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A Sceptic’s Guide to IQ Tests & Why They Need to Be Approached Cautiously

Keeping aside the controversies concerning racial, cultural and gender biases that these tests are often accused of, one cannot point out exactly what intelligence is.

Arnav Sharma, an 11-year-old from Reading, UK, recently scored 162 in the Mensa IQ Test. Publications all over the world hailed the boy as his score surpassed that of Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein who scored 160 on the scale.

Intelligent Quotient (IQ) tests have been around for ages, but are they reducing the complex ability of our brains into a three-digit number?

In fact, many researchers and scientists have been studying these tests and how accurately they measure intelligence, if at all it can be measured.

Keeping aside the controversies concerning racial, cultural and gender biases that these tests are often accused of, one cannot define exactly what is intelligence.

Image for Representation/ PIXABAY

For some, intelligence might be the ability to solve problems within a time limit, for some it might be being able to use you previous knowledge to solve new problems, and for many others yet, it might be the ability to connect things that might appear disparate. The concept of intelligence itself lacks clarity.

In a 2012 study by a group of researchers from the Western University in Ontario, more than 1,00,000 people around the world took 12 intelligence tests, only to reveal that a single number like the IQ score does not effectively capture the range of human intelligence. Rather, the human intelligence could not be reduced to less than three attributes. The researchers found that short-term memory, reasoning, and verbal ability were influential in determining intelligence. Anything lesser than three factors were “too simplistic”.

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Despite these concerns, IQ tests are still used as a measurement to predict the success of an individual. In fact, the high IQ society of Mensa, which Arnav Sharma would now be qualified to be a part of, uses Cattell III B consisting of six batches of Multiple Choice Questions (MCQs). There are many other tests like Stanford-Binet, Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), which mainly measure two kinds of intelligence — Fluid and Crystallized Intelligence. The former deals with the ability to solve new problems independent of previous knowledge, while the latter tests the ability to use skills, knowledge and experience.

Formed in 1946, by an Australian Barrister Roland Berrill and Dr. Lancelot Ware, a British Scientist and Lawyer, Mensa’s only qualification is to be possessing High IQ. Mensa accepts only those individuals who stand at 98th percentile or the top 2%. The cut-off marks for different IQ tests are different and even the membership rules differs from nation to nation. Largely, IQ point of 100 is considered as average and 140 is considered as genius.

According to one of the members of Mensa, being the member of one of the highest IQ societies may not be as exciting as it may sound, apart from being eligible for discount at certain outlets:

“Mensa may have genuine intentions at heart, but at the end of the day, it’s attempting to create a completely purposeless class hierarchy based on a flimsy distinguishing factor (intelligence)…I gain nothing as a member, and the only thing I’ve so far observed people “benefit” from Mensa membership is an unjustified sense of pride and entitlement.”

Additionally, they also mention the obvious cultural biases in the test that includes cartoons alluding to rugby and basketball (they have moved on to visual questions to avoid verbal biases) which might be alien to someone coming from a non-western culture. Yet, the score in the IQ tests like these are used as the criteria to become members of many elite clubs, including the Mensa.

Arnav Sharma’s comparison with Einstein and Hawking, opens a whole another can of worms, called the ‘Flynn Effect’. Named after intelligence researcher James. R.Flynn, the Flynn Effect is the substantial increase in the intelligence test scores observed in many parts of the world since 1930, thanks to better nutrition, medical care and education. The Flynn Effect says that IQ points increase by 3-4 points every decade. Hence, it seems naive and preposterous to compare Einstein and Hawking who were born in the late 19th and mid-20th century respectively, with someone who was born a decade ago.

IQ tests maybe an important tool to understand problem-solving abilities of the individuals, but it cannot be treated as a holy grail and a predictor of individual success. People with high-IQ may be successful in certain areas of life, but it does not mean that because of this IQ number they have been able to achieve success. Correlation should not be mistaken for causation, which will lead to further complications in understanding one of the distinguishing feature of human species, intelligence.

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Written by Amulya B

Always caught between multiple worlds of her own creation, Amulya believes in the transformative power of literary & performative arts. If not caught worrying over what her next read is going to be, she can be found amid Bengaluru Traffic shouting at fellow commuters.