what the general factor of intelligence is and isn’t, or why intuitive unitarianism is a lousy guide to the neurobiology of higher cognitive ability

This post shamelessly plagiarizes liberally borrows ideas from a much longer, more detailed, and just generally better post by Cosma Shalizi. I’m not apologetic, since I’m a firm believer in the notion that good ideas should be repeated often and loudly. So I’m going to be often and loud here, though I’ll try to be (slightly) more succinct than Shalizi. Still, if you have the time to spare, you should read his longer and more mathematical take.

There’s a widely held view among intelligence researchers in particular, and psychologists more generally, that there’s a general factor of intelligence (often dubbed g) that accounts for a very large portion of the variance in a broad range of cognitive performance tasks. Which is to say, if you have a bunch of people do a bunch of different tasks, all of which we think tap different aspects of intellectual ability, and then you take all those scores and factor analyze them, you’ll almost invariably get a first factor that explains 50% or more of the variance in the zero-order scores. Or to put it differently, if you know a person’s relative standing on g, you can make a reasonable prediction about how that person will do on lots of different tasks–for example, digit symbol substitution, N-back, go/no-go, and so on and so forth. Virtually all tasks that we think reflect cognitive ability turn out, to varying extents, to reflect some underlying latent variable, and that latent variable is what we dub g.

In a trivial sense, no one really disputes that there’s such a thing as g. You can’t really dispute the existence of g, seeing as a general factor tends to fall out of virtually all factor analyses of cognitive tasks; it’s about as well-replicated a finding as you can get. To say that g exists, on the most basic reading, is simply to slap a name on the empirical fact that scores on different cognitive measures tend to intercorrelate positively to a considerable extent.

What’s not so clear is what the implications of g are for our understanding of how the human mind and brain works. If you take the presence of g at face value, all it really says is what we all pretty much already know: some people are smarter than others. People who do well in one intellectual domain will tend to do pretty well in others too, other things being equal. With the exception of some people who’ve tried to argue that there’s no such thing as general intelligence, but only “multiple intelligences” that totally fractionate across domains (not a compelling story, if you look at the evidence), it’s pretty clear that cognitive abilities tend to hang together pretty well.

The trouble really crops up when we try to say something interesting about the architecture of the human mind on the basis of the psychometric evidence for g. If someone tells you that there’s a single psychometric factor that explains at least 50% of the variance in a broad range of human cognitive abilities, it seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that that’s because there’s some unitary intelligence system in people’s heads, and that that system varies in capacity across individuals. In other words, the two intuitive models people have about intelligence seem to be that either (a) there’s some general cognitive system that corresponds to g, and supports a very large portion of the complex reasoning ability we call “intelligence” or (b) there are lots of different (and mostly unrelated) cognitive abilities, each of which contributes only to specific types of tasks and not others. Framed this way, it just seems obvious that the former view is the right one, and that the latter view has been discredited by the evidence.

The problem is that the psychometric evidence for g stems almost entirely from statistical procedures that aren’t really supposed to be use for causal inference. The primary weapon in the intelligence researcher’s toolbox has historically been principal components analysis (PCA) or exploratory factor analysis, which are really just data reduction techniques. PCA tells you how you can describe your data in a more compact way, but it doesn’t actually tell you what structure is in your data. A good analogy is the use of digital compression algorithms. If you take a directory full of .txt files and compress them into a single .zip file, you’ll almost certainly end up with a file that’s only a small fraction of the total size of the original texts. The reason this works is because certain patterns tend to repeat themselves over and over in .txt files, and a smart algorithm will store an abbreviated description of those patterns rather than the patterns themselves. Which, conceptually, is almost exactly what happens when you run a PCA on a dataset: you’re searching for consistent patterns in the way observations vary along multiple variables, and discarding any redundancy you come across in favor of a more compact description.

Now, in a very real sense, compression is impressive. It’s certainly nice to be able to email your friend a 140kb .zip of your 1200-page novel rather than a 2mb .doc. But note that you don’t actually learn much from the compression. It’s not like your friend can open up that 140k binary representation of your novel, read it, and spare herself the torture of the other 1860kb. If you want to understand what’s going on in a novel, you need to read the novel and think about the novel. And if you want to understand what’s going on in a set of correlations between different cognitive tasks, you need to carefully inspect those correlations and carefully think about those correlations. You can run a factor analysis if you like, and you might learn something, but you’re not going to get any deep insights into the “true” structure of the data. The “true” structure of the data is, by definition, what you started out with (give or take some error). When you run a PCA, you actually get a distorted (but simpler!) picture of the data.

