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Psychology Basics: Cognition & Intelligence

Updated on December 8, 2017
Jessie L Watson profile image

Psyche Major - Purdue University Global. Writer. Philosopher.

What is Thought?

Thinking is a peculiar form of representing the world from within. We can think about thinking and we talk about what we think. We think in words, we think in pictures, we think in sounds and our emotions often influence the content of our thoughts across time. If a string of thoughts are put together a certain way we end up with entire belief systems that inform our behavior. What are beliefs other than internal models about the way in which the world operates?

Thoughts can also be used as artificial simulations with profound survival benefits. We can construct a scenario in our mind using requisite knowledge (memory) and determine an outcome before we take any action in the world. This allows our theories to die before we do...

Even more peculiar is the way in which we experience thoughts themselves. From a phenomenological point of view, thoughts seem to fall out of a blind void into consciousness. Some might argue that thoughts arrive without any conscious control while others can be consciously manipulated to serve our needs.

"And then [it] came to me..."


"If I do X, then Y will happen"

Thinking itself can be considered a tool that we use to navigate through our environment and communicate these findings and experiences to others. A medium we use to transmit information from one person to another are vocalized patterns of speech otherwise known as language. The value of thoughts themselves are often measured by the implicit accuracy of representing facts or truth. If a person possesses the ability to produce an abundance of valuable thoughts they are generally regarded as being smart or intelligent. In contrast, if a person has an abnormal tendency of formulating inaccurate thoughts we might consider this evidence of mental impairment. Without making any further assumptions about what constitutes thinking and intelligence, let's first explore the most current set of valuable thoughts reputable thinking has come up with so far...

Cognition Defined

The term cognition is derived from a Latin word "cogn" meaning "to know" or "to learn". Also defined as mental processes that occur when a person is organizing, understanding and communicating information. We have a physical system that consists of individual albeit complementary parts which govern how information is passed around and assimilated in the brain/mind. Out of these orchestrations we get thoughts, senses and feelings.

Mental Imagery

Before we imagine imagining, we have to remember that remembering partly consists of short-term memories which are units of encoded information about sounds, objects and experiences that we use to solve problems. If I happen to remember a previous experience eating a cheeseburger, I can probably provide details as to the viscosity of the melted cheese, the crispness of the pickles, or perhaps even how long I had to wait in line before my meal was ready. But what happens when we try to imagine more complex mental imagery?

If you find yourself in a group of several people, ask them to tell you how many windows there are in their home as fast as they can. You'll soon discover that the first people to answer are those with the fewest number of windows. Those with more windows will report counting the windows as they are walking through a mental representation of their house. This means that the amount of time it takes to walk through a larger house is roughly proportionate to how long it takes people to retrieve information from their memory.

Kosslyn's Fictional Island


In study published in 1978 by Steven Kossyln, participants were asked to press a button after imagining themselves traveling from one point on an island to another. The study revealed that it took the subjects longer to press the button when the points were farther apart.

Mental Rotation

Conjuring mental images and exploring their spatial dimensions is only part of how we interact with them. We may also manipulate mental objects by rotating or zooming in on particular aspects much like we would if we were handling them in real life. In the image above, you may notice a variety of seemingly different objects but they are in fact the same object shown from different perspectives.

Try this for yourself. Imagine holding a red apple. Using mental rotation, turn the apple side to side and upside down revealing different qualities. You might notice a depression in the top with a stem or four nubs at the bottom. You'll also find that in doing so, a certain amount of time has passed similar to the amount of time handling a real apple.

Concepts & Prototypes

Another form of thought process is the use of concepts. A concept represents a particular category or class of objects, activities or events. We consolidate our understanding of objects and events through the use of mental categorization. For example, you can think about "animals" without being burdened by the task of thinking of every different animal that exists in the world. Having this ability allows us to save time and communicate more effectively. This also eliminates the caveat of tripping over new features by filing them away into their appropriate categories. That is to say, if you encounter a bird with markings you've never seen before, you may still recognize and classify what you're seeing in the broader category of "birds".

Formal Concepts

We can also narrow the scope of concepts by applying a particular set of rules. These are referred to as "formal concepts". One example describes what constitutes a triangle: a closed, two dimensional object with three edges and three vertices. Mathematics is rife with these rigid concepts that define numerical and geometric forms.

