The Problem with How We View IQ tests, OptimistJenna.com. A smiling girl is labeled as a valuable genius while a guy is labeled a stupid lost cause.

The Problem with How We View IQ Tests

Read enough Quora answers and you’ll notice how people worship IQ. Take one test and find out your skills, future, and worth as a person. And this pattern reflects what I see in western culture. The way we view IQ tests, and intelligence in general, is a problem.

The truth is that IQ tests aren’t nearly as accurate as people think they are. And they aren’t nearly as important, either.

Online, I see people asking the same types of questions over and over:

  1. “If someone has a high IQ, then they must be successful, kind, and perfect, right?”
  2. “I took an IQ test and the number wasn’t as high as I want. Should I quit trying to do anything in life?”

I’m not really exaggerating.

These questions are a symptom of a problem with how people view intelligence and IQ. We get all these messages telling us that IQ is a perfect measure of the most important trait you can ever have.

But it’s not. In fact, as I researched it to help me answer these internet questions, I found the truth is even more complex than you’d think.

How Outside Factors Affect Measured IQ in Tests

While IQ tests claim to measure your exact fixed intelligence, there’s a problem with that premise. They say your past, age, mood, and other things won’t change your score.

But no test works that way.

Let’s talk about some of the things that affect your test scores.

Upbringing and Practice

Your past affects performance. When I took an IQ test as an adult, it included trivia questions for nerds. I recall it asking about geography and history. I grew up in good school districts and took AP classes. So, that likely helped me score well in that section.

Also, the skills you use get better. For example, Aboriginal kids who grow up in the desert have better visual memory. (It’s not their genes. They checked Aboriginal kids in the city too. It’s upbringing.) They needed that skill, so they used it more. Now they have higher test scores there.

Your brain is not fixed. It grows and changes. Your experiences and skill usage shape it.

So, can you study for an IQ test? Yes. Many experts think it could make a difference. (Of course, that doesn’t make you better at all things, just IQ tests.)

In fact, IQ test scores have risen over time in what we call the “Flynn effect.” Research finds this isn’t because people’s genes are improving. Instead, it’s environmental. The world is getting more complex while education and nutrition get better. This has helped humans improve.

Mood, Fatigue, and Day-to-Day Problems Affecting IQ Tests

How you’re doing today will affect scores too.

Let’s talk about a different test for a moment. I took the SAT twice. The first time, I was exhausted after a grueling physics project. I had lost sleep trying and trying to get my catapult to work. I was in no state to take the SAT, but I dragged myself there.

By my standards, I bombed it. When you looked at score percentiles, I was far below my average standardized test score result. Then I retook it later on a day I wasn’t so wiped out. I scored 160 points higher.

Of course, that was the SAT, not an IQ test. So, let’s look at IQ tests!

Researchers asked people in poverty to take IQ tests. One group first had to record themselves telling a story about a past proud moment or achievement. The other didn’t. The group that told the story scored about 10 points better.

What about other factors? Test anxiety lowers IQ performance. Time of day may impact spatial subtest scores. And weirdly, exposure to the color red does too.

If we ignore the outside factors affecting performance in IQ tests, we have a problem.

Deprivation

Deprivation can hold you back too. I’m not only talking about sleep deprivation. (Thanks, Mr. Boyarski.) But life in poverty leaves your mind stretched thin. Poor people score about 13 points lower on IQ tests. That’s nearly a whole standard deviation, equal to losing a whole night of sleep before the test.

Experts think this isn’t their fault. Instead, it’s due to mental strain. To test this, they studied Indian farmers whose income relies on their yearly harvest. (They are poorer before the harvest and richer after it.) Their scores after the harvest were about 9-10 points higher.

Dealing with scarce resources eats away at your focus. When you are just trying to get by, tests are less important. The strain, not your skill, causes the gap.

But years of life in poverty could have lasting effects on the brain. How much potential wastes away from years of stress and hunger? Well, that would be a whole new blog post.

Bias and Expectations

Have you heard of the 1965 Pygmalion study? You probably have. But if you don’t know the details, I’ve got you covered.

