Which is preferred: Intelligence or Common Sense?

by R. N. A. de Silva

There is a general tendency to place highly intelligent people as not having common sense. ‘Nutty professor’ or ‘absent minded professor’ are commonly heard phrases. Would you like to be called intelligent or as a person of good common sense?

Intelligence is considered the ability to gain and apply knowledge and skills. It is a highly influential factor in the academic sphere as it helps an individual to progress and learn more. "Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change," said Stephen Hawking. In general, it can be defined as the ability to perceive information and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviours within a specific environment.

American psychologist Howard Gardener identified intelligence in seven different categories. He says that these differences "challenge an educational system that assumes that everyone can learn the same materials in the same way and that a uniform, universal measure suffices to test student learning. Indeed, as currently constituted, our educational system is heavily biased toward linguistic modes of instruction and assessment. Students learn in ways that are identifiably distinctive. The broad spectrum of students would be better served if disciplines could be presented in a number of ways and learning could be assessed through a variety of means." The learning styles are as follows:

1. Visual – Spatial: Those in this category think in terms of physical space and are aware of the environment. They like to draw, do puzzles and read maps and the best way to teach them is through drawings or physical imagery such as multimedia. Architects, sailors, sculptors, pilots and painters can be placed in this category.

2. Bodily-kinesthetic: They will have a keen sense of body awareness. As they like movement and creation of models, they can be taught physical activity, hands on learning and role playing. Athletes, dancers and surgeons will have these skills.

3. Musical – They show sensitivity towards rhythm and sound. They learn best when multimedia or musical instruments are used. There is often an affective connection between music and the emotions; and mathematical and musical intelligences may share common thinking processes.

4. Interpersonal – They value friends and have empathy for others. They learn through interaction and learn best when group activities or dialogues are involved. Teachers, social workers, actors, and politicians exhibit interpersonal intelligence. Young adults with this kind of intelligence are leaders among their peers, are good at communicating, and seem to understand others’ feelings and motives.

5. Intrapersonal – They like to be on their own and have strong willpower, confidence and opinions. They learn best through independent study. These qualities are exhibited by psychologists, spiritual leaders, and philosophers. They may be shy but are aware of their own feelings and are self-motivated.

6. Linguistic – They have high auditory skills and like reading and writing. They like to learn from books, computers and multimedia. Linguistic intelligence is the most widely shared human competence and is evident in poets, novelists, journalists, and effective public speakers.

7. Logical-mathematical: They think conceptually and are able to visualize relationships. They learn best when there is logical reasoning and through investigative activities. Logical intelligence is usually well developed in mathematicians, scientists, and detectives.

The most common measurement of intelligence is called the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and is expressed as a number. This measurement is the result of the experiments carried out by psychologists such as Francis Galton, Charles Spearman, Alfred Binet and Raymond Cattell. What has to be remembered is that these scores are estimates of intelligence as it is derived from several standardized tests designed to assess human intelligence. It assumes that two-thirds of the people will have IQs between 85 and 115. Only about one in 50 will have an IQ below 70 or above 130. Only about one in 1600 has an IQ above 160 and only one in 30,000 above 160.

Common sense and intelligence are not the same. Common sense gives more prominence to practical knowledge while intelligence focuses on intellectual capacity. "Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are and doing things as they ought to be done" said Josh Billings. It is the sound practical judgment concerning everyday matters. Therefore, common sense refers to making decisions based on what you have experienced and not necessarily on what you have learnt. How do you enhance the ability of using common sense? WikiHow suggests five ways to develop common sense.

1. Comparing the risks and rewards of a decision before choosing what to do – this is to weigh your options to see which choice will give you the best possible outcome.

2. Trusting the gut feeling without analyzing too much – if the decision seems to be the best one then to implement it.

3. Looking at the situation from another perspective – to pretend that you are watching someone else in your situation and think about what you would tell them based on what’s the smartest or best decision for them.

4. Asking someone that you trust for feedback when not sure – this is to talk through your possible decisions with them so you can get their input since they may have more life experience and could have faced a similar choice at some point.

5. Realizing that sometimes mistakes can be made – to recognize that nobody is perfect and everybody makes mistakes and that you learn through these mistakes.

Intelligence does not necessarily guarantee that an individual has common sense too. There can be highly intelligent people who lack common sense. Some people believe that the degree of common sense decreases as the IQ increases. But there is no hard evidence that IQ is negatively associated with common sense. It was Voltaire who said "Common sense is not so common".

Rational thinking is connected with common sense as it is defined as ability to consider the relevant variables of a situation and to access, organize, and analyze relevant information to arrive at a sound conclusion. Humans are generally accepted as the only living being capable of rational thought. This is the reason that humans are considered to be the most intelligent. But, the problem is that we are also able to think irrationally. As David Adam, the editor of scientific journal ‘Nature’ points out, to think rationally is to act according to one’s goals and beliefs. To act according to beliefs to achieve goals, however irrational those beliefs might be, demands intelligence.

In my view, intelligence and common sense are both terms that cannot be defined accurately and therefore it is difficult for us to comprehend the connection between them. If intelligence is considered as the ability to gain knowledge then it is not an essential ingredient for common sense. Experience will definitely contribute towards common sense. However, I feel that the degree of common sense can be enhanced through skillful application of intelligence.

(The writer is a member of the faculty of the Overseas School of Colombo. He is also a senior examiner of the International Baccalaureate.)

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