Cognitive Ability versus IQ (Intelligence Quotient)




What is Cognitive Ability?

The word Cognition is defined as the mental processes or mental activities which are associated with thought, language, reasoning, decision-making, and other mental processes. General cognitive ability is the “ability that consistently differentiates individuals on mental abilities regardless of the cognitive task or test” (Jensen, 1998). General cognitive ability is often referred to as general intelligence, general mental ability or aptitude. This general intelligence is also known as g factor and is a construct made up of different cognitive abilities. It is what is common or underlies all mental abilities or skills such as those related to spatial, verbal, numerical and mechanical abilities. Certain components of general intelligence include fluid reasoning, knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual-spatial reasoning, and working memory.

Similarly, cognitive ability has also been defined as “general mental capability involving reasoning, problem solving, planning, abstract thinking, complex idea comprehension, and learning from experience” (Gottfredson, 1997). The various types of cognitive processes include attention, language, learning, memory, perception, visual and spatial processing, execution of gross and fine motor skills, and thought. The different types of executive functions include anticipation, problem-solving, decision-making, working memory, emotional self-regulation, sequencing, and inhibition.

A study by Arshavsky, Y.I. in 2001, on the role of individual neurons and neural networks in cognitive functioning of the brain, suggests that groups of highly specialized neurons are associated with carrying out specific cognitive functions and their role in performing these cognitive functions is genetically predetermined. The study also points out that the activities of these specific groups of neurons cannot be substituted by the activities of other neurons, and the main role of neural networks and intercellular interactions is seen in forming dynamic ensembles of neurons linked with performing some specific cognitive function. Thus, it is seen that there are specific neuronal networks which support different cognitive abilities or skills. For example, temporal lobes and parts of the frontal lobes are associated with memory; the frontal lobe is also responsible for initiating and coordinating motor movements; the parietal lobe is associated with sensory processes, language, and attention. Individuals who suffer from traumatic brain injuries, at times tend to experience a lower level of cognitive ability and this is due to the damage on their neural regions and networks.

What is Intelligence and IQ? 

Intelligence has always been a topic of interest to psychologists and researchers and various definitions of intelligence can be found. Intelligence as defined by psychologist Robert Sternberg refers to the “mental activity directed towards purposive adaptation to, selection, and shaping of real-world environments relevant to one’s life”. In his Triarchic theory of Intelligence, he further propounded that intelligence has three aspects to it namely, analytical, creative, and practical. Intelligence can thus be defined as the ability of an individual to acquire knowledge, to effectively think and reason, and to effectively adapt to and deal with the environment.

Sir Francis Dalton studies of hereditary genius and the contributions of French psychologist Alfred Binet have been milestones in the study of intelligence. In 1905, Alfred Binet assumed that mental abilities develop with age and the rate at which individuals gain mental competence is a characteristic of the individual and this rate is fairly constant over time. A concept of mental age emerged which can be explained by this example: if a 10-year-old child can solve the problems which an average 12-year-old child can and is supposed to be able to solve, then the 10-year-old child will said to have a mental age of 12.

German psychologist William Stern further expanded the concept of mental age to provide a relative score which could be common measurement of intelligence of individuals from different age groups. His Intelligence Quotient (IQ) was the ratio of mental age to chronological age, multiplied by 100: 

IQ = (mental age/chronological age) * 100


Thus, a child who was performing exactly according to his or her chronological age would have the IQ of 100. Now the 10-year-old child’s IQ can be calculated and he or she would have an IQ of (12/10)*100 = 120. Similarly, we can take the example of a 15-year-old with the mental age of 12, would have the IQ of 80. Thus, the concept of IQ helps in comparison of intelligence of individuals of the same age groups as well as different age groups.

Lewis Terman who was a professor at Stanford University, later on revised Binet’s test to use it in the United States, making it suitable for the American culture. This revised version later on came to be known as the Stanford-Binet test. The Stanford-Binet test measured intelligence in terms of five features of cognitive ability, namely, fluid reasoning, quantitative reasoning, knowledge, working memory, and visual-spatial processes. The average score for this test was 100 and any score between the ranges of 90 to 109 was considered to correspond to an average score.

It was observed that IQ scores work better for children than adults because many basic skills as measured by these intelligence tests are acquired by the ages of 16 if the individual has normal life experiences and schooling, and hence, his IQ test becomes a less useful for adults. Thus, there is a problem that IQ scores sometimes begin to decline with age. Because of this, there is a new definition of IQ and IQ scores now simply correspond to or indicate an individual’s performance on an intelligence test relative to others of the same age who have taken the same test.

