Three years ago I listened to a lecture on cognition that changed
the way I think about intelligence. This is the crux. There are two
types of cognition. The first is normal cognition. This is the ability
to retrieve knowledge from memory. When you are asked a question on a
test and produce an answer, that’s a display of cognitive ability. The
second type of cognition is metacognition; the ability to know whether
or not you know.
Have you ever been asked a question that you knew the answer to, but
you couldn’t find the right word? This is called the “tip of the
tongue” phenomenon and I’m sure we’ve all experienced it. You know that
you know the answer, but you fail to produce it. If someone said an
answer, you would know instantly if it was correct or not. In these
cases metacognition exists without cognition.
In short, cognition is knowing, metacognition is knowing if you know or not. Both can exist together, but many times they don’t.
How Does this Affect Intelligence?
So what importance does this have and how is it relevant to self
improvement? The fact that there are two different kinds of cognitive
ability means that there are different types of intelligence.
In traditional education, intelligence is measured by cognitive
ability. For some people this is works well. They can easily produce
everything they know on a test. But for others it doesn’t work out so
well. The people that know something cold but can’t find the right
words on a test are awarded with poor grades and considered inferior.
But does this inability make them any less intelligent? They know
the answer. If the question came up on a task, they could refer to a
book or a quick Google search. In reality they’re just as effective as
the people that aced the test. They just can’t prove it as easily.
The Importance of Knowing what you know
Unless you’re taking a test or playing Jeopardy, metacognition is
more important to success than cognition. In real life, when you’re
faced with a question the first decision is whether you know the answer
or not. With strong metacognitive ability this is easy. If you know the
answer, but can’t come up with it, you can always do a bit of research.
If you know for sure that you don’t know, then you can start educating
yourself. Because you’re aware of your ignorance, you don’t act with
foolish confidence. The person who thinks they know something that they
really don’t makes the worst decisions.
A person with poor cognitive ability, but great metacognitive
ability is actually in great shape. They might do poorly in school, but
when faced with a challenge they understand their abilities and take
the best course of action. These people might not seem intelligent at
first glance, but because they know what they know, they make better
decisions and learn the most important things.
Clever but mediocre people
At the opposite end of the spectrum are people with great cognitive
ability but poor metacognitive ability. These people are proclaimed
geniuses at a young age for acing every test and getting great SAT
scores. Unfortunately, they’ve been ruined by poor metacognition; they
think they know everything but they really don’t. They are arrogant,
fail to learn from mistakes, and don’t understand the nuances of
personal relationships; showing disdain for persons with lower
So who is superior? In a battle of wits the higher cognitive ability
prevails, but life is not a single encounter. It is a series of
experiments in succession, each building upon the last. Learning
requires knowing what you don’t know, and taking steps to learn what
you need to. People with poor metacognitive ability never realize that
they don’t ‘get it’. They also don’t realize what’s important.
This doesn’t preclude them from material success. But, perhaps
that’s a poor measurement of intelligence as well. There are many
people who become rich and successful by their cleverness and cognitive
ability, but as human beings are quite mediocre. Is the man that makes
a million dollars, but is cruel and abusive to his employees and
family, really more intelligent than the poor man who lives a modest
and loving life? I don’t intend to demonize wealth, only to state that
it should not be the measure of virtue.
Use your metacognitive ability
So what do we know and what do we not? And how can we tell the
difference? There is so much to know in the world that the most
brilliant human minds can grasp only the tiniest fraction. For this
reason we should always be in doubt of what we know. The closed mind is
oblivious to its surroundings, while the open mind absorbs them. Like a
sponge, it soaks up observations, becoming fuller and more robust.
But we can’t live in total doubt. If we did we would never act,
paralyzed by our inadequate knowledge. We must trust our intuition. If
something makes you feel a certain way, that feeling is real and must
be respected. Act based on your own convictions, not those of others,
and keep an open ear for new ideas.
The most important mental power is the ability to know what you
don’t know. The recognition of a fault is the first step to
improvement. Don’t try to hide a lack of knowledge. People will see
through it and you’ll appear foolish and arrogant. If you admit your
ignorance, people will help you learn and respect your humility. For
intelligent people this is the toughest lesson to learn. We are used to
being right, and consider being wrong shameful. We’re afraid to lose
status by looking stupid. This vain arrogance is a great weakness and
the source of many problems. To crush it and embrace humility is the
mark of true wisdom.
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