To most people who use PCA, or other data reduction techniques, this isn’t a novel insight by any means. Most everyone who uses PCA knows that in an obvious sense you’re distorting the structure of the data when you reduce its dimensionality. But the use of data reduction is often defended by noting that there must be some reason why variables hang together in such a way that they can be reduced to a much smaller set of variables with relatively little loss of variance. In the context of intelligence, the intuition can be expressed as: if there wasn’t really a single factor underlying intelligence, why would we get such a strong first factor? After all, it didn’t have to turn out that way; we could have gotten lots of smaller factors that appear to reflect distinct types of ability, like verbal intelligence, spatial intelligence, perceptual speed, and so on. But it did turn out that way, so that tells us something important about the unitary nature of intelligence.

This is a strangely compelling argument, but it turns out to be only minimally true. What the presence of a strong first factor does tell you is that you have a lot of positively correlated variables in your data set. To be fair, that is informative. But it’s only minimally informative, because, assuming you eyeballed the correlation matrix in the original data, you already knew that.

What you don’t know, and can’t know, on the basis of a PCA, is what underlying causal structure actually generated the observed positive correlations between your variables. It’s certainly possible that there’s really only one central intelligence system that contributes the bulk of the variance to lots of different cognitive tasks. That’s the g model, and it’s entirely consistent with the empirical data. Unfortunately, it’s not the only one. To the contrary, there are an infinite number of possible causal models that would be consistent with any given factor structure derived from a PCA, including a structure dominated by a strong first factor. In fact, you can have a causal structure with as many variables as you like be consistent with g-like data. So long as the variables in your model all make contributions in the same direction to the observed variables, you will tend to end up with an excessively strong first factor. So you could in principle have 3,000 distinct systems in the human brain, all completely independent of one another, and all of which contribute relatively modestly to a bunch of different cognitive tasks. And you could still get a first factor that accounts for 50% or more of the variance. No g required.

If you doubt this is true, go read Cosma Shalizi’s post, where he not only walks you through a more detailed explanation of the mathematical necessity of this claim, but also illustrates the point using some very simple simulations. Basically, he builds a toy model in which 11 different tasks each draw on several hundred underlying cognitive tasks, which are turn drawn from a larger pool of 2,766 completely independent abilities. He then runs a PCA on the data and finds, lo and behold, a single factor that explains nearly 50% of the variance in scores. Using PCA, it turns out, you can get something huge from (almost) nothing.

Now, at this point a proponent of a unitary g might say, sure, it’s possible that there isn’t really a single cognitive system underlying variation in intelligence; but it’s not plausible, because it’s surely more parsimonious to posit a model with just one variable than a model with 2,766. But that’s only true if you think that our brains evolved in order to make life easier for psychometricians, which, last I checked, wasn’t the case. If you think even a little bit about what we know about the biological and genetic bases of human cognition, it starts to seem really unlikely that there really could be a single central intelligence system. For starters, the evidence just doesn’t support it. In the cognitive neuroscience literature, for example, biomarkers of intelligence abound, and they just don’t seem all that related. There’s a really nice paper in Nature Reviews Neuroscience this month by Deary, Penke, and Johnson that reviews a substantial portion of the literature of intelligence; the upshot is that intelligence has lots of different correlates. For example, people who score highly on intelligence tend to (a) have larger brains overall; (b) show regional differences in brain volume; (c) show differences in neural efficiency when performing cognitive tasks; (d) have greater white matter integrity; (e) have brains with more efficient network structures;  and so on.

These phenomena may not all be completely independent, but it’s hard to believe there’s any plausible story you could tell that renders them all part of some unitary intelligence system, or subject to unitary genetic influence. And really, why should they be part of a unitary system? Is there really any reason to think there has to be a single rate-limiting factor on performance? It’s surely perfectly plausible (I’d argue, much more plausible) to think that almost any complex cognitive task you use as an index of intelligence is going to draw on many, many different cognitive abilities. Take a trivial example: individual differences in visual acuity probably make a (very) small contribution to performance on many different cognitive tasks. If you can’t see the minute details of the stimuli as well as the next person, you might perform slightly worse on the task. So some variance in putatively “cognitive” task performance undoubtedly reflects abilities that most intelligence researchers wouldn’t really consider properly reflective of higher cognition at all. And yet, that variance has to go somewhere when you run a factor analysis. Most likely, it’ll go straight into that first factor, or g, since it’s variance that’s common to multiple tasks (i.e., someone with poorer eyesight may tend to do very slightly worse on any task that requires visual attention). In fact, any ability that makes unidirectional contributions to task performance, no matter how relevant or irrelevant to the conceptual definition of intelligence, will inflate the so-called g factor.

