Defining "Intelligence": Knowing vs. Acting

How would you define Intelligence?

Defining "Intelligence": Knowing vs. Acting

How would you define Intelligence? Here are some sample "answers":

  • Oxford dictionary: "the ability to learn, understand and think in a logical way about things; the ability to do this well";
  • Psychologist Adam Grant in his book Think Again: "Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn. Yet in a turbulent world, there's another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn."
  • Novelist Scott Fitzgerald: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."

In all three definitions above - whether coming from linguistics, psychology or literature - intelligence is tied to thinking instead of doing. Intelligence is defined as how well one knows the world. Yet the definition falls short of saying whether one takes advantage of that knowledge to act.

Noticeably, all definitions look at intelligence based on the individual (i.e., his or her own ability to think) without mentioning the individual affects the group they are in. Put simply, how does a person act to influence their environment? Should this be explicitly mentioned as part of "intelligence", especially in today's Internet Age where we are more interconnected than ever and, by extension, exposed to more influences than ever? Not a pure coincidence that we have "influencers" today.

(Side note: some readers may frown when they see "more interconnected than ever" - one could argue the Internet may have made some of us more emotionally distant from one another. Point taken. Here I'm referring to "interconnected" as in the ability to contact others and be contacted by others - no judgment on how genuine or deep the emotional connection is.)

There is a branch of intelligence called Social Intelligence, defined as "the capacity to know oneself and to know others" (Wikipedia). The word "others" in the definition can be deceptive. The keyword here is "know" - to know still happens within the realm of the individual. It is still about what the individual thinks, rather than what the individual chooses to do.

As an interesting contrast, the definition of Artificial Intelligence is "the theory and development of computer systems able to perform tasks normally requiring human intelligence" (Google Dictionary powered by Oxford Languages). The phrase "perform tasks" implies the AI takes action based on the knowledge gained. It is understandable that we define AI based on what they do, since how close their behavior mimics human beings is one of the most important yardsticks we use to judge AI's performance.

Most AI has a "goal" or "metric" that they are trained to optimize. Perhaps we could re-define Intelligence in general to mean "the ability to learn, understand and think in a logical way about things AND act on the knowledge to achieve one's goals". Someone who learns fast is smart. Someone who learns fast and acts accordingly is intelligent.