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What IQ measures and why a high IQ is not “genius level.”

einsteinIt’s a remake of a familiar story that surfaces periodically.  This time it’s Neha Ramu, a 13 year-old who has joined Mensa with an IQ score of 162.  It is not, as the BBC tells us, “a perfect score.”  Nor is it true that “a score above 140 is considered to be that of a genius.”  During the 13 years when I was Secretary of Mensa similar stories cropped up every few years.  The society publicized them to help boost applications and membership.  The level required for admission into Mensa is the top 2 percent of IQ scores.  In Britain that would cover more than a million people, so it is not all that exclusive.  Some years ago I co-authored three books on IQ with my colleague Dr Eamonn Butler, and we even devised and standardized a new IQ test to accompany them.

Mensa normally uses the Cattell III B or occasionally the Cattell III A culture fair tests.  A score above 148 on Cattell III B is required for admission into Mensa.  To put it into perspective, I live in Cambridge, where most of the students would score at or above that level.  The test has different sections, one dealing with numbers, one with words, one with diagrams and one with situational logic.  The aim is to minimize the degree to which someone not very adept at one of those categories will score below their worth.  What IQ measures is your ability to pass an IQ test.  There is a correlation with reasoning ability and mental agility, but the IQ score is only a rough proxy for these qualities.  Most tests are biased because our culture is WEIRD – Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich and Developed, and most of us have grown up against that cultural background.

It seems that IQ has both inherited and environmental components, and the recorded steady rise in average IQ scores probably reflects the fact that the environmental component is being increasingly developed to more of its potential.  The average IQ score was set at 100 when IQ tests were first devised, though it is higher than that now in some countries.  Neha’s parents are both eye doctors, so we can safely guess that the inherited and environmental components of her IQ are both high.  This is not “genius level,” though, and it will do her no favours if the press compares her with Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.  Genius is something different, and involves a lot more than a high IQ score.  It usually involves great insight and creativity as well.  However, when people ask me if they should take the Mensa test and have their IQ measured, I usually say yes.  If you know you have a high IQ it might give you the confidence to attempt more ambitious targets in life.

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