In 1965, two researchers gave intelligence tests to a group of elementary school students. They then told the teachers that 20% of those kids would bloom academically that year. They gave the teachers (not the students) a list of names. Eight months later, they tested the kids again and saw that they were right.

Only, the students’ names were chosen randomly. The teachers believed in the students, so the students did better. This experiment has been repeated and they got the same results. You can read the original study online too.

The way we treat people influences their success. That includes things that hurt them, too.

“Stereotype threat” happens when someone is at risk of confirming a bad stereotype. That includes stereotypes like “women can’t drive” or “black people are less smart.” When faced with stereotype threat, people score worse on tests. Experts think this is because the worry distracts them, making it harder to focus. (Read the studies I linked! They’re interesting!)

While I’m a girl, I also have a family that believes in me. But not everyone gets one. Some people also have to deal with racism and other -isms, bullying, or even abuse. Research shows we don’t just brush that off. It sticks in our brains and gets in our way.

How many people do we underestimate because problems distract them? How many people have no one to believe in them?

An IQ test won’t measure that.

Disability and IQ Test Problems

IQ tests have an accuracy problem when disability is involved. They may not measure the skills of neurodivergent people well.

For example, let’s look at the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), a common IQ test. Researchers found it underestimates autistic kids’ intelligence. In fact, on a different test, autistic people scored equally to non-autistic people and answered the questions much faster. It depends on which areas the test focuses on.

Now let’s think of how an IQ test might feel if you were an autistic child:

  • A stranger wants to be alone with you.
  • The room is likely new.
  • You might deal with flickering lights, the stranger’s body smells, and odd noises from other rooms.
  • The stranger keeps asking you questions.
  • They might tell you to point at things, even if your hands have trouble pointing properly.
  • You might not know why this is happening or how long it’ll take.
  • You may not care what the stranger thinks.

Sensory distractions, anxiety, confusion, and disinterest in the test could all lower their score.

People with ADHD also may struggle with IQ tests. Staying focused may be hard, so they may perform lower. It may not reflect how smart they truly are.

Recapping the Accuracy Problem of IQ Tests

Now we’ve covered how upbringing, day-to-day stuff, poverty, and stereotype threat can affect people’s test scores. There’s also the fact that IQ tests may not be designed to handle disabled people’s minds.

If you’ve taken an IQ test before, then don’t take the number you got as gospel truth. It’s a guess, not a perfect measurement. If you’re having a rough day/week/life on test day or if you aren’t neurotypical, then it might underestimate what you can do.

And even if you don’t like the number, that doesn’t mean you’re unskilled.

Because actually, an IQ test only measures a tiny amount of your skills and your potential to succeed.

IQ Isn’t the Full Picture

If you think IQ tests measure future success, then you’ve got a problem. Because there’s so much more to it than that!

Other Areas of Skill

IQ doesn’t measure all skill areas. Some say there are different ways to be smart. They don’t agree on how many ways, but Wikipedia lists 9 types:

  1. Logic and math
  2. Verbal and language
  3. Visual and spatial
  4. Music
  5. Body and movement, like sports or dance
  6. Nature
  7. Interpersonal (understanding others)
  8. Intrapersonal (understanding yourself)
  9. Existential

A few people want to add other kinds, like humor, cooking, and computers. But those are usually subtypes or combinations of the above. Humor is the logic of understanding what makes people laugh. Cooking is the logic or nature of food. Computers are a logic of their own, plus a test of patience.

An IQ test will often check for the first three. But it doesn’t include these other important things.

Experts debate whether these things should be called types of intelligence. But unless you’re an academic, it probably doesn’t matter much. People have different skill areas. And if you aren’t so strong in the first three, that doesn’t mean you can’t be skilled in other areas.

A Big Number Means Big Potential (Not Big Results)

Also, IQ doesn’t lock down your thinking skills. Think of it like this:

A high IQ is like height in a basketball player. There’s a lot more to being a good basketball player than being tall, and there’s a lot more to being a good thinker than having a high IQ.

David Perkins from Harvard

I was tall when I was 11 and I played basketball. And guess what? I was awful at it. I had no skill and I was too timid to steal the ball. Then my peers got growth spurts and I didn’t. Now it’s years later. I’m short and I work out more. And I’m still bad at basketball.