To overcome these problems, Romanian-American psychologist David Wechsler developed a set of tests both for children and adults. These tests are very frequently used and these include the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale – Revised (WAIS – 3) and the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC).

Cognitive Ability versus IQ

Cognitive ability and IQ are two related concepts but they are not the same. Cognitive abilities corresponds to those mental processes, abilities and skills which are essential to carry out any tasks and involves mechanisms associated with how an individual learns, pays attention to a particular stimulus, solves problems, takes decisions, thinks and reasons, and other such processes, rather than corresponding to any knowledge or information an individual has acquired through learning. On the other hand, Intelligence Quotient or the IQ corresponds to a test score derived from standardized tests which have been developed to assess the intelligence of an individual.

Thus, IQ corresponds to a numerical value assigned on a scale. On the other hand, cognitive abilities do not correspond to any numerical values and even various psychometrics tests developed to assess cognitive functioning or abilities, often do not give the results as a numerical scores. Another difference between the two is that cognitive abilities can be trained and improved through different activities which help in the stimulation and maintenance of intellect and other cognitive skills, over a period of time. Thus, cognitive function and ability is dynamic. However, IQ scores tend to remain relatively static after a particular age in adulthood even when if the individual learns new skills as he or she progresses towards adulthood.

It has also been seen that IQ has a few important correlating factors which include demographics, environmental factors, income, and as evidence suggests the influence of hereditary/genetic factors on IQ. Cognitive abilities and function however, do not necessarily correlate with these external variables and may or may not be influenced by them.

Different IQ tests usually tend to measure some specific abilities of the test-taker which generally include spatial ability, mathematical ability, memory and recall, and language ability. On the other hand, cognitive assessment tests developed for assessing the cognitive abilities and functions of an individual tend to measure or assess motor skills, attention, perception, planning, and executive skills of an individual. Thus, cognitive ability is often observed to be a component of intelligence as many intelligence tests measure important components of general cognitive ability and as stated earlier it is also referred to as the general intelligence. Thus, they are both related concepts as mentioned earlier but not entirely the same. 

Cognitive Ability versus IQ as Predictors for Success in Job Performance 

All of this points to one major difference which is essential for employers while considering a candidate for hiring for a particular role. The IQ test score predicts the intelligence and related aspects of an individual’s cognitive capacity but is not the predictor of success in a job for a specific role. Cognitive ability and assessment on the other hand, helps the employer predict the efficiency of the candidate as an employee for the organization and is a major predictor of success in a job for a specific role.

General cognitive ability of an individual can be measured through various types of tests. The rate at which an individual learns is related to his or her general cognitive ability and also dependent on the general cognitive ability is the acquisition of skill and knowledge because it is related to learning. Studies reveal that tests measuring general cognitive ability are highly accurate in predicting success of newly hired employees in training programs and general cognitive ability is also an accurate predictor of job performance. According to the studies by Coward and Sackett in 1990, the relationship of both training and job performance with general cognitive ability is linear, which indicates that individuals who score high on general cognitive ability will be seen to show better job performance.

Cognitive ability as stated earlier corresponds to how quickly and accurately he or she can learn a particular kind of information and thus, it also corresponds to learning speed and agility of the individual. High cognitive ability is linked to high learning agility. Therefore, individuals who score highly on cognitive assessment tests are found to be more successful in completing training and adapting to the new and ever-changing work environment and technologies. 

 A Final Word

It is important for organizations to understand that since both cognitive abilities and IQ are separate entities or concepts, neither one is primarily superior to the other and assessing both helps in predicting the mental capacity of an individual. However, while IQ tests simply give the intelligence scores, various cognitive assessment tests are effective in assessing the different cognitive abilities which help predict the performance of an individual and his or her success rate in a specific role in a job along with his or her response to training.

Cognitive ability is also linked to problem-solving, reasoning, and decision-making and hence, higher cognitive ability of an individual indicates that the individual is better at making decisions and also are good at finding innovative solutions to different kinds of problems. Cognitive assessment also helps employers to obtain data which is less biased and compensates for the insufficient information provided by the individuals about their skills and aptitude in early stage of hiring. Therefore, assessing general cognitive ability or cognitive assessment is more important for organizations than assessing IQ because general cognitive ability is a better predictor of success in job performance and training. 

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