Cognitive Intelligence: A Guide To What It Is & Why It Is Important

What is intelligence? Are there different types of intelligence? How is intelligence measured? Intelligence is a broad term and is a popular area of focus and study in the field of psychology. There are several types of intelligence and various definitions for each type.

In this article, we’ll explore cognitive intelligence, how it’s measured, and how it differs from other types of intelligence. We’ll also take a brief look at a couple of theories of intelligence in the world of psychology to offer some insight into just how broad the term intelligence is.

What is cognitive intelligence?

The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology (1) defines cognitive intelligence as ‘one’s abilities to learn, remember, reason, solve problems, and make sound judgments, particularly as contrasted with emotional intelligence.’

Cognitive intelligence, also referred to as intelligence quotient (IQ), or more simply called ‘cognition,’ involves acquiring knowledge and comprehension through the thinking mind, life experience, and the senses (somatic experience).

It refers to our ability to learn and use information. Through sense and experience, we learn about a topic or environment, then later use that knowledge to navigate and progress in the context.

 Robert Sternberg, the father of the theory of triarchic intelligence, defines cognitive intelligence as ‘the combination of verbal, numerical, and spatial abilities which includes visualizing, use of memory, word fluency, verbal relations, perceptual speed, induction, and deduction’ (Sternberg, 1996)

Components of cognition and mental processes

Cognition is a broad term that encompasses a range of intellectual abilities and cognitive processes, including:

  • Attention
  • Formulation of knowledge
  • Perception
  • Working memory
  • Problem-solving
  • Reasoning and ‘computation’
  • Judgment
  • Comprehension
  • Language
  • Information processing

When and why is cognitive intelligence important?

In general, cognitive intelligence is important for navigating one’s way through life. Through sense and experience, we learn how to engage with and use our environment to our advantage. 

Attention helps us focus our mental energy on circumstances and situations. It also helps us solidify our lived experiences into memories, which we can then call upon later to help us carry out tasks and engage with our environment or the contexts and circumstances in which we find ourselves more efficiently and productively.

cognitive intelligence, cognitive ability, cognitive abilities

Types of cognitive intelligence: Fluid and crystallized

Related to cognitive intelligence is the concept of general mental ability or GMA. GMA is a person’s overall level of cognitive intelligence and is a significant predictor of work performance. It’s subdivided into two categories; fluid intelligence (Gf) and crystallized intelligence (Gc). 

Fluid intelligence refers to one’s ability to make sense of abstract information and find solutions on the first introduction to a problem, i.e., without any prior information or knowledge. 

Crystallized intelligence refers to knowledge and understanding that has come from experience and prior information. It involves the acquisition and retention of knowledge which is then organized and later applied where appropriate. 

Both Gf and Gc are not entirely separate entities but work together to help the individual effectively work his or her way through a problem or task.

What Are Cognitive Functions?

Cognitive functions include:

  • Focusing attention
  • Recalling and storing memories
  • Learning and acquiring languages and other information
  • Perceiving stimuli in the environment
  • Processing the data
  • Responding to different matters
  • Deciding on things
  • Solving problems

In simple terms, cognitive functions are how each human being thinks as well as how they gather and use information. These cognitive functions go hand in hand in everyday life. For instance, when engaging in an academic debate, you need your attention, memory, language, decision-making, and problem-solving skills. In addition, cognitive psychologists do extensive research about cognitive functions to figure out how humans receive and make sense of their gathered information.

Applications of cognitive function and cognitive abilities in business

One factor that frequently predicts success in any successful business is the efficacy of teamwork or ETW. No man is an island, and the same applies to business success. Successfully creating, launching, and running a business requires a multidisciplinary approach. Varying skill sets such as big picture thinking and detail orientation, management skills, decision-making, strategy, and marketing are just some of these important disciplines.

Varying types of intelligence are also crucial for a business to run smoothly, namely cognitive and emotional. A study (2) by Graeme Coetzer points out that’ average levels of emotional intelligence among team members and the emotional intelligence of team leaders are strong predictors of team performance.’ 

Coetzer highlights how both cognitive functioning and emotional intelligence are essential for ETW, but where emotional intelligence is lacking in an individual team member, their cognitive intelligence is less effective.

‘A team member who is a cognitive asset may become a team liability as a result of insufficient EQ.’

Cognition most certainly promotes effective problem solving and task success, but the team can’t work as efficiently without sufficient emotional intelligence, which jeopardizes its overall success. 

‘Team members with sufficient IQ but insufficient EQ may find themselves in a situation where they do not have the emotional competency necessary to take advantage of their cognitive processes. Over time this may lead to relatively fewer mastery experiences and an erosion of confidence.’

Theories of intelligence

Howard Gardner and Multiple Intelligence

Humans are incredibly complex. To consider human intelligence only in terms of cognitive intelligence (IQ) fails to address and credit the various other forms of intelligence with which we navigate our lives and the world around us.

In 1983, American psychologist Howard Gardner put forth his multiple intelligence theory in his seminal work Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligence (3). Gardner suggests that rather than there being a general type of intelligence, which everyone has or lacks to varying degrees, there exist multiple types of intelligence.

These other types of intelligence include:

Interpersonal intelligence

Interpersonal intelligence is the ability to understand, label, and effectively respond to other people’s emotions, motivations, desires, and intentions)

Intrapersonal intelligence

Intrapersonal intelligence is similar to emotional intelligence and is defined as understanding, appreciating, and managing one’s own emotions, motivations, desires, intentions, and fears.

