Crystallised versus Fluid Intelligence

March 19, 2019 ProgressionHR

It was Brain Awareness Week recently. This annual global campaign is designed to raise public awareness about the progress and benefits of brain research. That got us thinking… we know that research on the human brain is discovering new information around Learning and Development all the time, so we took a look at what HR can learn from neuroscience.

Our Fast-Paced World

The pace of business just keeps getting faster. This means innovation and agility are much more than just trendy business buzzwords. They are more important than ever if businesses wish to survive the pace of today’s disruption (just think of what Uber has done to the taxi industry).

If our increasingly fast-paced workplace world leaves you feeling overwhelmed or struggling to cope, science shows us it comes down to how we learn, how we adapt to new situations, and the difference between ‘Crystallised Intelligence’ and ‘Fluid Intelligence’.


Crystallized Intelligence

The idea of two distinct types of intelligence was first proposed by psychologist Raymond Cattal in the 1960’s. Crystallized Intelligence refers to the accumulation of knowledge, facts, experience and skills that we acquire throughout our lives, and our ability to use this. Crystallized intelligence isn’t ‘memory’. But it does rely on you accessing information stored in your long-term memory.

Your Crystallized Intelligence is revealed by your depth and breadth of certain things. Examples include your knowledge of facts and your possession a base of knowledge on a specific topic that you have built up over time (e.g. you’re an HR consultant… or a mechanic… or a doctor).


Fluid Intelligence

Fluid Intelligence (or fluid reasoning) on the other hand, is the ability to reason and solve new or novel problems we haven’t encountered before. These new problems are independent of any knowledge from our past.


We’re in a VUCA World

Many HR professionals are familiar with the acronym VUCA, which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. This concept suggests we are operating in a VUCA world, where many things are unknown or changing, with new problems appearing all the time.

VUCA is actually a U.S. military term, arising from the uncertainty of the Cold War and used to describe battle conditions no-one had fought in before. Since that time, it has been applied to business and people, especially strategy development. In a VUCA world, you can’t rely on past experience or ‘business as usual’ thinking, and that’s exactly what Fluid Intelligence is all about.

Abstract Reasoning

Fluid intelligence includes abilities such as abstract reasoning, pattern recognition, out-of-the-box thinking, identifying relationships between things, and evaluating problems by piecing together information that isn’t necessarily formally taught.

Fluid intelligence is essential for problem-solving. As child development pioneer Jean Piaget puts it so simply, “it’s what you use when you don’t know what to do”.

Both types of intelligence increase throughout your childhood and adolescence. Crystallized Intelligence continues to grow throughout your life. However, many aspects of Fluid Intelligence peak in adolescence and begin to decline starting around your 30s or 40s.


Solving Novel Problems

In earlier, less disruptive business times, Crystallised Intelligence, and being an expert on your chosen subject, was fine. But as you can see, in a rapidly changing world, we increasingly need Fluid Intelligence to solve novel problems when we find ourselves in ‘uncharted waters’.


“Houston, we have a problem”

Fluid Intelligence underpins the concept of ‘Adaptive Expertise’. Adaptive Expertise is the ability to apply your knowledge to solve novel problems. An often-used example of Adaptive Expertise is the story of Apollo 13 (“Houston, we have a problem”), where the crew successfully built a carbon dioxide filter out of mis-matched parts while on the way to the moon. In other words, they found themselves in a situation in which no-one had any experience, yet they solved the ‘problem’, survived and made it back to Earth alive.


Improving Your Intelligence

While it is easy to work out how you can increase your Crystallized Intelligence because it is developed by studying information and learning facts (you can read books and learn from experts), it may seem harder to figure out how you can boost your Fluid Intelligence.

The good news is, you can improve your Fluid Intelligence over time to develop your creative thinking skills. You can do this by seeking out new experiences or by learning a new skill outside your comfort zone. If you’re an analytical thinker, look for challenges beyond logical reasoning. For example, if maths is your favourite subject, try experimenting with painting. Conversely, if you’re good at writing, you could learn how to play the piano or take a cooking class.


Think Outside Your Comfort Zone

Today, when things are changing so fast, you can’t rely on ‘business as usual’ thinking. We all need to improve our Fluid Intelligence to become better at solving novel problems. So what are you waiting for? Seek out a new experiences that force you to think outside your comfort zone and you’re off to a good start.


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