IQ is meaningless – here’s why

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Deepra Sinha

I was sixteen when I took an IQ test. It was the result of an offhand comment from my parents, expressing that it would be cool if I were a member of Mensa. That remark led me to take the free IQ test available on the Mensa website; when I scored 100% on it, my interest was piqued. Maybe I did have a high IQ. So, a short while later I went to take a test in a school hall, in a manner very reminiscent of the way I took summer exams at my own school.

Mensa administers two different IQ tests – if you score in the top 2% on either one of them, then you are automatically invited to join the high IQ society. The Cattell III B test focussed more on words, while the Cattell Culture Fair III A test comprises questions about shapes and patterns. (The latter test is supposedly fairer as it relies less on familiarity with the English language.) The person overseeing and invigilating the IQ tests that day stressed that an IQ test was not supposed to test what you know, but, more crucially, how you think. I certainly did not know every word I was asked about in the Cattell III B test, or every pattern on the Cattell Culture Fair III A test, but I am not wholly sold on the idea that “how you think” is some innate, unchanging quality.

I attended private schools where verbal and non-verbal reasoning was taught and practised, and even part of the entrance exam. Verbal reasoning was about understanding and using logic to solve problems involving words, and it was something I practised a lot when I was a child (and frankly, I enjoyed it). As I was taking the Cattell III B test, it already struck me that it seemed very similar to the verbal reasoning I had done when I was younger. Non-verbal reasoning required solving problems visually based on shapes, sequences, and patterns, and so the Cattell Culture Fair III A test similarly struck me as heavily resembling the kind of problem solving I had practised as a child.

Since verbal and non-verbal reasoning was something I had intentionally practised and grown more proficient at when I was younger, I have to wonder if my doing well on IQ tests is a result of my own inherent intelligence, or simply a result of the circumstances of living a life that required me to practise the specific type of problem solving needed on those tests. Does my label of having a high IQ even mean anything if it was easier for me to gain than most, having had the practice in childhood that I did? My ambivalence about IQ increased while I was preparing to sit the medical admissions test UCAT. I heard a few people liken the UCAT to an IQ test which gave me further pause over the notion that IQ really measured inherent intelligence, since the UCAT was something you could definitely practise and improve at.

Now that I am a member of Mensa, I’m more inclined than ever to agree that IQ is fairly meaningless. Perhaps it’s a classic case of imposter syndrome and not being able to clearly see myself, but I don’t feel having a high IQ has in any realistic way set me apart from other students, both at school and at university. I don’t believe I am noticeably any more intelligent than my peers, and I would wager that nobody would ever think I had a high IQ unless I mentioned it myself. (Although perhaps the reason for that is because I don’t believe I am much like any of the stereotypical high IQ characters in the media. Oftentimes, they’re represented as asocial geniuses with a photographic memory to boot which certainly isn’t an image that bears much similarity to me.) Whenever I remember I do indeed study medicine at a top university, I feel like I must be somewhat intelligent, but remembering that I’m a member of a high IQ society really means very little to me in this regard.

Perhaps my IQ was measured too late to make any discernible difference to my life. There is the argument that knowing a child has a high IQ could benefit them by making it easier to further support and expand their education, but I would wonder if only doing so for high IQ and gifted children is even fair. Surely any child who wanted that for themselves, regardless of IQ, would benefit from such programmes. Is IQ even the be-all and end-all for quantifying intelligence? IQ alone does not determine how much one can achieve and accomplish, and I would argue that other forms of intelligence are crucial for people. Emotional and social intelligence I would think would play much larger roles in people’s lives than traditional intelligence. After all, is there any point being intelligent if nobody is especially willing or able to interact and spend time with you in a meaningful way? 

I view my high IQ label as more of a fun fact about me (although you won’t catch me saying it to someone I just met – that seems pretentious) rather than any serious indicator of who I am. I don’t believe IQ should be a huge contributor to anyone’s identity, or how people view each other, and if, over time, the apparent importance of IQ diminished, I don’t think we would be worse off for it. 

image credit: “Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence” by mikemacmarketing is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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