Musical intelligence

Musical intelligence is the ability to appreciate music and discern between shifts such as rhythm change, pitch, and tone. 

Body-Kinesthetic intelligence

Body-kinesthetic intelligence is balance and hand-eye coordination, motor skills, the ability to use your body, and proprioception well. 


Verbal-linguistic is access to a wide vocabulary, the ability to articulate ideas, thoughts, feelings, and express in words. 


Logical-mathematical is logical thinking, problem-solving, deduction skills. 


Naturalistic is the ability to see the workings of nature and classify and categorize elements of the natural world. 


Visual-spatial is visual thinking, thinking with space and dimension in mind, the ability to interpret and create imagery. 

Howard Gardner explains;

It was generally believed that intelligence was a single entity that was inherited; and that human beings – initially a blank slate – could be trained to learn anything, provided that it was presented in an appropriate way.

Gardner goes on to explain that a more recent understanding of intelligence appreciates and acknowledges its greater complexity.

Nowadays, an increasing number of researchers believe precisely the opposite; that there exists a multitude of intelligences, quite independent of each other; that each intelligence has its own strengths and constraints; that the mind is far from unencumbered at birth; and that it is unexpectedly difficult to teach things that go against early ‘naive’ theories of that challenge the natural lines of force within an intelligence and its matching domains.

Robert Sternberg and the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence

American psychologist and psychometrician Robert Sternberg proposed the Triarchic Theory of Intelligence – the theory that there are three categories of intelligence;

  • Practical (or ‘contextual’)
  • Creative (or ‘experiential’)
  • Analytic (or ‘componental’)

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is typically understood as a combination of two of Gardner’s eight types of intelligence; intrapersonal and interpersonal.

Researchers Salovey and Mayer define EQ as ‘the ability to perceive, understand, express, facilitate and manage emotions in oneself and others.’ Building on that definition, Daniel Goleman (4) added that this perception, or recognition, of our own and others’ emotional and psychological states ‘helps us to cope with environmental demands and pressures.’

According to Dr. Reuven Baron, EI is an “array of non-cognitive capabilities, competencies, and skills that influence one’s ability to succeed in coping with environmental demands and pressures.”

Baron claims there are five aspects to emotional intelligence – ‘intrapersonal capacities, adaptability, general mood, interpersonal capacities, and stress management.


  • Self-regard
  • Emotional self-awareness
  • Assertiveness
  • Independence
  • Self-actualization


  • Reality testing
  • Flexibility
  • Problem-solving

General mood

  • Optimism
  • Happiness


  • Empathy
  • Social responsibility
  • Interpersonal relationships

Stress management

  • Stress tolerance
  • Impulse control

Cognitive vs. emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence, also known as ’emotional quotient’ (EQ), refers to one’s ability to manage and use their emotions effectively. In the Industrial Psychiatry Journal (5), author and scientist Kalpana Srivastava defines emotional intelligence as ‘the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.’

cognitive intelligence, cognitive ability, cognitive abilities

There is no better or worse when it comes to cognitive and emotional intelligence. Each has its benefits and is appropriate in the context. Each also has its own advantages. According to 2004 research (6) on the appropriate contexts for each type of intelligence, the researchers found that ‘cognitive intelligence is a better predictor of performance on individual tasks, whereas emotional intelligence is a better predictor of performance on teamwork.

Cognitive and emotional intelligence in decision-making

Cognition is essential in the workplace, but its application and importance extend far beyond. Cognitive intelligence also influences how we make decisions in our personal life. One study published in FrontersIn (7) looked at the influence of IQ on economic decision-making in older adults. 

In the study, 39 healthy older adults took a series of tests and assessments to evaluate their cognition and EI and how those aspects of their intelligence influence their aptitude for wise economic decision making. 

The study found that fluid intelligence (Gf) predicted better results on one of the tests – the Iowa Gambling Test (IGT), but those with higher levels of EI ‘learned faster to make better choices. 

Overall, the study found that ‘while superior decision-making may be stereotypically associated with “smarter people” (i.e., higher cognitive intelligence), our data indicate that emotional intelligence has a significant role to play in the economic decisions of older adults.

Can you increase your intelligence?

It was once believed that the brain stops growing and developing once we reach adulthood. Continuous research has pushed that age further and further back, and nowadays, neuroscientists claim that the brain never really stops developing. It is shaped by repeated thoughts, patterns, and behaviors. This concept is known as neuroplasticity and is an exciting, relatively new field of research.

Research (8) by Robert Sternberg published in the journal PNAS highlights how fluid intelligence (Gf) – the ability to adapt to novel environments and circumstances and anger in abstract reasoning – can be increased through training and testing.

‘Fluid intelligence is trainable to a significant and meaningful degree.’

Research (9) in the journal PLoSOne discusses a study on senior managers and whether testing and training would improve EI levels. The outcomes were positive, showing that several aspects of EI improved during and up to one year after the study.

The ability to increase and improve EI is important for business and the workplace in general because ’emotionally intelligent’ managers tend to create a positive work environment that improves the job satisfaction of employees.


Intelligence is a broad topic that covers many aspects of the human experience, such as our ability to remember, solve problems to relate to and work with others and adapt to new and novel situations.

Through training and adequate testing, both cognitive and emotional intelligence can be improved upon.

Making efforts to improve ion EI, in particular, has positive implications for the workplace, as higher levels of EI have been associated with greater ETW, employee satisfaction, and fulfillment and can make up for imbalances in cognitive intelligence among teams.

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