If this still seems counter-intuitive to you, here’s an analogy that might, to borrow Dan Dennett’s phrase, prime your intuition pump (it isn’t as dirty as it sounds). Imagine that instead of studying the relationship between different cognitive tasks, we decided to study the relation between performance at different sports. So we went out and rounded up 500 healthy young adults and had them engage in 16 different sports, including basketball, soccer, hockey, long-distance running, short-distance running, swimming, and so on. We then took performance scores for all 16 tasks and submitted them to a PCA. What do you think would happen? I’d be willing to bet good money that you’d get a strong first factor, just like with cognitive tasks. In other words, just like with g, you’d have one latent variable that seemed to explain the bulk of the variance in lots of different sports-related abilities. And just like g, it would have an easy and parsimonious interpretation: a general factor of athleticism!

Of course, in a trivial sense, you’d be right to call it that. I doubt anyone’s going to deny that some people just are more athletic than others. But if you then ask, “well, what’s the mechanism that underlies athleticism,” it’s suddenly much less plausible to think that there’s a single physiological variable or pathway that supports athleticism. In fact, it seems flatly absurd. You can easily think of dozens if not hundreds of factors that should contribute a small amount of the variance to performance on multiple sports. To name just a few: height, jumping ability, running speed, oxygen capacity, fine motor control, gross motor control, perceptual speed, response time, balance, and so on and so forth. And most of these are individually still relatively high-level abilities that break down further at the physiological level (e.g., “balance” is itself a complex trait that at minimum reflects contributions of the vestibular, visual, and cerebellar systems, and so on.). If you go down that road, it very quickly becomes obvious that you’re just not going to find a unitary mechanism that explains athletic ability. Because it doesn’t exist.

All of this isn’t to say that intelligence (or athleticism) isn’t “real”. Intelligence and athleticism are perfectly real; it makes complete sense, and is factually defensible, to talk about some people being smarter or more athletic than other people. But the point is that those judgments are based on superficial observations of behavior; knowing that people’s intelligence or athleticism may express itself in a (relatively) unitary fashion doesn’t tell you anything at all about the underlying causal mechanisms–how many of them there are, or how they interact.

As Cosma Shalizi notes, it also doesn’t tell you anything about heritability or malleability. The fact that we tend to think intelligence is highly heritable doesn’t provide any evidence in favor of a unitary underlying mechanism; it’s just as plausible to think that there are many, many individual abilities that contribute to complex cognitive behavior, all of which are also highly heritable individually. Similarly, there’s no reason to think our cognitive abilities would be any less or any more malleable depending on whether they reflect the operation of a single system or hundreds of variables. Regular physical exercise clearly improves people’s capacity to carry out all sorts of different activities, but that doesn’t mean you’re only training up a single physiological pathway when you exercise; a whole host of changes are taking place throughout your body.

So, assuming you buy the basic argument, where does that leave us? Depends. From a day-to-day standpoint, nothing changes. You can go on telling your friends that so-and-so is a terrific athlete but not the brightest crayon in the box, and your friends will go on understanding exactly what you meant. No one’s suggesting that intelligence isn’t stable and trait-like, just that, at the biological level, it isn’t really one stable trait.

The real impact of relaxing the view that g is a meaningful construct at the biological level, I think, will be in removing an artificial and overly restrictive constraint on researchers’ theorizing. The sense I get, having done some work on executive control, is that g is the 800-pound gorilla in the room: researchers interested in studying the neural bases of intelligence (or related constructs like executive or cognitive control) are always worrying about how their findings relate to g, and how to explain the fact that there might be dissociable neural correlates of different abilities (or even multiple independent contributions to fluid intelligence). To show you that I’m not making this concern up, and that it weighs heavily on many researchers, here’s a quote from the aforementioned and otherwise really excellent NRN paper by Deary et al reviewing recent findings on the neural bases of intelligence:

The neuroscience of intelligence is constrained by — and must explain — the following established facts about cognitive test performance: about half of the variance across varied cognitive tests is contained in general cognitive ability; much less variance is contained within broad domains of capability; there is some variance in specific abilities; and there are distinct ageing patterns for so-called fluid and crystallized aspects of cognitive ability.

The existence of g creates a complicated situation for neuroscience. The fact that g contributes substantial variance to all specific cognitive ability tests is generally thought to indicate that g contributes directly in some way to performance on those tests. That is, when domains of thinking skill (such as executive function and memory) or specific tasks (such as mental arithmetic and non-verbal reasoning on the Raven’s Progressive Matrices test) are studied, neuroscientists are observing brain activity related to g as well as the specific task activities. This undermines the ability to determine localized brain activities that are specific to the task at hand.

