The New Definition of Smart

This is the tenth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. The New Definition of Smart is a chapter in this book.

The chapter begins by stating that we tend to be knowledgeable of only a few, and oftentimes one, individuals for an area accomplishment. Martin Luther King, jr., is known by most people as being key to the Civil Rights Movement. In reality, many people over a prolonged period of time were involved in the movement. They write that the tendency to substitute individuals for complicated entities can be seen in how we talk about institutions. We talk about the Eisenhower administration or the Kennedy administration as if the president of the United States personally carried out all the function of the executive branch of government. The Affordable Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare, runs to about 20,000 or so pages of legalese. The authors ask how much of it do you think that Barack Obama himself wrote? Their guess is none. We speak of great scientists as if they changed the world, but they did not do it alone. Wasn’t it the great physicist Sir Isaac Newton who said that if he saw further than other men it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants?

The authors spend a good deal of time discussing the concept of intelligence, commonly referred to as IQ and how it has developed. Rather then try to summarize their summary consider the title of a presentation that Robert J. Sternberg made at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Psychological Science in 2017, “Are We Creating a Society of Smart Fools? Lesson from 40+ Years of Research on Human Intelligence, Creativity, and Wisdom”. HM can think of no better expert as an authority on this topic.


Sloan and Fernbach, building on the concept of a group mind come up with the concept of c for collective intelligence. Diversity is important for successful groups. A group in which everyone has the same expertise will unlikely be effective. The question is what are the objectives for a group, and what areas of expertise are needed to fill it. Then one searches for these unique pieces and asks the question, what does a given individual add to the group. As the group advances it is likely that new sources of expertise will be required and that groups will be dynamic. If a new member does improve a group, c increases.

This concept of c is relatively new. A team led by Anita Woolley of the Tepper School of Business is developing this concept. Instead of testing people individually, they gave each of forty teams of these people a variety of tests that included brainstorming the possible uses for a brick, Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices that is often used as a quick assessment of intelligence, a moral reasoning problem, a shopping trip planning task, and a group typing taAnisk. Each team did each task together.

All tasks were positively correlated in that a group who did well on one task was more likely to do well on another task than a group who didn’t do well on the first task. Thus, they uncovered c the factor. The new research being done suggests that the success of a group is not predominately a function of the intelligence of its individuals, but rather by how well they work together with their respective competencies.

Obviously c is a very promising concept, one for which much work still needs to be done.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.




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