Thinking Together: University Challenge and a reconceptualisation of the nature of human intelligence

by Professor Neil Mercer

If you have been watching the latest series of University Challenge, you may have noticed that the Corpus Christi (Cambridge) team has been doing particularly well (with a very impressive accumulated score of 645 so far). One reason for this success, I think, is that the team does not just rely on its members’ astonishing wealth of knowledge as individuals. When a question is addressed to the whole team, there is often a brief but critical discussion about possible answers, usually involving all members. That is, they do not just think individually, but collectively: they use language to think together, and are very good at doing so rapidly in the time available (there is a good example at 5m45s in the episode below, in which the team is asked a question about a marine organism). In doing so, they are demonstrating one of the key characteristics of human intelligence, one that is – rather surprisingly – still ignored by much mainstream psychology and media reporting, and not yet taken enough into account in the world of education.

The Encyclopedia Brittanica definition of ‘Human intelligence’ is as follows:

‘Human intelligence: mental quality that consists of the abilities to learn from experience, adapt to new situations, understand and handle abstract concepts, and use knowledge to manipulate one’s environment.’

The Wikipedia definition is:

“Human intelligence is the intellectual power of humans, which is marked by complex cognitive feats and high levels of motivation and self-awareness. Intelligence enables humans to remember descriptions of things and use those descriptions in future behaviours. It is a cognitive process. It gives humans the cognitive abilities to learn, form concepts, understand, and reason, including the capacities to recognize patterns, comprehend ideas, plan, solve problems, and use language to communicate. Intelligence enables humans to experience and think.”

Wikipedia then adds:

‘Much of the above definition applies also to the intelligence of non-human animals.’

Both these definitions might seem uncontroversial. They certainly identify many of the characteristic features of human thinking. But I believe they are seriously inadequate because they lack any reference to a most distinctive characteristic: human intelligence is essentially collective. This feature, most of all, distinguishes our mental capability from that of other species.

In evolutionary terms, humans are the most successful species, in that we have not simply adapted well to the environment so that we can survive; we have become able to adapt the environment to suit our needs and those of our offspring. Given the current environmental crisis which faces our planet as a result of our actions, one might quibble with an unqualified use of ‘successful’; but nevertheless we are able to address and overcome problems that threaten our survival in a way that other animals cannot. How do we do this? From the definitions of human intelligence above, it might seem that our success must be due to the capacity that individual humans have for learning, reasoning and so on. But that is not so. The way we have achieved success is by combining our individual mental abilities to deal with problems that arise. We are able to think together in a way that no other species can – to reason collectively. And human language enables us to do this very well. Within communities, individuals have distinctive talents and knowledge. But, crucially, they can transcend the limitations of their individual capabilities by linking up their minds to create a kind of mega-intelligence which draws on all the mental resources which are available.  In this way, a group of people can generate ideas and solutions to problems which none of them could have done alone.

We have several ways of thinking collectively, but the most important tool for enabling collective thinking is language. As my colleagues and I have put it, with language we can do more than interact, we can interthink [1]. That language works so well for this purpose is no coincidence; language has evolved as an intrinsic part of the cognitive capabilities of the human brain. The result is that we are not simply cleverer as individuals than other animals, or that we can use talk to share what we know; it is that we have evolved to possess an essentially language-based, communicative form of intelligence. That is why we are so much less dependent for our survival than most other animals on the ‘hard-wired’ knowledge of instincts; each new generation of humans gains much of the knowledge it needs by engaging in collective thinking, not only with its own members but also with older generations. We have set up special institutions – schools – to enable this process. Honeybees have a kind of language, communicating about where to find nectar through their ‘waggle-dances’. But they cannot use that instinctive language, at the end of a day, to reason together about how well their work is going and make new plans. In contrast, as our own research has shown, children learn to reason on their own by first reasoning collectively [2].

I have written before about this perspective on human intelligence and offered evidence in its support. It is why I entitled my most recent book Language and the Joint Creation of Knowledge [3]. As well as being about collective thinking, the book also embodies the interthinking I have done, over the years, with my colleagues. However, it seems that mainstream cognitive psychology has stuck with the common-sense view that thinking is just something that goes on in individual minds. The psychologist Liz Stokoe has pointed out that the ways people use talk to think together have been given surprisingly little attention by cognitive scientists [4]. Her work, which does just that, is certainly outside the mainstream of psychology [5]. I know that her hope, and mine, is that many others, especially those beginning their careers in psychology, neuroscience, linguistics and other social sciences, will pursue this line of enquiry.

I am arguing for an essentially social, collective, language-based conceptualisation of human intelligence again now for another reason. It is that this understanding provides a strong case for giving oracy, the development of spoken language skills, a more important place in the school curriculum. Children are not hard-wired to think well collectively; if they have never experienced a reasoned conversation, they cannot be expected to know how to conduct one. Most of them will acquire a first language very easily, but that does not mean they will know how to use it well. They need to be taught how to explain, argue, listen and critically consider other points of view. They need to be given opportunities to learn how to use language to work with others to get things done. As we now face an increasingly fraught future for humanity as a whole, and with so many intransigent positions being taken by people who wield power in the world, we need to recognise that the only way we will survive successfully as a species is by bringing our unique, collective thinking abilities to bear on the problems we all face.

[1] Interthinking: putting talk to work, by Karen Littleton and Neil Mercer. Routledge, 2013.

[2] Dialogue and the Development of Children’s Thinking, by Neil Mercer and Karen Littleton. Routledge, 2007.

[3] Language and the Joint Creation of Knowledge, by Neil Mercer. Routledge, 2019.

[4] Talk: the science of conversation, by Elizabeth Stokoe. Robinson, 2018.

[5] See also The Knowledge Illusion: the myth of individual thought and the power of collective wisdom, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. Pan Books, 2018.

Leave a Reply