The IQ Fallacy: Smart ≠ Successful


What do you get when you cross an elite club for the mentally gifted and an online matchmaking service?

This is not a bad joke, but a real initiative between Mensa and, aiming to allow people with an IQ of 130+ to exclusively date other brainboxes. The reasoning, according to Mensa, is that high-IQ people “see things very, very different and… interact differently”.

This idea that our IQ level is a significant indicator of our character and ability is not limited to sapiosexuals. Both educational institutions and employers frequently utilise IQ testing as part of their selection criteria.

At first glance, this seems fair. Society generally accepts the notion that higher intelligence should earmark you for more important positions, in the same way that only those with superior physical finesse can become top athletes. Assuming, of course, that IQ tests are an accurate measure of a person’s intelligence.

But what if they’re not?

IQ Tests May Not Measure Intelligence

A study published in the science journal Neuron is one of several that have criticised of the effectiveness of IQ tests. The study, which examined over 100,000 people, argues that intelligence is not one single testable thing, and therefore that existing IQ tests do not do enough to sufficiently capture it.

The study highlighted three key types of intelligence: short-term memory, reasoning, and verbal skills. Each uses a different section of the brain, and people can be vastly better at one area than another. Trying to amalgamate their scores into one “IQ” gives a misleading impression of their intellectual abilities.

Consequently, employers who are particularly keen on hiring people with a specific type of intelligence are probably poorly served by IQ tests, which reward intellectual generalists over specialists. It’s like requiring a 100m runner and picking a triathlete over Usain Bolt because you’re only looking at overall sporting ability.

IQ flickr 060517

IQ Results Change According to Your Lifestyle

We tend to think of our intelligence level as something innate and immutable, but research suggests that’s not really the case. Playing computer games, for example, seems to make you score higher on tests regarding reasoning and short-term memory. Conversely, smoking correlates with lower scores on short-term memory and vocab tests. Personality traits can also impact performance: people with social anxiety score lower IQs, for example.

This matters because it suggests that the IQ test you give a candidate at the start of the hiring process may not be an accurate assessment of their long-term potential. If intellects can be shaped by video games, they can also be shaped by dedicated workplace training. Moreover, making a hiring decision on something that could be overturned by the new hire taking up smoking seems illogical.

IQ Tests Devalue Alternative Types of Intelligence

In discussions of IQ, the figure of Albert Einstein often looms large. (His own IQ was said to be 160). So it is interesting that he is often attributed a quotation that aligns with one of the most scathing criticisms of IQ testing:

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Prominent psychologists have been among those calling for greater recognition of “multiple intelligences”, in which they list such attributes as “spatial abilities, musical talents, body movement (as found in dancers), the ability to deal with others and the ability to know one’s self”.

It is therefore problematic that IQ tests hone in on one particular type of talent, because the subsequent emphasis people and employers place on this specific ability snubs those people with skills that fall outside these academic confines. Employers in particular should be careful to distinguish between testing job applicants for competence in those skills which are crucial to the role, and falling foul of the ill-defined notion that “smart” employees will automatically be better.

IQ Tests Compound Prejudice

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of IQ tests is that they can be used to create and compound prejudice. As long as IQ tests are seen as unquestionably valid, bigoted individuals and organisations will use them to spread hate against races, genders, and social classes.

Arthur Jensen, a Berkeley psychologist, raked up such problems by claiming that the mean IQ differences seen between races were caused by hereditary rather than environmental factors. Essentially, this argument declared that white people were intrinsically smarter than black people.

iq chart flickr 060517

Jensen was widely criticised, including by his fellow Berkley professor John Ogbu, who pointed out that the IQ difference between black and white Americans was identical to the gap seen between advantaged and disadvantaged social groups throughout the world.

IQ Tests Are Deterministic

It is therefore clear that IQ tests have problems. But they are still routinely used to make decisions that affect people’s lives, and that causes harm.

Schoolchildren’s IQ results are used to determine which classes they take, what work is assigned to them, and which careers they are prepped for. Adults are selected for jobs, projects and promotions based on an unreliable measure of their competence. And people who buy into the notion that their average or below-average IQ will negatively impact their future risk becoming self-fulfilling prophecies.

A World Without IQ Tests

It is true that kids who score highly on an IQ test do go on to be more successful. They get better academics, earn more money, are healthier and live longer. But research shows that both their original IQ score and their subsequent success was significantly impacted by how motivated they were as individuals. Similarly, offering adults a monetary reward for doing well on an IQ test raised their score by a staggering 10 IQ points.

The obvious conclusion is that rather than bothering with IQ tests, employers should seek out motivated, dedicated individuals and compensate them well for their work. This is doubly true because few career superstars are geniuses: most successful people, regardless of industry, have only average IQs.

Beth Leslie is a career and lifestyle writer. She is the editor of the Inspiring Interns blog, which provides career starters with advice on how to excel at their internships and graduate jobs.

For more insights into IQ and how it might work in your life, check out this video.

Image credit:  IQ Curve





Beth Leslie

Beth Leslie is a professional writer and blog editor. She pens career and lifestyle advice for everyone from undergrads to seasoned professionals, and has published 90+ articles on 30+ sites. You can find her on LinkedIn and follow her on Twitter @bethanygrace92.

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