CHC Theory, Research Link

Fluctuations in attention are related to fluid but not crystallized intelligence

Attentional Control and Fluid Intelligence

There are many defensible ways to slice the ability domain. In a previous post, I put fluid intelligence, working memory capacity, and processing speed together in a conceptual grouping called Controlled Attention. I did not do this capriciously but on my review of the available evidence. However, the precise nature of the ways in which these abilities depend on attentional control is still being explored.

In what I consider to be an important paper, Unsworth and McMillan (2014) provide direct evidence that fluid intelligence test performance is related to moment-to-moment fluctuations of one’s attentional state. The paper consists of three experiments designed to tease apart various explanations of the positive correlation between test item performance and self-rated attentional state measured before each item (ranging from 1 = not at all focused on the task to 10 = totally focused on the present task).

Overall findings

  1. Test performance was not negatively affected by having to complete attentional state ratings.
  2. Self-rated attentional state predicted performance on fluid intelligence test items but not on crystallized test items.
  3. Participants with the most variability in self-rated attentional state from item to item performed more poorly on fluid intelligence test items than did people with more stable levels of self-rated attentional state. Thus, attentional control, in accordance with theory, appears to be an important component of fluid intelligence.

One of my suspicions was that is that participants might justify poor perceived performance on a previous item by claiming low levels of attention before the next item. It might be easier on one’s self esteem to claim, “That last item was hard because I am feeling scattered, not because I am not smart.” However, this explanation is undermined by the fact that self-rated attentional state predicted performance on fluid intelligence test items whether the items were in ascending level of difficulty or in random order. Even so, it would have been nice to have seen analyses showing that attentional state predicted performance on the next item more strongly than it “predicts” performance on the previous item.

CHC Theory

Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence in the Classroom and on the Job

Fluid intelligence is the ability to solve unfamiliar problems using logical reasoning. It requires the effortful control of attention to understand what the problem is and to work toward a logically sound answer. People with high fluid intelligence are able to figure out solutions to problems with very little instruction. Once they have found a good solution to a problem, they are able to see how it might apply to other similar problems. People with low fluid intelligence typically need hands-on, structured instruction to solve unfamiliar problems. Once they have mastered a certain skill or solution to a problem, they may have trouble seeing how it might apply in other situations. That is, their newfound knowledge does not generalize easily to other situations.

— Schneider & McGrew (2013, p. 772)

Gf in the Classroom and on the Job

Crystallized intelligence is acquired knowledge. When people solve important problems for the first time, they typically remember how they did it. The second time the problem is encountered, the solution is retrieved from memory rather than recreated anew using fluid intelligence. However, much of what constitutes crystallized intelligence is not the memory of solutions we personally have generated but the acquisition of the cumulative wisdom of those who have gone before us. That is, we are the intellectual heirs of all of the savants and geniuses throughout history. What they achieved with fluid intelligence adds to our crystallized intelligence. This is why even an average engineer can design machines that would have astounded Galileo, or even Newton. It is why ordinary high school students can use algebra to solve problems that baffled the great Greek mathematicians (who, for lack of a place-holding zero, could multiply large numbers only very clumsily).

Crystallized intelligence, broadly speaking, consists of one’s understanding of the richness and complexity of one’s native language and the general knowledge that members of one’s culture consider important. Of all the broad abilities, crystallized intelligence is by far the best single predictor of academic and occupational success. A person with a rich vocabulary can communicate more clearly and precisely than a person with an impoverished vocabulary. A person with a nuanced understanding of language can understand and communicate complex and subtle ideas better than a person with only a rudimentary grasp of language. Each bit of knowledge can be considered a tool for solving new problems. Each fact learned enriches the interconnected network of associations in a person’s memory. Even seemingly useless knowledge often has hidden virtues. For example, few adults know who Gaius and Tiberius Gracchus were (Don’t feel bad if you do not!). However, people who know the story of how they tried and failed to reform the Roman Republic are probably able to understand local and national politics far better than equally bright people who do not. It is not the case that ignorance of the Gracchi brothers dooms anyone to folly. It is the case that a well-articulated story from history can serve as a template for understanding similar events in the present.

— Schneider & McGrew (2013, pp. 772–773)

Gc in the Classroom and on the Job
Gf Gc Typology

The pictures are previously unpublished (and not to be taken too seriously).

Definitions from:

Schneider, W. J. & McGrew, K. S. (2013). Cognitive performance models: Individual differences in the ability to process information. In S. Ortiz & D. Flanagan (Sec. Eds.), Section 9: Assessment Theory, in B. Irby, G. Brown, & R. Laro-Alecio & S. Jackson (Vol Eds.), Handbook of educational theories (pp. 767–782). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.