Thursday, August 24, 2006

Intelligence Testing

This month's issue of GQ reports the results of some psychological testing two psychologists at Washington University ran on Albert Pujols. The tests duplicate those Babe Ruth took at the same age. In the words of Davy Jones, "Pujols scored out of sight on hand-eye coordination and showed an unusual (anecdotally, anyway) and apparently baseball-useful way of processing visual information." The ESPN story has a few more details.

The symbol transfer test Pujols scored off the charts on might be similar to a portion of a widely used I.Q. test: WAIS-R or the Weschler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised. My bet is that the symbol transfer test Pujols took was the Digit/Symbol transfer test from the WAIS-R. Anyone could design a similar test, but you wouldn't have the norms to be able to judge how well people taking your test do compared with the average. Psychology became a bona fide and lucrative profession because of intelligence testing so naturally, the company that makes the WAIS-R keeps it under lock and key. You'd be lucky to find a complete set for sale anywhere. I think this Japanese company might be selling one.

After I performed extremely well on the Block Design portion of the WAIS-R that I took for a clinical psych course, the person who oversaw the administration of the test exclaimed, "You must have played with Legos as a kid!" I certainly had.

The perennial question about intelligence testing from a scientific perspective is of course whether a person's performance depends on their innate ability or the practice they've had with those skills that are tested. Did Pujols score well on high-eye coordination tests because he's had tons of practice as a baseball player or is he a great baseball player who scores well on those tests because he's got innate talent? No doubt it's both. The real question and the difficult one to answer from a scientific perspective is what contribution each piece makes. How much does practice matter vs. innate skill?

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select" boasted John B. Watson, founder of behaviorism.

Is this really true?

No way. If genetics mattered not one whit, I could train my dog to outperform Pujols and me both on block design, symbol transfer, and a whole host of other tests. You might say: BUT dogs lack opposable thumbs. They can't manipulate blocks and pencils to demonstrate their skill! Hand arrangement arises from genetic differences between the two species. Why can't differences in the structure of two brains similarly limit performance? No two people are born with exactly the same brain structure. How well you perform on an intelligence test and how well you play baseball depends on how dexterously you play the cards you were dealt.

Unfortunately, we weren't all dealt a hand with 4 aces in it.

1 comment:

Alasdair said...

true, but at least you weren't dealt a 7-high :)

It is a shame that so much cash is involved in these tests, because it would be fun to take and administer more of them...