Taylor: What’s your ‘complexity quotient?’

How we handle complex matters may show true intelligence.

Everyone knows that intelligence is not uniform. Some people have stratospheric IQs; others sink below par.

Everyone also knows that intelligence doesn’t necessarily correspond to ability to think. Mensa members can be just as dogmatically fossilized as Homer Simpson. They may know far more about far more things, but they can lock onto their conclusions like a crocodile’s jaws.

For a short period, during my journalistic career, I did occasional interviews with an Anglican priest named Brian Freeland—then head of religious programming for the CBC. I always came away feeling that I had been allowed to peer into a bewildering whirlwind of ideas.

I went looking for answers; I came away with more questions.

Back in the late 1960s, my friend Don Sawatzky attempted to measure the complexity of human thinking. At the time, Don was developing his doctoral dissertation; he would go on to become a widely respected professor of psychology at the University of Alberta.

“Traditional measures of IQ are simply predictors of success in school,” Don explained. “It is questionable whether this generalizes to success in life.”

No one else had explored this field. So Don had to develop his own testing methods and procedures, using students and volunteers.

Don identified three components of complexity.

First, the number of dimensions considered. Some people focus on very few dimensions—as if issues could be reduced to black/white, male/female, left/right. Others incorporate multiple dimensions into their analysis.

Second, discrimination among those dimensions. Which dimensions matter more? Which ones take priority over others? To use a trivial example, the colour of a witness’s gloves should not invalidate the accuracy of her observations. An inability to discriminate between relative values reduces complexity to chaos.

Finally, integration of information. How well can the person discern a coherent pattern within the complexity?

In a sense, it’s a circular process.

First you must first be willing to make the process more complicated, by adding extra factors to assess. Then you filter out the less important factors. Finally, you integrate the significant factors into a unified vision.

Which may, in fact, be the same as the one that a single-dimensional thinker came up with. Or it may not. Either way, though, it’s better founded.

Don Sawatzky called it “conceptual complexity.”

There were some surprises in his research. Rural students tended to see more dimensions than urban students, for example. Don hypothesized that rural students were accustomed to seeing people in a variety of roles—storekeeper, hockey coach, town councillor—where urban students might encounter each person in only one role.

Looking back, Don says, “In retrospect, I wish I had pursued this research—but life got in the way!”

I too wish he had pursued the subject. Or someone had.

Most of us, I suspect, intuitively develop some kind of complexity assessment. But it can take years to realize that this person leaps to conclusions; that one bogs down in details. This one can’t break free from lessons learned in Sunday School; that one rejects anything tainted by religious beliefs.

I’d love to know a person’s “Complexity Quotient” to know how much credence to give their opinions.