Were you expecting a different ending? Did you think I would overcome the odds and win at sports? Well, that’s what inspirational movies do to your brain. I don’t really play sports, so I will keep being bad at them.

A high IQ might give you an innate advantage. But if you don’t use it, it’s not worth much. You need to challenge yourself, fail, try new things, fail some more, and keep growing.

IQ tests do not measure habits, persistence, curiosity, resilience, helpfulness, politeness, practice, listening, respect, creativity, attitude, or kindness.

So, What Makes You Successful?

A hardworking person with an IQ of 95 will probably do much better in life than a lazy person with an IQ of 105 (or 115). Your work ethic and attitude matter for your success.

Imagine two job candidates:

  1. Sara is clearly smart. She says she worked with bumbling jerks at her last job. Also, she doesn’t want “busy work” that’s beneath her.
  2. Betty is a bit below average. She says she liked the challenge of her last job and she learned a lot. She says her coworkers were sweet and talented. Now she’s excited to start the next chapter of her career.

Who would you hire? Who would you rather welcome onto your team?

I don’t know about you, but I would rather hire Betty. Sure, maybe Sara would learn faster, but her negative and snobby attitude would cause problems. Taking more time to train Betty would be worth it because the team would get a hard worker who is a ray of sunshine. And Betty enjoys learning, so she’ll likely end up blooming.

My awesome coworkers talk more about my personality than my smarts.

What about the numbers?

Lewis Terman studied the lives of 1,500 highly gifted people. Plenty achieved great success. But others earned close to average incomes.

Researcher Melita Oden decided to look at the 100 most successful (Group A) and 100 least successful (Group C) men in the study. While Group A shone, Group C earned less and had higher rates of divorce and alcoholism. Members of both groups had similar IQs. So what was different?

Mostly, personality. Group A was motivated and confident. They planned ahead and didn’t give up easily.

EQ Matters

When it comes to success in business, EQ eats IQ for breakfast.

Chris Myers, Forbes

Research suggests that success may be 80% emotional intelligence (EQ) and 20% IQ. You can debate the exact numbers, but EQ matters more. That much is clear.

A key problem with worshipping IQ tests is how we overlook what matters more. Your potential doesn’t matter much if you have a bad attitude and don’t apply yourself.

Emotional intelligence is flexible. You can study it, practice it, and learn it. While I don’t have numbers as proof, I only need to think about my high school self for a few seconds to know I’m doing better now. (It was bad. It was very bad.)

Don’t let anyone tell you you’re stuck with a low EQ.

Some people say autism means low EQ. Those people haven’t met my family member “Red.” While Red scores below average at identifying emotions, there’s more to EQ. Red is optimistic, helpful, and eager to keep learning. Their coworkers like them and say nice things about them. Red’s persistent kindness and learning have helped their EQ a lot.

EQ can be learned. It’s never too late to grow and gain skills.

Don’t Overestimate the Power of IQ

When I hear people focus on IQ, it feels like the eighties are calling.

My dad, an educated educator

Society’s obsession with IQ tests doesn’t have to be your problem. Whatever you score, know that there’s more to life.

My sister, Katie, has Down syndrome and a significant intellectual disability. It’s true she won’t be a doctor or run a business. But she’s hardworking, kind, caring, confident, and good at listening. So, even if she ends up in a “simple” job, she’s likely to be well-liked and happy. Not all people with high IQs can say the same.

You can’t choose your innate abilities. And IQ doesn’t measure them perfectly. So, why value it too much?

When we recognize that there’s more to life than IQ, we make room for other things that matter. Not all skills are math and science. Some of them are listening, resilience, confidence, and kindness. We need to value these things.

It also means we can avoid over- or underestimating people based on a single number. We shouldn’t worship entrepreneurs with egos higher than their IQs. Nor should we overlook the strengths of people with below-average IQs. What someone has to offer is more complex than their IQ.

The world is a complex place. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you just need one number to tell your future. But both humans and life are nuanced.

While it’s nice to be smart, don’t forget to focus on the things that matter more.

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