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Practical Intelligence

Much of the work done by psychologists on intelligence has concerned those aspects that are sometimes called academic intelligence. However, an equally important aspect of intelligence is concerned with the question of how individuals can function effectively on tasks and in situations encountered on a daily basis. It has been shown that individual differences in performance on everyday tasks can be accounted for by a combination of performance levels on several basic abilities. Competence in various everyday activities (e.g., managing finances, shopping, using medications, using the telephone) involve several cognitive abilities or processes that cut across or apply to various substantive domains. But the particular combination or constellation of basic abilities varies, of course, across different tasks of daily living. It is important to note that the basic abilities are seen as necessary (but not sufficient) antecedents for everyday competence.

Other variables, such as motivation and meaning, and in particular the role of the environment or context, determine the particular types of applied activities and problems in which practical intelligence is manifested. Everyday competence also involves substantive knowledge associated with the particular everyday-problem domain, as well as attitudes and values with regard to the problem domain. Both the sociocultural context and the microenvironment determine the expression of practical intelligence for a given individual. For example, while the ability to travel beyond one's dwelling has been of concern through the ages, comprehending airline schedules and operating computer-driven vehicles are only recent expressions of practical intelligence. The environment also plays an important role in the maintenance and facilitation of everyday competence as people age. Environmental stimulation and challenges, whether they occur naturally or through planned interventions, have been shown to be associated with the maintenance and enhancement of everyday competence in the elderly. Practical intelligence appears to peak in midlife and then decline, following closely the changes observed in the underlying cognitive abilities associated with specific everyday problems.

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