Humans and Health

The Accuracy of IQ Tests

picture of a brain
Natasha Phang Lee

Do you think you’re intelligent? Maybe you’ve been told you’re smart. Perhaps you’ve even been heralded a genius! But would an IQ test come to the same conclusion? Natasha Phang Lee investigates.

The IQ test has long been seen as an indicator of intelligence with participants being assigned to one of 5 categories based on their test score. High achievers are awarded the classification of ‘genius’ or of ‘superior intelligence’ whilst below average performers get the ego-boosting grouping of ‘feeble minded’.

The test was established to identify children who were straggling behind the average, academically speaking, with the hope that greater resources or more personalised teaching could be provided. The mental age of the child was calculated and compared against their actual age. For example, according to the test, a brainy, high IQ 10-year-old may have the mental capacity of a 15-year-old. Likewise, the test would identify the opposite, and if a child needed more academic assistance. The test, however, was found to be an inadequate calculator of an adult’s mental age because intelligence was said to level off in adulthood.

The test perfectly demonstrates humans’ inherent need to simplify the complex through categorisation

Despite the inapplicability of the test with regards to adults, culturally speaking having a high IQ is still associated with being intelligent. But just how accurate is the test in calculating intelligence? Like most tests, which have certain methodological constraints, only a few skills can truly be tested at once. Consequently, the results only provide a snapshot of a person’s abilities. Many of you may have left an exam feeling unfairly hard done by because nothing you revised came up. This thinking can be applied here too. The test may disproportionately bias a certain type of individual who can quickly compute large amounts of information under time pressures whilst discriminating against others who lack this ability. Does that mean the former are more intelligent? What about those who are perhaps more practically gifted? Or those who are more entrepreneurially skilled? The test perfectly demonstrates humans’ inherent need to simplify the complex through categorisation. Although useful in some instances, I would argue too great an emphasis on results from certain tests can lead to ignorant oversight of unique abilities which are not uncovered because of the test’s design.

Intelligence is also incredibly hard to calculate because the definition of intelligence is incredibly subjective. Intelligence is still associated with those who can do streams of algebra or who can regurgitate Shakespearean monologues, however, our views on this stereotype may have evolved since the birth of the IQ test. I believe society’s classification of intelligence has come to include those who, for example, start up and run their own business or who can compose a heart wrenching score for a West End musical. In other words, those who are not necessarily book smart.

I wonder how important determining intelligence even is nowadays. In the workplace many are emphasising the need for emotional intelligence – the ability to understand people and human behaviour, alongside the skills required to do the job. So, with this shift in perspective, perhaps the IQ test’s relevance has diminished. Maybe it’s taking up a more ego-boosting superficial role whereby test takers can measure up against their fellow humans, proudly reassuring themselves they are as smart or smarter than some famous faces (Natalie Portman has an IQ score of 140, Colin Firth’s is 152, Bill Gates’ is 180, Kourtney Kardashian’s is around 80-90 – to give those numbers some context, see an explanation here).

Although usually conflated, intelligence may not even have anything to do with smartness. Instead, it could be an awe-struck appreciation for those who possess an unusual ability to do tasks which we find completely incomprehensible. It could be this acceptance of our own limits and a humble recognition of those who are more gifted than us which evokes the pedestaling of another person as intelligent.

Natasha Phang Lee

Featured image courtesy of Milad Fakurian via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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