What is Perceptual Reasoning?

Intelligence Perceptual reasoning is one component of our intelligence. To understand perceptual reasoning we have to understand what intelligence is. The word “intelligence” has been bandied around for many years and the terms are often used in everyday conversation. For example, if you are described as being intelligent, it is meant as a compliment but if labelled as having “lower than average” intelligence you have a problem. Real understanding of intelligence and what it is has proved to be more problematic than the words we use so very loosely.

The Greeks, as in many things scientific, were the first to try to seek understanding of what constituted intellect and almost two and half thousand years ago, Plato discussed it in “The Republic”. But any enlightened ideas developed by the Greeks quickly disappeared as Western culture became dominated by non-scientific, religious doctrine and ideas on intelligence remained underdeveloped for almost two millennia. It took Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution to spark a new interest in intelligence and specifically the scientific measurement of intelligence quotient or IQ and we haven’t stopped trying to measure it ever since.

Over the last 150 years there have been many approaches. These have ranged from the bizarre, including the assessment of intelligence by lumps, bumps and skull shape (phrenology) to the frankly racist, including tests given to immigrants to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. These tests were so culturally biased that they routinely labelled immigrants from places other than Western Europe, to have automatically low intelligence.

What is Perceptual Reasoning?

Nowadays, many tests of cognitive ability (another way of describing “intelligence”) are much more scientific; superficially at least and particularly within education, there still remains a problem of how valid or truthful they are. So many methods of assessment in education particularly, give undue weight to verbal reasoning over other types of cognitive ability. Assessment dependent upon language however, disadvantages people from certain social backgrounds and those with specific difficulties such as dyslexia. As the case below illustrates:

Bill, a retired lorry driver had never learned to read or write properly at school and had been labelled by the education system as being a “slow learner”. Confined to the bottom stream in secondary school, he had never been able to pluck up the courage to fulfil his ambition of becoming an engineer because it required college attendance and Bill’s experience at school had made him so afraid, that even the thought of it made him physically sick. Bill’s perceptual abilities however are at the higher end of the scale and in his retirement he had restored, three vintage motorbikes from the chassis up. His daughter with a Ph.D. education recounted to me how he showed her and explained the expanded diagrams that he had used to rebuild motorbikes and tool parts for them. This was clearly no “slow learner”!

Bill may have had low verbal ability, but he has high perceptual reasoning. Perceptual reasoning is the ability to use information gained through the senses, particularly visual and make sense of them quickly, using them to make judgments about the world or act accordingly. Bill in the above example struggled with words, particularly the symbolic meaning we give to the orientation and spacing of them on paper. But he understood shape, colour, pattern, and sequence and could use these better than most.

How Can We Make Use of Perceptual Reasoning?

Perceptual reasoning tests are now routinely included in the more widely used psychometric tests used by psychologists in both clinical and educational settings. They included physical tasks such as block design where the subject is asked to copy a design on a page using three dimensional, patterned blocks and predicting sequences of pattern or combinations of patterns set out in a matrix.

So where is the problem I can hear you ask? Well despite the acknowledgment that there are multiple intelligences (Gardner), the problem that Bill had at school is not yet confined to history because few children are assessed in school using a “full scale” intelligence test which measures perceptual reasoning and people who have deficits in verbal ability are often overlooked in an environment where narrow academic abilities are over -valued. The example below is a case in point:

Ed didn’t talk until the age of 4 and from his school work and a preliminary psychological evaluation at the time he started school he was assessed as having an IQ which placed him in the bottom 1-2% of the population and described as having “pervasive developmental delay”. Ed’s teachers discounted any ability he showed and had persistently low expectations of him, describing him as stubborn and slow. Only his parents believed that there was more to the story than that. They noticed that while out shopping from an early age Ed had always had always picked out their common ford from amongst all the similar the others and amongst many other abilities had always been able to assemble a train track much quicker than his peers. Ed’s mum talked to a friend who was a psychologist who came to their home to assess him. The psychologist assessed him using Raven’s Matrices. The booklet contained pages and pages of matrices with a space for a missing item in the sequence. Ed had to choose the best fit each time from a choice of six. His mother watched with amazement as without hesitating Ed raced through the booklet quicker than she herself could. At the end the psychologist totted up the score and read his perceptual reasoning score as 130, which put him in the top 5% of ability in this domain.

Armed with this information, Ed’s parents took the results of the test to the school and never again was he under estimated. He subsequently he gained a diagnosis of high functioning autistic spectrum disorder. Ed is 19 now and has passed GCSE’s and an apprentiship and works in horticulture. His ambition is to buy his own house and to settle down and have a family.

People who have high perceptual reasoning are just as able as those who have good verbal reasoning but our education system is not, by and large set up to exploit those abilities. Those who use the “camera in their head” to manipulate and interpret their environment are often overlooked yet they are the ones who make good engineers, actors, designers, analysis, programmers.

People with high perceptual reasoning are also over represented as a proportion of the whole in people who have high-functioning dyslexia, Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD. If this sounds like you or your child, you may have been negatively labelled as having “deficits” when in all probability you will certainly have strengths which others won’t have. Knowing your profile including perceptual reasoning can help you make better choices about your career or even how to make the most of educational opportunities presented to you .


Wechsler, DavidThe Measurement and Appraisal of Adult Intelligence (fourth ed.). Baltimore (MD): Williams & Witkins. (1958)

To see raven’s Matrices use this link : http://www.raventest.net/


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