As a child, Scott Barry Kaufman had an auditory disorder that made it difficult to process words in real time. He was diagnosed with a learning disability, performed badly in IQ tests, had to repeat Grade 3 and spent years in special education. He was told that his disability made high-level academic achievement unlikely.
Today, Dr. Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at New York University with a PhD from Yale and a master’s degree from Cambridge. But he hasn’t forgotten the questions that early experience raised.
His book Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined is an attempt to come up with a new way of looking at talent and intelligence: What does it means to be smart? How can we create a system that best nurtures greatness in each individual? At a time when there are competing accounts of braininess from neuroscience to social science (such as Malcolm Gladwell’s famous formula of 10,000 hours of practice to achieve “mastery”), it aims to shake up the debate.
How did your personal experiences differ from some of the things you were being told about what it means to be intelligent?
I would look into textbooks and look at these charts that said if your IQ was this score or your IQ was that score, these were your chances of obtaining various things in life. I just didn’t accept it. According to those charts, I wasn’t likely to graduate high school. … And that really inspired me to start challenging the system and to fight my way up the echelons of academia.
How do we generally define intelligence?
We think of speed – how quickly can you process information, how fast can you soak things up, what’s your capacity for abstract reasoning, memory, attention? But that doesn’t mean that’s how we have to think of intelligence. … That’s a big paradigm shift that I try to call for in the book: to shift away from this obsessive need to compare people based on a standardized metric.
So what’s your definition?
Intelligence is the ongoing, dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities, in the pursuit of personal goals. So what I try to show in the book is that at least 50 per cent of the equation is missing from current conceptions of intelligence. When you actually look at how people obtain their goals in life, engagement is hugely important.
Talent is not inborn. All these things develop in a process where you are engaged in a passion, something you love, and you’re constantly working on achieving higher heights, building your neural structures that allow you to achieve more. Engagement shapes the brain, shapes the connectivity between different brain areas. So if we ignore the engagement aspect, and we ignore the passion, I think we’re not capturing intelligence.
In the book, you write a lot about IQ. How useful are these tests? Do they correlate with later life success?
IQ tests, SATs, GREs, ACTs – all these tests are tapping into a general form of cognitive intellectual functioning that has to do with speed and efficiency of processing information. And that is something. It’s when we start reifying that as though it’s the ultimate arbiter of truth that we run into trouble.
When they see people with average or even below-average IQ scores who achieve amazing intellectual feats in life, researchers who equate IQ with intelligence will say, “Oh, look what they’ve achieved despite their low intelligence.” That’s an absurd statement. What these people have done is achieved extraordinary intellectual feats through a whole range of other personal characteristics. The kind of things they measure on IQ tests just weren’t important for them to achieve their personal goals.
IQ tests predict occupational success. But as you go up the ladder, there are gatekeepers. What we do is we start funnelling people very, very young who score low on these tests and keep them out of opportunities, and give opportunities to people who score well. These differences snowball over the years. So we eventually see a correlation in the real world, but who created that correlation?
In a practical sense, in a classroom, isn’t there something to be said for dividing kids according to intellectual ability?
I’m all for ability grouping, but not on their age or what’s expected of you at a certain age. And not in a global fashion. We have this idea of global giftedness – that you’re either a gifted person or not a gifted person. Instead, why can’t we understand that people do have different proclivities and do develop at different rates?
Potential isn’t something that’s fixed at birth. Potential is a moving target. So the more you engage in something, the more you increase your ultimate level of potential. Every time you deliberately practise, you focus, you gain more expertise – every time you do that, you’re changing your odds.
Instead, we’re sending this message in school that you’re either born with this potential to achieve or you’re not born with this potential. And what this does is make those people who are told they’re not born with this potential to stop trying. They grow lower and lower in their ability, and it just creates this cycle.
This interview has been edited and condensed.