The Myth of IQ — and Why It Matters

Summary: Among the many myths that support the racial and economic current status quo in the United States, none is more widely accepted by scientists and laypeople alike than the myth of general intelligence (IQ).

Photo by Avery Evans, courtesy of Unsplash

Psychology can save the world. After all, psychology is the field of science that connects to everything we think, feel, and do. So, unlike physics or chemistry, psychology can help reduce both racism and obesity. Likewise, psychology can help us save more for retirement, save decent marriages, and save the planet from climate change. But psychology is not perfect. It is home to at least one racist and classist myth that was born in the early 1900s. This myth is the idea that human intelligence is a single thing. I’d like to chip away at this myth.

When Alfred Binet invented the IQ test in 1905, many psychologists firmly believed that women were poorly suited to higher forms of thinking. They also assumed that people of color were intellectually inferior to Whites — and that they were inherently so. That is, they believed in racial essentialism. To some degree, racial essentialism hides in the shadows today. But in the early 1900s, racial essentialism flourished in broad daylight. It was in full force when the IQ test was invented. By itself, that fact’s not necessarily a problem. Einstein proposed his theory of relativity in 1905, and it has held up well to careful study. But IQ tests have not stood up well to careful scrutiny. Instead, they’ve become part of a massive intellectual testing industry whose leaders are more concerned with appeasing shareholders than with understanding the true nature of human potential.

This means that most companies that produce IQ tests (and related tests such as the SAT and MCAT) accept the major assumptions IQ researchers made in 1905. The biggest such assumption is the idea that intelligence is mainly one thing. IQ is perceived as a general ability to think quickly, cipher, remember things well, catch little mistakes others miss, and even to rotate objects in your head. Charles Spearman called this one intellectual thing “g” — for general intelligence. If general intelligence were not one thing, it would make no sense to give people a single IQ score. Imagine a friend who asked you how much you like classical music and then assumed that people who love classical music also love acid rock, bluegrass, and hip hop. Being a music lover is not just one simple thing, of course. Neither is being smart.

Let’s pause to consider the importance of this assumption. If IQ is mainly just one general thing, and if some people have a lot of it — while others have very little — it makes perfect sense that some people will kick ass in life (e.g., in school, at work). And if IQ is mainly genetic, which many still insist it is, this can help explain why some people have worse life outcomes than others. That’s just how they are. But if IQ is actually many different things — things that have little to do with one another — and if any specific form of intelligence is powerfully affected by nurture as well as nature, then things get a lot more complicated.

IQ is not just one thing. People can be extremely intelligent — geniuses even — in specific ways, while being average or well below average in others. People with average IQ scores who shine in particular areas are known as prodigies, and you probably know a few. A musical prodigy may have mastered the violin at age seven. A math prodigy might have learned calculus in middle school. A basketball prodigy might have won rings with three different NBA teams. Prodigies raise questions about general intelligence because they are only geniuses in one specific way.

If prodigies raise doubts about whether IQ is just one thing, savants destroy the idea completely. Savants are people with serious intellectual disabilities, often autism, who become geniuses in one or two particular areas. The late Scottish artist Richard Wawro was an autistic savant who made amazing drawings using only crayons. He could look at a postcard of the Miami Beach shoreline once and draw the image in great detail two years later. Likewise, Derek Paravicini is a blind and autistic pianist who has recently become an amazing composer. There are more than 100 known prodigious savants, and their areas of genius cover everything from math and memory to singing and sculpting.

Studies of world-class chess players also call the notion of general IQ into question. If you show chess masters a chess board for a mere five seconds, they can remember practically every piece’s exact location. College students given the same task typically remember only a handful of pieces. OK, so chess masters are geniuses, right? Yes, but only when it comes to regulation chess games. Show college students and chess masters a chess board with the playing pieces placed on the board in random squares. Now both the chess masters and the students perform abysmally. Chess masters don’t have photographic memories. They have a deep knowledge of chess.

Research by Anders Ericsson has also shown that across domains of intellectual performance, from sports and memory to typing or playing the cello, the best predictor of being a true expert (aka a genius) is having engaged in thousands of hours of deliberate practice. This is intensive practice done with the serious goal of improving your knowledge and performance. It requires lots of failure. But people who truly love an activity are happy to fail hundreds of times if this is what it takes to perfect a beloved skill. If these small-sample studies weren’t enough to raise serious questions about general intelligence, consider the fact that different kinds of intellectual performance simply are not very highly correlated. There are plenty of people who are extremely good at math and very poor at verbal analogies, at short term memory, or at mental rotation.

So, the major assumption on which most IQ tests are built — the idea that IQ is a single thing — rests on a shaky foundation. As I will argue in a future blog, the idea that IQ is very heavily genetic also rests on a shaky foundation. I‘m not saying IQ is purely a fiction, by the way. And I’m not saying there is no such thing as talent. I’m merely saying that IQ does not work the way proponents of IQ tests have long assumed.

Howard Gardner realized this about three decades ago. His idea of multiple intelligences stands in contrast to the idea that IQ is just one thing. Gardner argues for nine specific kinds of intelligence (from “body smarts” to “people smarts”). This work is still in its infancy, and many have heavily criticized it. But it is a nice contrast to the traditional view that IQ is mainly just one thing — and the more worrisome idea that IQ is destiny.

So, the good news here is that almost anybody can become really, really good at almost anything intellectual. If there is any bad news here, it is that doing so requires one to work extremely hard. But if you truly adore chess, sculpture, languages, or racquetball, most of the hard work it takes to become a genius in that area will seem like play rather than labor.

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