself.

The point of view that is implied in abnormal psychology, according to which conduct has its root and starting-point in ourselves, is in better harmony with the other sciences that concern human nature. It is certainly easier for the preacher, the judge, and the teacher, to accept a system of psychology according to which conduct springs from man's inner self than to assimilate a psychological interpretation according to which we become reduced to reflex response machines that continually react to a fortuitous environment. The study of ethics, criminology, and sociology is certainly made more illuminating by a psychology that looks to the inner self as the mainspring of conduct and according to which the stimuli of the environment become merely the avenues through which that inner self is expressed and satisfied. It is just this point of view in the interpretation of human nature that psychoanalysis has emphasized, and that is primarily the reason why it has found popularity as an explanatory method in that large field of phenomena which is dominated by human nature. It is this shift of interest from the

(xiv) stimulus-response relation to the wants of the living self that marks the fundamental difference between what we know as the old and the new psychology.

It is by no means necessary to assume that the starting-point of action be a soul. It might as well be the energy released by the metabolism of the organism. It is pretty certain that with the advance of scientific psychology we shall come close to this kind of source for human conduct, and it may then turn out to be merely a more materialistic and dynamic equivalent of what has been vaguely called the soul or the self. It is certainly a fact that the so-called New Psychology falls readily into line with the other sciences of human nature in a way which has never been attained by the more established stimulus-response point of view.

Another psychological subject that is at the present time very much in the public mind is that of Intelligence Tests. Most of the psychological tests that are in common use have been arrived at principally by trying different tests for different purposes until certain tests have been found to be successful. There is considerable difference of opinion as to what intelligence really is, but, even if we do not know just what intelligence is, we can still use the tests as long as they are demonstrably satisfactory for definite practical ends. We use electricity for practical purposes even though we have been uncertain as to its ultimate nature, and it is so with the intelligence tests. We use the tests and leave it for separate inquiry to determine the ultimate nature of intelligence.

In these chapters I have started with the assumption that conduct originates in the actor himself, and I have tried to discover what intelligent conduct may mean if we follow this assumption to its limits. I find that the disparity between the new psychology, and the academic

( xv) or scientific psychology and the most rigorously objective behaviourism breaks down completely. These three schools of psychological interpretation form a continuum, in that conduct originates in the self as studied by psychiatry, it takes partial and tentative formulations in conscious states as studied by academic psychology, and it completes itself into behaviour, as studied by the behaviourist school. The cognitive categories of academic psychology become, in such an interpretation, the incomplete and tentative formulations of conduct. Consciousness is interpreted as conduct which is in the process of being formed.

Intelligence is defined, according to this point of view, as the capacity to live a trial-and-error existence with alternatives that are as yet only incomplete conduct. To think is to cut and try with alternatives that are not yet fully formed into behaviour. The degree of intelligence is measured by the incompleteness of the alternatives which participate in the trial-and-error life of the actor. A concept becomes, then, an incomplete act, a small piece or derivative of conduct which anticipates the whole conduct. By its reference to the expected completion of the act it participates effectively in the trial-and-error expression of our wants. It is in this sense that intelligence and the capacity for abstraction are identical.

Psychology deals with a circuit which may be divided into four phases. It starts with the life-impulses in the organism. The next phase is the partial expression of these impulses which we know as consciousness. In that phase the life-impulses constitute the indices of expected experience in which the details of the expected conduct have not Set been filled in. 1 he third phase consists in the overt conduct by which the life-impulses are registered on the environment. The fourth phase brings us back again into the organism

( xvi) in the form of satisfactions. The satisfactions are partly physical and partly social. Intelligence concerns the control that the organism exercises over the effectiveness and the balance of future satisfactions.

It may be that these chapters contain nothing that is fundamentally new beyond the attempt to harmonize three schools of thought about human nature which have the appearance of being irreconcilably disparate. Stated in a nutshell, my message is that Psychology starts with the unrest of the inner self, and it completes its discovery in the contentment of the inner self.

I may conclude by expressing my indebtedness to my teachers, colleagues, and students for their influence on my psychological thought. To President Angell I am grateful for the introduction to the study of psychology which, by his influence, I chose as my life work. I believe that it was in Professor G. H. Mead's lectures on Social Psychology that I first started the line of thought from which the present book has developed, but I am quite sure that he would never recognize his own lectures as the source. The unusual scientific leadership of Professor W. V. Bingham is responsible for my efforts to reconcile the demands of practical psychology and of systematic method. I desire further to acknowledge the many ideas which I have derived from discussion with my colleagues, Professor David R. Craig, Dr. Max Schoen, Miss Thelma Gwinn, and Miss Esther Gatewood. My graduate students have removed numerous ambiguities by their criticism. The appreciative mention of all these people does not of course imply that they endorse my contentions.

January, 1923.


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