Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

"Brainy" Is What "Brainy" Does

Test smarts is not the only way of being smart.
Jonathan Wai, Ph.D.
This post is a response to How Brainy Is Your Major? by Jonathan Wai, Ph.D.

In his recent article "How Brainy Is Your Major?", my good friend Jonathan Wai (whose research I respect greatly) did a linear ranking of majors based on a single dimension—test scores. First he reported on SAT score rankings, then he reported on GRE score rankings. In both cases, science and engineering fields were at the top, and education, business, social sciences, and the arts were at the bottom. His interpretation? On average, those in fields at the top of his linear scale are "brainer" and "smarter" than those at the bottom of his linear scale.

Jonathan does make it clear he's only talking averages: "Keep in mind that there are extremely smart people in all disciplines and at all colleges and universities", he says. By this, he means that even though on average some fields have higher standardized test scores than others, there can still be individuals in any of those fields with high test scores.

In my view, he's got his whole premise wrong. The point is not that people can be "smart" in any field by having high test scores, it's that people can be smart in any field because they are smart in those fields.

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Jonathan did what so many intelligence researchers and educators do in our society. They equate test smarts with smarts. Are test smarts a form of being smart? Absolutely. What I'm challenging is Jonathan's notion that it's the only way of being smart. Scoring well on standardized tests shouldn't be the sole criteria we use to measure whether someone is "brainy" or "smart".

To see why, imagine we took a different dimension to rank the fields-- openness to experience. My own research shows that, on average, those in the arts score much higher in openness than those in the sciences. So if we took openness as the dimension to rank the fields, the arts would be at the top at the sciences would be at the bottom. Now, here's the question: does openness rely on the brain? YES. Just as much as Intellect. My research shows that those who are open to new experiences process the world in a fundamentally different way than others. They are more intuitive, and make connections between seemingly irrelevant information much faster than others. They are more creative and imaginative. All of these characterists draw on the brain, and in the context of art, contribute to the kind of smarts required to be good at art. In fact, some of the traits required to be good in engineering and the sciences might not come across as smart in the arts. It's all about context.

It's time to stop equating "smarts" with standardized test performance. When we do that, we create the artifical and misleading picture that we really can rank fields based on how brainy they are. When in reality, all we're really doing is ranking fields based on how important tests scores are to becoming an expert in that field.

 

© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

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