My opinion on IQ tests

I do not like IQ tests for various reasons. I will also note that I have never taken an official IQ test, nor do I really want to take one. To me, I see IQ tests as a way to reduce all of human capability and accomplishments to a single number. In this highly automated, technological world that we live in, we are already reduced to numbers legally, financially, medically, and so on. While a social security number is just an (almost) random string of numbers, IQ in many contexts is seen as a measure of self-worth. Thus, it carries more emotional weight and is a sensitive issue.

Researchers love IQ tests because they can perform their statistical magic and slice and dice data to find all sorts of wacky correlates. For example, is there a relationship between head circumference size and intelligence? How about is there an IQ correlation between Democrats and Republicans? Religious people verses atheists? Is there a relationship between IQ and whether one self identifies as a “morning person” or a “night owl?” Do women who shop for their vegetables at Whole Foods 1 have smarter children than their non-upper-middle class counterparts? Are there “superior” races that have gifted IQs and “less than superior” races that have less cognitive gifts? Are tall people smarter than short people?

And besides, a study has found that that the notion of intelligence being able to be measured and quantified is largely a ‘myth.’ According to researcher Adrian Owen, “When we looked at the data, the bottom line is the whole concept of IQ — or of you having a higher IQ than me — is a myth. There is no such thing as a single measure of IQ or a measure of general intelligence.”

But wait a minute. I am going to play devil’s advocate here. I recently went through my digital archive of university writings and I was not happy with what I read. In particular, I was not happy with some of my suggestions in a paper titled “Ethical Considerations on the Human Genome Project” written in 2009. Actually, I was absolutely appalled by my former self’s ghastly solution to an already difficult problem with making ethical decisions regarding genetic information. I imagined a computer database and algorithm which I called “Dimensions of Disease” that “attempted to quantify a condition” and generated a final single “composite score” that suggested how mild or severe a disorder was relative to other disorders; I described it as “a good practical idea.”

I could not believe how insensitive I was with this solution. This is against my belief system and sounded like too similar of a system to the IQ testing currently in use (i.e. reducing everything down to a single number.) I would not come up with this solution today. Maybe it was my scattered ADD brain’s love for wordplay that picked out “Dimensions of Disease” too cute and catchy of a name to give up. I did not have an immediate explanation.

Then I realized why I did come up with it. That was my rational, unbiased third party view of a possible solution to a complex problem. It was the objective scientists’ view rather than my emotionally ridden view of my opinions. It was written in third person and I never said the word “I” but rather made the hypothetical suggestion through the eyes of a scientist. Inevitably, any uniformed systemized approach is going to reduce complex phenomena into numbers. It is just that some conditions lend themselves more to quantifications than others. For example, my prescription for myopia or nearsightedness can be entirely documented in numbers. On the other hand, intelligence does not really lend itself to quantifications.

I do have to admit the concept of someone having an IQ of 167 and having all the skills that come along with that is pretty neat, but it should not be the entire ideation of human ability. To me, it is almost paradoxical because the school of thought representing high IQ societies is the same school of thought that observes statistical outliers and “abnormal” deviations from the norm. High IQ societies then, are just a bunch of people who are statistical outliers and abnormal deviations from the normal population. Admittedly, this sounds a bit offensive and deprecating in a way, but this is just a single idea in a stream of many thoughts.

To counter this thought, consider one person’s experience going to a school of academically advanced students. In response to a Yahoo article titled “The 16 Smartest People on Earth,” there were loads of negative comments about quantifying intelligence. (Among the more popular comments were Studley’s “I aced the Mensa test, but being that intelligent, I preferred not to pay the fee to join.” and Doug’s “If you’re that bloody smart, DO something with all those brains!,” while Probation Man says “Real Intelligent People don’t advertise their IQ, but use their intelligence to quietly revolutionize the world (i.e. Steve Jobs).”)

