What do holocaust-denier James von Brunn, pornstar Asia Carrera and wrestler Scott Levy (“The Raven”) have in common — other than a tendency toward socially deviant behaviour?
Worry not, dear readers, I shall keep you in suspense no longer! These unlikely three are, or were at one time in their lives, members of an elite social group whose only requirement for membership is an intelligence quotient (IQ) score higher than 98 per cent of the population. In an unintentionally humourous introduction to the organization, Mensa’s website informs us that “the society welcomes people from every walk of life whose IQ is in the top two per cent of the population, with the objective of enjoying each other’s company and participating in a wide range of social and cultural activities.”
Given the inclusion of porn stars, lawyers, academics and wrestlers, it really has attracted members from “all walks of life,” yet it still, paradoxically, seems incredibly exclusive.
The strangeness of Mensa’s entrance requirement seems all the more bizarre once you start to delve into the question of what an IQ score actually means.
In the measurement of IQ, we’re not talking about websites that tell you you’re a genius after completing the equivalent of the “real money” questions in Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Real IQ scores come from standardized tests such as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (or the “WAIS”) and are administered and interpreted by a trained clinical psychologist. Standard IQ tests measure traits such as processing speed, verbal ability, spatial perception and memory.
Many researchers have dedicated entire careers to improving the validity and reliability of standardized intelligence tests, and as a result these scales have become widely used and accepted by clinical and school psychologists.
However, there is a growing movement in psychology with the view that there is a lot more to intelligence than what these tests measure. Keith Stanovich, author of the 2009 book, What Intelligence Tests Miss, has been studying exactly this for over 15 years.
He argues that while intelligence tests are great at measuring things like memory and learning capacity as well as the ability to perform logical tasks, they fail to measure an important component of intelligence — namely, the ability to behave and think rationally in every-day life. Stanovich calls this the “rational intelligence” or “RQ” for short. Typically, we use heuristics (rules of thumb) to make snap decisions which are based on a “gut feeling” rather than on careful consideration of the relevant evidence. People we consider smart tend to behave more rationally and deliberately than those who, say, throw all of their money into stock for a company that makes novelty-shaped steak.
Currently, IQ tests don’t distinguish these two types of people, therefore making it possible to achieve a very high score on the WAIS and still make very unintelligent decisions in real life. Consider former American president George W. Bush’s 120 IQ, or the fact that 44 per cent of Mensa members believe in astrology. Part of the problem is that while IQ tests can assess the ability to think in cognitively complex ways, they don’t measure people’s propensity to actually do so.
For example, consider the following scenario: James is looking at Asia, who is looking at Scott. James is married, Scott is not. Aside from all of the potential implications and consequences of this weird situation, consider the more mundane question: Is a married person looking at an unmarried one? Your options are: yes, no or cannot be determined (for the answer, see diversions on page 23, but do try to figure it out for yourself first — hint, it helps to draw it out.)
Most people — incorrectly — choose “cannot be determined.” When asked to reason through the options though, those with higher IQs will more often choose the correct answer, meaning that “intelligent people perform better only when you tell them what to do,” Stanovich says. Tests that could distinguish those who decide to initially reason through the options from those who don’t would be useful for determining decision-making abilities. This in turn could be useful if, for example, an organization wanted to know whether a potential new hire would be impulsive or more deliberate.
I asked Corey Mackenzie, a clinical psychologist here at the University of Manitoba, what he thought of Stanovich’s criticism of traditional IQ tests and, specifically, how they lack the ability to measure rational, deliberate decision making tendencies. “Stanovich certainly isn’t the first person to write about the limitations of traditional IQ tests, or to suggest alternatives,” he said. He pointed out a that a number of different theorists had identified the different ways in which standard IQ tests are lacking, including Goleman’s theory of social intelligence, Cole’s theory of moral intelligence and Gardener’s theory of multiple intelligences. While Mackenzie acknowledges that the critics make a valid point, he cautions, “It’s important not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.” Traditional IQ tests may not be equipped to measure every different kind of intelligence, but they do measure one important form of intelligence, and they do it well. Furthermore, they are excellent predictors of performance in areas such as academic achievement and workplace success. Mackenzie also notes, “although it’s nice in theory to also measure rational intelligence, there aren’t currently good ways to measure it.”
With this, Stanovich would certainly agree. Perhaps one of Mackenzie’s bright young psychology grad students will take this up as a doctoral thesis topic and get the ball rolling.
Stanovich’s theory does a great job at explaining why we often see smart people doing dumb things. A person may be smart in ways that IQ tests capture without having rational intelligence. Given that measures of IQ are currently used to determine entry into academia, it is interesting to think about the types of people that tend to end up with careers in university settings. Perhaps there is something to that “absent-minded professor” stereotype after all.