Natural Concepts

Concepts that are less clearly defined and drawn from personal experience in the world are called "natural concepts". This includes the knowledge of how to dress yourself in the morning, hitting a baseball, riding a bike or the eye color of your spouse. Some might see green eyes, but intimately you know there are specs of brown somewhere in there.


Think back to the "animal" example; whatever animal first comes to mind when someone mentions animals is a "prototype". Prototypes can be shaped by your personal experiences but are also influenced by culture and geography. You might say that an eagle is a common animal prototype for the United States but someone in South America is less likely to imagine an eagle. The same is probably true for an apple in the U.S. compared to a coconut elsewhere in the world if we're talking about the concept of fruit.

Can You Solve This?

If you place a coin in a bottle and cork the opening, how can you get the coin out of the bottle without breaking the bottle or pulling the cork?

Type your answer in the comment section.

Problem Solving & Decision Making

Using mental imagery and concepts, we can then begin to problem solve and make decisions. Problem solving requires thinking and acting in ways that allow us to reach goals ranging from cooking dinner to solving complex mathematical equations. Decision making is part of the problem solving process by identifying, evaluating and choosing among a set of alternatives. The following are different methods of thinking in order to solve problems...

Trial and Error (Mechanical Solutions)

Trial and error involves rotating through different solutions until you find one that works. Sometimes this requires using a prior set of learned solutions or coming up with them on the fly. For example, if I forget the 4 digit code to unlock my phone, I can try one combination after another until I find the correct one. Since there are 10,000 possible combinations using 4 numbers, I am more likely to try using combinations that I've used in the past.


Algorithms are a specific type of procedure for specific problems. If there is a correct solution to be had, algorithms will find them. Mathematical formulas are excellent algorithmic tools for finding solutions. Librarians organize their books using alphabetical or decimal based algorithms. Computers use algorithms to solve problems that would take a human being far too long to come up with a solution. For example, if I could not figure out my 4 digit passcode, a computer could generate the 10,000 possible combinations in a matter of seconds.


Seeing as though humans are slower to apply algorithms compared to calculators, we have to come up with "rules of thumb". Heuristics are simple rules that may apply to many different situations but solutions are never guaranteed . You may think of it as an "educated guess" based on previous experiences intended only to narrow the range of possible solutions. Sometimes we encounter problems that algorithms cannot solve like finding a particular paragraph in a textbook. Instead of flipping through every page, you might look in the contents or index section which can narrow your search by referencing subjects or key words.

We can also use heuristics to represent data in general terms. Representative heuristics are used to classify objects by assuming that any person or object shares identical characteristics with other members of that category. This can be helpful when thinking about broad concepts but can quickly lead to inaccurate stereotypes.

Sometimes it's more useful to break down a problem by dividing the goal into a subset of smaller goals. You may remember having to write about a loaded topic for a school assignment. To write a proper essay, one must organize the gathered information by separating it into different topics leading to a logical conclusion.


Between the process of using heuristics, algorithms or thinking about something else entirely, you may have had a spontaneous "aha!" moment leading to a correct solution. These sudden resolutions are referred to as "insight". It may come as a result of remembering a solution to a similar problem or may seem to appear "magically" in your head. Let me assure you, the brain is a very busy machine that doesn't require anything supernatural. Sometimes solutions are simply born out of unconscious mental processes.


String Problem

How can you tie the two strings together if you cannot reach them at the same time?

(Solution at bottom of next section)

Problems with Problem Solving

Just because we have existing methods of solving problems doesn't make certain solutions any less out of reach. Sometimes our strategies and ideas about objects in the world are too narrow to be successfully applied to any given problem....

Confirmation Bias

One major impediment to effective problem solving is ignoring evidence that contradicts one's own belief while only searching for evidence that supports it. For example, people who believe in "psychic abilities" (clairvoyance, telekinesis, etc) can only seem to remember a small handful of studies supporting their theory while discarding dozens of studies finding no such proof. Even more pernicious is the confirmation bias of those who believe they are so good at multitasking that they risk the lives of others while driving and texting on their cell phone...

Functional Fixedness

People often have a tendency of clinging to typical uses of objects. For example, if you're tearing your house apart looking for a screwdriver you may be stepping over other objects that may serve the same function like a dime or butter knife.

String Problem Solution - Use the pliers from the table and create a pendulum to swing the second string closer to you.