To calm down the hostility and bitter sarcasm, member J.D chimes in with his experiences about interacting with high achieving people:

“I’ve had the honor to go to school with and work with people who would meet the definition of “genius” and while I’m not stupid, and in fact might be considered gifted, I can humbly declare I am not a genius. These people could sit in on a lecture on an advanced topic they had never heard of before, and come out of it knowing the topic like the back of their hand. Of the universe, they had a truly grand view that most of us will never have the pleasure of seeing. But what struck me most about these individuals was how humble, and human they were. For all of their intelligence, they had the same social and non-intellectual needs as everyone else. They wanted to be liked amongst their friends even though their friends weren’t half as smart as they were. They worried about how they looked just as much as anyone else. They occasionally got stuck on the same homework problems that everyone else did…they were just normal people with some very extraordinary abilities.”

So J.D’s humanizing of those individuals as regular folks who just happened to excel in some abilities is a complete contrast to just “a bunch of people who are statistical outliers and abnormal deviations from the normal population.” I agree with J.D’s description of highly intelligent individuals and think it’s fair and accurate.

What I really truly believe, is that the notion of intelligence should be expanded. The Cracked satirical rant about “The 5 Stupidest Ways People Try to Look Smart” may have been tangential on many aspects but it got one thing right at the very beginning: “In the end, it doesn’t matter what your SAT scores are or what books you’ve read, being smart comes down to one thing: curiosity.”

To emphasize, Intelligence = Curiosity.

Under this definition of intelligence, Albert Einstein embarked the true meaning of intelligence because he was curious – one to wonder about the interworkings of the universe and imagine solutions that no one has ever come up with before (not even those who would be considered categorically smart on paper). Curiosity is also the kid who fidgets in class and forgets to turn in homework but is always asking questions about how the world works.

If curiousity equates to intelligence, one does not necessarily have to be an avid reader. In fact, one does not even have to know how to read at all and still be a curious person. Both of my immigrant grandmothers are illiterate, but are both crafty in their ways of living and are quite animated storytellers. There have even been rare cases where people who do not have a language – any language – but are described in literature as curious people and show a desire to learn despite their communication disability. In The Language Instinct, psychologist Steven Pinker had described a deaf person without language as having “burning curious eyes.” And in the science fiction story Flowers for Algernon, an intellectually disabled man named Charlie Gordon had a passionate desire to learn to read and write no matter what it took. He was told that he had “tremendous motivation” higher that most people at his level. (It was his willingness to learn and not raw test scores that ultimately made him a subject of an experimental treatment to increase his abilities to superhuman levels. But with experiments come uncertainty…)

So there is more to a person’s ability than a composite number score or a check list. So does this mean that IQ tests should be discontinued and banished forever from the field of psychology and discussed only in history archives of “how things used to be done?”

To be fair, I understand there is a legitimate rhyme and reason as to why IQ tests are administered (besides the “wacky correlates” I mentioned earlier) and I do understand that using the term “curiosity” is not a perfect definition of intelligence either. Not a perfect definition, but I think curiosity better captures the spirit of what people mean when they refer to intelligence or “IQ”. Not only do I think it is better, I personally think the generally pessimistic (western world) views would be more likely to agree with that idea as well.

The bottom line is that researchers are going to continue to use IQ tests as valuable tool at their disposal, and then general public is going to continue to despise the notion of standardized intelligence testing. This seems to be true at least in the western world although I have heard that the Asian cultures have a very different view on IQ tests. In fact, the Chinese and Japanese have been criticized for being not pessimistic but way overly optimistic about the notion of intelligence. The Wall Street Journal article “The Genetic Code for Genius” featured the Chinese prodigy Zhao Bowen who believes that the DNA code for high intelligence can be cracked “in three months’ time.”

“People believe it’s a controversial topic, especially in the West. That’s not the case in China,” Bowed said in response to a DNA sequencing project he participates in.


  1. For the non-Americans not familiar with Whole Foods, all I really need to show you is this (from