I hope I’ve convinced you by this point that the neuroscience of intelligence doesn’t have to explain why half of the variance is contained in general cognitive ability, because there’s no good evidence that there is such a thing as general cognitive ability (except in the descriptive psychometric sense, which carries no biological weight). Relaxing this artificial constraint would allow researchers to get on with the interesting and important business of identifying correlates (and potential causal determinants) of different cognitive abilities without having to worry about the relation of their finding to some Grand Theory of Intelligence. If you believe in g, you’re going to be at a complete loss to explain how researchers can continually identify new biological and genetic correlates of intelligence, and how the effect sizes could be so small (particularly at a genetic level, where no one’s identified a single polymorphism that accounts for more than a fraction of the observable variance in intelligence–the so called problem of “missing heritability”). But once you discard the fiction of g, you can take such findings in stride, and can set about the business of building integrative models that allow for and explicitly model the presence of multiple independent contributions to intelligence. And if studying the brain has taught us anything at all, it’s that the truth is inevitably more complicated than what we’d like to believe.

4 thoughts on “what the general factor of intelligence is and isn’t, or why intuitive unitarianism is a lousy guide to the neurobiology of higher cognitive ability”

  1. An excellent post but I’m unsure about this.

    Take the athleticism example, because it is more intuitive. You say that:

    Imagine that instead of studying the relationship between different cognitive tasks, we decided to study the relation between performance at different sports. So we went out and rounded up 500 healthy young adults and had them engage in 16 different sports, including basketball, soccer, hockey, long-distance running, short-distance running, swimming, and so on. We then took performance scores for all 16 tasks and submitted them to a PCA. What do you think would happen? I’d be willing to bet good money that you’d get a strong first factor, just like with cognitive tasks.

    I agree. But surely that tells us something about the structure of the “dozens if not hundreds of factors that should contribute a small amount of the variance to performance on multiple sports”. Because if there really were hundreds of different factors, which were not correlated with each other, and which contribute to athleticism in an additive way, everyone would be average at sports. If you roll a thousand 6 sided dice, you will almost always get a total of 3,500+- not much.

    Yet in fact there are people who are just crap at sports and often there is a clear reason why. For example, if someone suffers a major cerebellar lesion, they will lose all coordination; you could be really strong and fast and have great eyesight but if you have a cerebellar lesion you will be crap at sports.

    Now of course cerebellar integrity is not the only determinant of athletic ability, but it is a necessary component of it. So instead of hundreds of uncorrelated factors acting in an additive way, what we actually have are (say) hundreds of uncorrelated factors acting in a more complex way. Like a conveyor belt that makes a product: if one stage is broken, the final product will be broken even if the rest of the factory is working fine. So a simple but workable model would be to say that your overall athleticism is given by the single worst component of your “athleticism pathway”.

    But if that’s the case, athleticism is a “real thing”; at least, it is as real as say “immune function”. People can have poor immune function for numerous reasons e.g. HIV, radiation exposure, genetic illnesses, but all of the causes impact the same pathway which is biologically real thing, not just a collection of hundreds of non-interacting bits. Now this doesn’t mean it would necessarily be useful to talk about i the general factor of immunity, but I think it would be more useful than Cosmo’s analysis (which relies on things being simply additive) would suggest… maybe.

  2. I didn’t mean to suggest that I actually believe there are thousands of independent and additive factors contributing to intelligence or athleticism; my point was that that’s a possibility you can’t rule out from the observation that there’s a single large factor. I find it completely plausible that there are all sorts of non-linear interactions between different factors, and that many are probably better viewed as necessary and/or sufficient conditions as you point out. But it’s not clear to me that that makes things any better for us; it would probably actually be easier to deal with purely additive and independent mechanisms than to have to worry about more complex causal relationships.

    Either way, what you’re committed to is that there really isn’t any biological g. I think the comparison with immunity is quite apt: there isn’t a general factor of immunity, and I don’t think anyone believes such a notion is scientifically useful. That’s really the essence of the issue. Of course you’re free to talk about g as a shorthand for “all of the many and complicated factors that determine individual differences in intelligence”, but it’s not like it’s doing any scientific work for you, and in fact it’s going to mislead you if you think you’re going to find isomorphic neural correlates of g.

    Incidentally, if you roll a die 1,000 times, it’s true you’ll end up with a mean of 3,500, but the distribution around that will be completely normal (by the central limit theorem). The thing to keep in mind is that, if the entire human race (or everyone but people with major deficits) falls between 3,300 and 3,700, someone who’s at 3700 is going to seem superhuman to you. You shouldn’t really expect anyone to be able to, say, run as fast as a cheetah; the distribution of abilities, and what defines high and low performance, is surely going to be relative to the norm. So I don’t really see this as as problem. Though I do agree that the you’re going to have a disproportionate number of people at the low end with very low performance (e.g., due to cerebellar damage), and possibly also at the high end due to interactions between different mechanisms.

  3. My own opinion is that a general factor of intelligence is both unitary and componential in that it’s a bunch of small components all integrated to work as a larger piece. I would say the processing efficiency between short term recall, working memory capacity and various executive functions integrated together can explain what g factor is.

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