Uses for a Pen

Convergent Thinking
Divergent Thinking
Drum Stick


Conventional methods of problem solving that we've discussed is called convergent thinking: combining previous knowledge to arrive at a single answer.

The use of logic and applying available information still only takes us so far. Every once and a while, a problem requires a new way of looking at things entirely which is how we define creativity.

Divergent Thinking

Divergent thinkers use an inverse process of convergent thinking to come up with multiple outcomes and possibilities. As seen in the table above, divergent thinkers are more likely to come up with uses for a pen outside its intended design.

Some have theorized that those who are naturally creative in this way tend to solve problems while engaged in more or less automatic tasks like walking. They are capable of making unconscious connections during periods when they are not actively focused on a problem. Many have reported experiencing sudden insight to a problem while taking a shower. This is because ideas seem to flow more freely just below the level of awareness with minimal censorship.

Not everyone is naturally creative and there are drawbacks to divergent thinking such as being more disorganized and unfocused on important tasks. Divergent and convergent thinking both have their special place in this world. It's worth figuring out where you lean. An easy way to find out if you are naturally creative is by coming up with as many words starting with the letter "S" as you can in one minute. Creative types can usually fill a page within this time.


Which type of thinking do you identify with the most?

See results


Intelligence Defined

An amicable definition of intelligence is the ability to learn from one's experiences, acquire knowledge, and use resources effectively in adapting to new situations or solving problems. Despite this, intelligence still remains one of the most controversial topics in the field of psychology. Opinions differ greatly between how people define the parameters of knowledge and abilities.

Spearman's G-Factor

In 1904, Charles Spearman theorized a baseline that could predict how well someone might perform at any given task called "general intelligence" or "g-factor". While some people may score differently on specific tasks like language or arithmetic, g-factor could be extracted from the average of a series of accumulated test scores.

To clarify, let's say I wanted to test someone using 10 different sets of 100 randomly selected questions that differ in topic (totaling 1000 questions). A person that does well across 8-10 of those sets is likely to have higher general intelligence compared to someone who may have only scored well on 3 or 4 sets.

Sound familiar? Universities select students out of high school who score high on SAT's which are designed around the basic principle of g-factor. The same is true for the ASVAB in military recruitment to determine where individuals may be placed based on competency. It makes sense if you think about it because someone with low general intelligence should not be a surgeon on the battlefield or piloting multi-million-dollar, state-of-the-art aircrafts.

Some might argue that people can learn these types of specialties despite overall intelligence but there isn't any strong evidence to support that claim. A battlefield surgeon is expected to problem solve in many ways outside the scope of hands-on medicine as are civilian hospital physicians.

Worry not. As it stands, it is illegal for any other business or establishment to test people on intelligence for hiring purposes.

Gardner's Nine Intelligences

For a more "feel-good" measure of intelligence, Howard Gardner later came up with a different theory now referred to as multiple-intelligences. Instead of using logic, reasoning and knowledge to define ability, Gardner broke it down into 9 distinct domains...

  1. Verbal/Linguistic - Use of language
  2. Musical - Compose or perform music
  3. Logical/Mathematical - Think logically and solve mathematical problems
  4. Visual/Spatial - Understand how objects are oriented in space
  5. Movement - Control over bodily motions
  6. Interpersonal - Sensitivity and understanding of others motivations
  7. Intrapersonal - Sensitivity and understand of one's own motivations
  8. Naturalistic - Recognize patterns throughout nature
  9. Existentialist - Pondering life, death and reality itself

You may have identified a few of your own strong suits here. While this theory is subject to much criticism, we can use it to identify our talents and refine them to enhance our experience in the world.

Sternberg's Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

In the late 1980's, Robert Sternberg posited that intelligence could be more reasonably defined by describing one's ability to think analytically, creatively or practically.

Stanford-Binet & IQ

In the early 20th century, the French Ministry of Education asked psychologist Alfred Binet to design some measure of intelligence that could identify children with learning disabilities so they may be given the proper attention. Binet and colleagues successfully put together a test that could distinguish between slow and fast learners between different age groups. Their observations revealed that faster learners provided answers that older children could while slower learners only gave answers more typical of a younger peer. Binet concluded that the key element of intelligence was "mental age" or the average age whereby children could properly solve a certain level of problems.

In 1916, a researcher from Stanford University named Lewis Terman took the notions of mental age and chronological age (years since birth) to devise a formula for scoring intelligence, otherwise known as IQ or "intelligence quotient".

