Sternberg’s Adaptive Intelligence

Robert J. Sternberg Rethinking Intelligence, New Scientist No. 3317 pp 36-41 16 Jan 2021

Our dominant idea of what makes people smart is exacerbating world problems and needs radical overhaul … .

Announcing his Adaptive Intelligence: Surviving and Thriving in Times of Uncertainty, due Feb. 2021

Robert is a respected psychologist, particularly known for his triarchic theory of intelligence and theory of cognitive styles. Here he addresses issues of uncertainty, an interesting topic.

Main body

[We] have developed a conception of intelligence [as indicated by ‘IQ’ etc] that is narrow, questionably scientific, self-serving and ultimately self-defeating. We see the consequences in a faltering response of many nations to the covid-19 pandemic, and a host of problems such as climate change, increasing income disparities and … pollution.

Historically, intelligence has been defined simply as an ability to adapt to the environment.

Sometimes we change ourselves to suit the environment, sometimes we shape the environment to suit ourselves, and sometimes we find a new environment when our current environment isn’t working out.

It is way past time to let go of a narrow, antiquated and self-serving notion of what it means to be intelligent. …

Sternberg gives some insightful background to how we got into this mess, and its importance today, and some grounds to think that people might now be more receptive to the ideas he presents.

Break-out boxes

Real-World Problems

Sternberg gives a good characterisation of current problems, which resemble what others have called ‘wicked problems‘.

Measuring Adaptive Intelligence

Sternberg gives two examples of questions to probe his ‘adaptive intelligence’. We learn that faced with a conflict between friends, it shows ‘adaptive intelligence’ to support both sides as best we can without ‘taking sides’ or being thought to ‘take sides’. (Encouraging them to become reconciled seems optional.)

Sternberg also addresses the issue of ‘social conflict’ . In this case there is a genuine clash of interests (over water) that needs to be resolved between the parties. Sternberg suggests that:

[The parties] should [each] appoint a commission of … (water) experts. These people should be responsible for choosing top experts … . [The parties] should agree in advance to abide by the panel’s recommendation. The deliberations should be made in secret …. and the panel should be provided with any resources it needs to make a decision … with a majority decision accepted as the final solution (sic) … There should be no right of appeal … .

My Comments

Readers of my blog will realise that I am already sympathetic to Sternberg’s views, but would go further. Adaptive intelligence seems to be about adapting to something, and unlike wicked problems, Sternberg thinks that real-world problems:

  • Unfold and need to be solved over long periods of time.

Maybe we will sometime solve problems of pandemics, but how can one be sure? In particular, unless the ‘solution’ were somehow cost-free, how could we ensure that future generations would continue to bear the costs of keeping the problems solved? For example, if the solution requires some form of learning and the problem is ‘solved’ for long enough, might not people under-value such lessons, in which case, what is to keep the problem from recuring?

At a more technical level, the notion of ‘emergence‘ was developed to contrast with the notion of ‘unfolding’. Maybe this difference still might make a difference? Maybe the best one can do is to resolve (in the sense of wicked problems) rather than expect a ‘final solution’.

Thus an alternative type of intelligence might be:

an ability to adapt with the environment,

an on-going process. To distinguish this from Sternberg’s narrower concept one might call it ‘Co-adaptive intelligence’ or maybe ‘collaborative intelligence’, noting that ‘the environment’ (in the ‘green’ sense) needs to be represented within the collaboration.

Where Sternberg notes that:

Sometimes we change ourselves to suit the environment, sometimes we shape the environment to suit ourselves, and sometimes we find a new environment when our current environment isn’t working out

we might add:

Sometimes we might think about trying to become more intelligent in more appropriate ways:

  • Changing ourselves to suit where we anticipate the environment may going to be, or may be becoming.
  • Changing ourselves to suit possible, if unanticipated, futures. (As in resilience.)
  • Changing ourselves so that we are less likely to be acting in way that inhibits potential desirable futures (or resilience).
  • Changing ourselves so that we are prepared (perhaps tentatively) to engage with others in influencing possible viable futures.
  • …. ?

Thus in Sternberg’s examples of conflict, why not try to reconcile the parties? In social conflict, why not try to involve people with appropriate intelligence, not just domain ‘knowledge’? (Presumably, if the ‘water experts’ had such seemingly rare expertise/’wisdom’ the conflict wouldn’t have arisen, and if they lack such insights, how can we expect the to choose an suitably intelligent/wise panel? If they did convene a panel with adequate intelligence (or just an adequate appreciation of uncertainty) would they really go along with the notion of a ‘final solution’ with no appeal? Or would they see such problems as wicked and suggest a more sustainable appropach?

Unfortunately, even resolving wicked problems is not a well-understood process. So, how do we (who are not so intelligent or maybe just not adequately experienced) judge the intelligence of candidates for Sternberg’s panel? (Or anyone else who might best be involved in any such process of ‘conflict resolution‘?)

Dave Marsay

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