A new kind of smart
It’s time to change the way we think about human potential, says Scott Barry Kaufman.
By Kirsten Weir
Reinventing the idea of intelligence is no small feat. It requires passion,
motivation and resilience — the very
qualities that Scott Barry Kaufman,
PhD, says are missing from traditional
descriptions of intellect.
Kaufman is scientific director of the
Imagination Institute at the Positive
Psychology Center at the University of
Pennsylvania. Previously an adjunct
assistant professor of psychology at New
York University, Kaufman launched
the nonprofit institute last year with
Executive Director Martin E.P. Seligman,
PhD, the former APA president
widely known for his work in positive
psychology. Their goal is to advance
the science of the measurement and
improvement of imagination, eventually
developing an objective “Imagination
Quotient” — a new kind of IQ.
Kaufman is also the author of the
2013 book “Ungifted: Intelligence
Redefined,” which presents his
arguments for a broader definition
of brainpower — and the need to
recognize factors that aren’t measured by
traditional standardized tests.
Intelligence isn’t just about finding
a quick solution to a problem or an
obstacle, Kaufman says. Rather, he
believes intelligent people are those who
can come up with a variety of strategies
to get where they want to go, and are
able to develop new approaches if their
first attempts fail.
“We all know what intelligence is
intuitively, and I’m not trying to distort
what that means,” he says. “It’s about
your ability to adapt, to learn from prior
Kaufman talked to the Monitor about
intelligence, creativity and some of the
many projects he’s excited about.
What made you look at the
traditional idea of intelligence and
decide it was missing the mark?
I saw firsthand as a child what it’s like to
grow up in an educational environment
with such a strong focus on standardized
testing. When I was very young, I was
diagnosed with an auditory learning
disability. Growing up with a learning
disability, I saw the low expectations
teachers had without even bothering to
get to know us or trying to challenge us.
I was in the special education program
until ninth grade. It wasn’t until then
that I had a teacher who really believed
in me and challenged me.
So I had a sense that we were missing
out on some key aspects of what it
means to demonstrate potential. It was
obvious to me that the people seen as
having more potential, such as kids in
the gifted program or National Merit
Scholars, were often quick learners, but
not necessarily reflective learners. So I
started thinking about other ways that
intelligence could manifest, or other
markers that could be equally good
indicators of intellectual potential.
How do you define intelligence?
I think about 50 percent of the equation
of intelligence is missing. We focus so
much on current ability, like your ability
to take an IQ test, to understand and
keep lots of information in your head
at one time and manipulate it on the
spot. What’s missed is the engagement
aspect of intellectual functioning. In
my doctoral dissertation I called this
the dual-process theory of human
intelligence, and in my book I called it
the theory of personal intelligence.
I define intellect as the dynamic
interplay of ability and engagement in the
pursuit of personal goals. To me, it’s the
personal goals aspect that is so critical.
You can stick people in a decontextualized,
sterile testing environment like an IQ test,
but you’re not really capturing what they
are capable of achieving intellectually.
They’re not motivated, they’re not
engaged in what they’re doing. You’re not
giving them an extended period of time to
realize something great. You’re thin-slicing
So should we ditch the
traditional methods of assessing
That kind of testing environment does
tell you something about a person. IQ
tests aren’t meaningless. But in terms of
personal intelligence, the kind of skills
necessary to make your dream a reality,
it’s not all about IQ. Other things are
really important, like passion, being
inspired, having a growth mindset, having
grit and determination and resiliency. All
of these characteristics come into play
when you look at the individual level
and move away from trying to compare
people on a single dimension.