IQ = Mental Age/Chronological Age X 100

For example, if an 8 year old child can successfully answer questions at the level of a 12 year old the formula would look like....

12/8 = 1.5 X 100 = 150 (IQ)

But beyond the age of 16, these results become less and less accurate because mental differences between ages 20 and 30 are far less than the difference between ages 5 and 15. What's more, mental acuity declines dramatically from middle age to senior.

Wechsler Tests

Several decades later, a psychologist by the name of David Wechsler came up with the first methods of applying the Stanford-Binet concepts for testing intelligence across the entire spectrum of age groups. Tests would score people on reasoning, retention of information, processing and organization of information and verbal comprehension. Methods such as this are still used today thus preserving the reliability of 2-3 digit IQ scores.

Validity & Reliability of Testing

Not all tests are created equal. A test is usually considered reliable if it can produce the same results for the same person upon multiple iterations across time. That is to say, if I take a personality test today then again in a month and the results are different then the test is probably not very reliable.

Another thing to consider when determining the validity of a test is the degree to which a test actually measures what it's supposed to. We generally tend to have faith in drivers tests because the score reflects an individuals knowledge of the laws and ability to drive safely in the world. If such tests were invalid, there would be pandemonium in the streets daily. (Though this may be the case in certain areas of the country)

Cultural Bias

If we think back to the range of prototypical concepts from different parts of the world, we might see how using certain words or terms on IQ tests might not be interpreted properly when taken by those from different countries or cultures. It's difficult to remove cultural bias from the native language of those who design these tests.

Example: Which of the five words listed is unlike the other four?


Someone from the U.S. will likely choose "car" for seemingly obvious reasons but someone from Japan who was raised in a culture heavily reliant on the ocean for its food might choose "fish" because none of the others are found in the ocean.

Bell Curve Statistics

Standardization & Norms


The idea of standardization is the process of providing a test to a large enough sample of the population that reflects the type of people for whom the test is designed. Samples should be selected randomly for a more accurate representation of the population as a whole. Furthermore, the context and conditions surrounding the test should remain consistent each time.


Scores from the standardized group are the "norms". These are the standards to be compared with all others who take the test. The majority of intelligence test scores (Wechsler) follow a normal curve or "distribution" where the scores are most prevalent as seen in the center of the graph above. Along the periphery of the distribution are the least frequent scores ranging from the lowest to the highest.


Which theory of intelligence do you subscribe to?

See results


Ahn, W. (1998) Why are different features central for natural kinds and artifacts? The role of casual status in defining feature centrality. Cognition, 69, 135-178

Binet, A., & Simon, T. (1916) The development of intelligence in children. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins

Ciardello, A. (1998) Did you ask a good question today? Alternative cognitive and metacognitive strategies. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 42, 210-219

Ciccarelli, S. & White, N. (2015) Psychology. 4th Edition. Chapter 1. William James and Functionalism. Pearson Education. Upper Saddle River, NJ

Gardner, H., & Morgan, S. (2006) The science in multiple intelligences: A response to Lynn Waterhouse. Educational Psychologist, 41, 227-232

Gulliford, J.P. (1967). The nature of human intelligence. New York: Mcgraw-Hill

Kohler, W. (1925, 1992) Gestalt Psychology. An introduction to new concepts in modern psychology. (reissue) New York: Liverlight.

Kosslyn, S. et al. (1978) Visual images preserve metric spatial information: Evidence from studies of image scanning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 4, 47-60

Lin, P. J., Schwanenflugel, P.J., & Wisenbaker, J.M. (1990) Category typicality, cultural familiarity, and the development of category knowledge. Developmental Psychology, 26, 805-813

Shepard, R.N., & Metzler, J. (1971) Mental rotation of three-dimensional objects. Science, 171, 701-703

Spearman, C. (1904) “General Intelligence” objectively determined and measured. American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201-293.

Sternberg, R. J. (1997) The triarchic theory of intelligence. In P. Flannagan, J.L. Genshaft, & P.L. Harrison (Eds.), Contemporary intellectual assessment: Theories, tests, and issues. (pp. 92-104). New York: Gulliford, Press.

Terman, L.M. (1916) The measurement of intelligence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Wechsler, D. (1975) The collected papers of David Wechsler. New York: Academic Press.


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