University of Gothenburg
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We need to talk about intelligence

Ida Lindblad's latest blog entry

[Posted on 18 September, 2018 by Ida Lindblad]

Our public conversations often shy away from talking about intelligence (in this case theoretical intelligence), but we have to be able to talk about how there are variations in intelligence among different people. Some of my colleagues are quick to point out that intelligence cannot explain everything, and although I agree with that, intelligence is nevertheless a key aspect that must not be ignored, as it helps us to understand and adapt to people around us. As psychologist Gunilla Carlsson Kendall puts it: “There is this idea that there is a small group of people with intellectual disability and a large group with normal intelligence. People talk as if this were a difference of species, when in fact it is merely a difference of degrees.”

The difference lies in intellectual function, i.e. general cognitive ability. Intelligence involves abstract thinking, the ability to plan ahead, solve problems, draw conclusions and understand patterns. Intelligence includes how we learn new things, how we use the things we learn and being able to learn from our experiences.

We now know that intelligence is one of the most stable traits and that about 30-50% of variation in school performance and grades is explained by differences in intelligence. We also know that intelligence is largely hereditary.

Moreover, we know that intelligence is influenced by many different factors: heredity, intellectual stimulation during childhood, schooling, etc. Intelligence is important, but there are also other factors that influence how much intelligence can come into play. Research shows that executive functions impact our ability to use our intelligence for learning. Executive functions also affect how well we can use our intelligence in everyday life (adaptive function).

Intelligence matters a great deal in school, as it influences how the child learns, how long it takes for them to learn and how much they can learn. Intelligence provides a description of how a person’s thinking works. There are special schools for children with major intellectual limitations, i.e. at the level of an intellectual disability, but the national curriculum does not account for all the many children with low theoretical intelligence who still fall within the wide “normal” range.

The diagnostic manual explains that support is required if a person with intellectual disability should choose to have children. Several studies have shown that children of mothers with mild intellectual disability run an increased risk of being subjected to both physical and mental harm, and that around half of all the children need to be placed in family homes. Even so, we have no legislation mandating support for parents with intellectual disability. This is a major issue for social services, and we have previously emphasised the need for close collaboration between social workers and psychologists in these matters.

Failing to talk about intelligence might cause schoolchildren with low theoretical intelligence to face insurmountable cognitive/theoretical demands that they are unequipped to handle. Not only that, it might also make it harder to ensure that parents with mild intellectual disability and their children are provided with the support that they need and are entitled to.

[This is a blog. The purpose of the blog is to provide information and raise awareness concerning important issues. All views and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily shared by the GNC.]

Ida Lindblad
Ida Lindblad
Photo: Berit Abrahamssons