In the early 1900s, the French government passed a new law, which would require all children to attend school. Naturally, some children would need more specialized assistance and care than others. And so the ministry of education asked psychologist Alfred Binet to help them identify those students that were most likely to struggle in school.

A year later, together with his colleague Théodore Simon, Binet had developed the world’s first official intelligence test: The Binet-Simon test. It would involve a series of questions on areas supposedly important to school success, such as attention span, memory, and general problem-solving skills. The outcome would tell you a person’s “mental age”, which would later be translated into the “intelligence quotient” – the so-called IQ.

Since its inception, the test has been revised multiple times, and many new measurements of the IQ have come on the market. And quite successfully even. Research has shown that the IQ has a strong predictive validity for academic achievement and job performance. In other words, a high IQ means you are likely to excel at school as well as in your career.

Naturally, psychologists jumped at the opportunity, and have since attempted to develop different methods to raise people’s IQ, so as to improve people’s chances at getting straight-A’s and well-paying jobs. Some claimed that the secret lies in playing chess, while others made it a point to expose unborn babies to classical music, supposedly so they become the next Mozart. Then there were more elaborate strategies, like working memory training, and additional education. But after 100 years of trying to raise people’s cognitive abilities in all kinds of manners, no method seemed to be effective. None could reliably raise the elusive IQ. Not a single one.

This may lead you to believe that raising your intelligence is a hopeless endeavour, until you realize the important flaw that all these methods had in common: They lacked a solid theoretical foundation for intelligence as a set of skills. In other words, there was no clear underlying theory for why these strategies should be effective in the first place. And this is exactly why this new approach holds greater promise.

A New Understanding of Intelligence

Let me ask you a question: When Huey is the brother of Dewey, and Dewey is the brother of Louie, what are Huey and Louie to each other? The answer, as you may have guessed, is they are brothers. Without knowing who Huey and Louie are to each other, it is correct to infer that they are brothers, based on their relation to Dewey. 

Real life is often more complex than this, but in a similar fashion, if you are a verbally competent human being you can relate everything to anything, and draw conclusions from these relations. Things can be the same, they can be opposites, they can be more, and they can be less. We have become so good at making these relations that they are literally unbounded. For instance, how are tennis balls and your dad alike? You might say they both bounce back when hitting bottom. Or that they both have short fuzzy hair. Or that they are both great with dogs. The possibilities are endless – only limited by your creativity. 

You can literally relate everything to everything. And even more, you can draw conclusions from these relations. This ability to draw inferences is at the very core what we call intelligence. Arguably, intelligence is little more than the ability to relate two things to each other, and to derive new untrained relations from it that allows us to adapt more effectively to our environment. Mainstream science is converging on this conclusion but is there an  underlying theory that explains where it comes from and how to develop it? 

There is. It’s nearly 40 years old and encompasses several hundred studies, but it emerged in such an unlikely place that very few theorists interested in intelligence or human cognition are even aware of its existence. It’s a theory of language and cognition called Relational Frame Theory (or RFT) and it emerged out of behavioral psychology — a subfield most cognitive scientists would seldom, if ever, visit.

RFT proposes that the basic unit of human higher cognition is a learned ability called relational framing. With their first words, infants learn if an object “is” (and there it is — the first cue for a specific type of relational frame!) called by a particular name, then that name is about that object. Naming is a two way street, in other words, and with enough examples, when a child learns an “is” relation in either direction, s/he can derive that two-way relation. Next comes frames of distinction. If a child hears an unfamiliar name in the presence of an object that is already named and one that isn’t, the child will derive that the new name  “is not” the named object, and thus that it  “is” likely to be a name for the unfamiliar object.

Frame after frame, relations are added (same as, different than, before, better, opposite, part of, cause of, and so on) and our symbolic reasoning skills improve. As particular relations combine into networks of relations, the emotional and behavioral impact of everything inside those networks is influenced. Symbolic thinking changes the world we all live in.

Over the four decades it has existed, RFT practitioners have learned more and more about how to measure and to train relational abilities in children who cannot speak, or children who don’t have a normal sense of self, or in normally developing people who want to improve their cognitive abilities. And there we are, back to IQ.

Standardized intelligence tests require participants to observe or derive relations among stimuli (e.g. Choose the appropriate image to complete a particular pattern; Black is to White as Night is to ’blank’; How are planes and busses alike? etc.) but until relational framing is fully appreciated it is easy to get confused about the core skills these tests are assessing.

A number of studies have now shown that those who score high on intelligence tests (i.e. those with a high IQ), have highly developed relational reasoning abilities. Simultaneously, those who score low on such tests have relational reasoning abilities that can be enhanced with training that is carefully focused on these skills.

This new understanding of intelligence opens the doors for new programs to improve people’s ability for relational reasoning (and thus improving their overall intelligence). One such intervention is called SMART, an online program that trains participants with simple relations, namely SAME/DIFFERENT and MORE/LESS relations over a series of 55 training stages. A small handful of controlled studies using SMART show changes in IQ scores of 1/2 to one standard deviation (e.g., a study with teenage pupils finding improvements of about 15 points).  Considering that the next best training out there, working memory training, typically shows rises of only 2-3 points, the potential of RFT-based interventions is striking. Another promising intervention with multiple studies linking relational learning to intelligence is Peak Relational Training by Mark Dixon which is aimed to help children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. It is still early, and larger and better controlled trials are coming, but the existing data suggest that RFT-based methods are doing what others have failed to do over the last 100 years.

These studies suggest that intelligence is not something that we either have or we don’t.  Thinking of IQ as a reflection of learned relational skills is a new idea, and the early studies suggest that by focusing on the fluency of relational reasoning itself we can indeed enhance our IQ. If that is correct it could open up new avenues for people in ways not yet imagined. 

Psychologists need to learn how to be cultural change agents, helping to move society forward, and serving children who are struggling in school. In this case, help appears to have arrived from an unlikely corner of science.