Commentary: Intelligence is the key


Once, when a Republican congressman from Massachusetts accused Lincoln of having changed his mind, Lincoln replied, ‘Yes, I have; and I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.’ ”

Numerous studies have tried to determine the factors linked to intelligence and cognitive ability: personality type, social status, economic status, educational opportunity, happiness, lifestyle, etc. Most have revealed various nuanced/subtle links subject to interpretation. But a recent analysis of over 1,300 studies involving millions of people discovered the only trait that surfaced consistently with a substantial correlation to intelligence was a willingness to engage and explore new experiences, ideas and information,

The smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions and challenges to their way of thinking,

A series of experiments published by Harvard Business Review supports this, While changing your mind might make you seem less smart, changing your mind is smarter. Entrepreneurs who adapted, revised or changed their positions during a competition were six times more likely to win the competition.

Are you “intelligent”? How often have you been open to new ideas, new information, new views? How often have you been willing to reconsider a problem or challenge your way of thinking? Let’s be clear, reconsidering or challenging does not necessarily mean changing, but it does mean a willingness to take those old ideas (economic, social, political or religious) out of the cupboard once in a while, dust them off and see if they look the same in the light today. It means a willingness to be open to new views, information and ideas. Openness does not imply acceptance, but a humble spirit of listening and thinking — recognizing our human, personal limits to knowing and understanding.

This is not easy. Our beliefs, opinions and thinking patterns are addictive. In the 2004 Bush-Kerry presidential election, highly partisan followers of each were recruited for a study using MRI scanning to catch their brains in action. When shown information that supported their candidate, a participant would get a small hit of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that produces good feelings. Dopamine is triggered by many addictive behaviors: heroin, cocaine, smoking, alcohol, gambling, pornography. This is why these habits are so hard to break. They feel good. When you or I hear or see something that supports our beliefs, we get a hit of dopamine — much less than a heroin or cocaine addict, of course, but this study shows that our beliefs are addictive, too. It is uncomfortable to be open to new points of view, new information, new ideas or anything that challenges my way of thinking. It is much easier to arrogantly assume that I am right.

Adam Grant in Think Again says, “Arrogance leaves us blind to our weaknesses. Humility is a reflective lens: it helps us see them clearly. Confident humility is a corrective lens: it enables us to overcome those weaknesses.”

Wisdom isn’t found in certainty. Wisdom is knowing that while you might know a lot, there’s also a lot you don’t know. Wisdom is trying to find out what is right rather than trying to be right.


Bruce McClay, M.A., M.L.S., Librarian Emeritus Walla Walla University, is a resident of Battle Ground