To define executive functions we could say that it is a variety of interrelated cognitive skills ranging from the simple ability to voluntarily initiate an action and inhibit certain behaviors up to planning complex, to the capacity of problem solving andintuition. The concepts of planning, problem solving and intuition, however, are inevitably linked to intelligence.
It is therefore normal to struggle to distinguish the two concepts, i.e. executive functions and intellectual abilities, to the point of leading some authors to hypothesize a complete overlap between some components of intelligence and some attention-executive components, given the very high correlation between them found in a sample of "normotypical" adults (and also given the predictivity of executive functions in children with respect to the future development of their reasoning skills).
Help to differentiate the two constructs can come from atypical population samples, such as that of gifted children. Montoya-Arenas and colleagues have selected a large number of children, divided by average intelligence (IQ between 85 and 115), superior intelligence (IQ between 116 and 129) e much higher intelligence (IQ above 129, i.e. gifted); all children underwent an intellectual assessment and a broad assessment of executive functions. The intent was to analyze if and to what extent the two theoretical constructs would go hand in hand in the three different subgroups.
What emerged from the research?
Although in different ways, the various indices deriving from the intellectual scale and the scores in the various tests for executive functions were significantly correlated in the subgroups at the average and higher level of intelligence; the most interesting fact, however, is another: in the group of gifted children the various scores deriving from the intellectual scale and those relating to tests for executive functions they showed no significant correlation.
According to what has just been said, the data lead to two conclusions:
- Executive functions and intelligence are two separate capacities (or, at least, the intelligence tests and the attention-executive tests measure different abilities)
- Unlike what happens in typically developing children, in the gifted the performance of executive functions is independent of intelligence
This is very important information which, however, as often happens, require to be interpreted with great caution for the limits of the research, first of all the sample that is not representative of the entire population (neither of typically developing children, nor of the highly gifted) since all the subjects had been selected on the basis of school performance (very high).
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- Arffa, S. (2007). The relationship of intelligence to executive function and non-executive function measures in a sample of average, above average, and gifted youth. Archives of clinical neuropsychology, 22
- Martínez, K., Burgaleta, M., Román, FJ, Escorial, S., Shih, PC, Quiroga, M. Á., & Colom, R. (2011). Can fluid intelligence be reduced to 'simple'short-term storage ?. Intelligence, 39
- Montoya-Arenas, DA, Aguirre-Acevedo, DC, Díaz Soto, CM, & Pineda Salazar, DA (2018). Executive functions and high intellectual capacity in school-age: Completely overlap ?. International Journal of Psychological Research, 11