What Do IQ Tests Really Measure?


posted on 18 April 2019

by Philip Pilkington

Fixing the Economists Article of the Week

IQ. What is it all about? In our society it is generally seen as a sort of symbol of social status. So much so that some join groups like Mensa in order to hang out with other high IQ people while others sign up for dating websites that are supposedly geared toward your IQ level.


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Yes, the more democratically minded amongst us might get something of a sniff of elitism off the whole thing. Scratch the surface and you might even begin to smell something even more unseemly; I refer of course to the 19th and 20th century eugenics movement which was intimately bound up with the emerging idea of IQ.

Well, a recent study has come up with extremely interesting results that, to my mind, raise yet more questions as to what IQ tests truly measure. The study looks at a group of farmers but tracks them over the harvest season. This allowed researchers to track IQ against their current level of income. The BBC article summarises as such:

The farmers go through three crucial stages in this cycle; before the harvest, when they have taken out loans to grow the crops and thus are extremely poor; after the harvest, but before being paid, when farmers are at the greatest extent of their poverty; and after being paid.

Or, as Dr. Anandi Mani summarises the aim of the study:

“With the sugarcane farmers, we are comparing the same person when he has less money to when he has more money. We’re finding that when he has more money he is more intelligent, as defined by IQ tests.”

The results are dramatic. By testing against a control group the researchers find that when the farmers are poorer they have lower IQs! The BBC summarises as such:

The study concludes that those in poverty, by having more constant and extensive financial worries, expend more of their mental capacity on these concerns, so that less can be used for other tasks.

The question this raises, of course, is whether IQ tests are really measuring something called “intelligence” in any meaningful way. This present study brings to mind another that found that children who were less motivated to take IQ tests did worse on them than higher motivated children.

Kids who score higher on IQ tests will, on average, go on to do better in conventional measures of success in life: academic achievement, economic success, even greater health, and longevity. Is that because they are more intelligent? Not necessarily. New research concludes that IQ scores are partly a measure of how motivated a child is to do well on the test. And harnessing that motivation might be as important to later success as so-called native intelligence.

This strikes me as being correct. I remember a guy I used to know in secondary school who never did any work because he found it extremely boring. When the school counselor had him take an IQ test in order to discern whether he had a learning disability or not he told me that he purposely played up his ignorance to certain questions in the hope he would be labeled with a learning disability which he could use as an excuse to opt out of certain classes and lighten his workload. (I know he wasn’t lying because he told me prior to taking the test). The ploy didn’t work. He never got diagnosed with a learning disability but instead merely got a test score that didn’t reflect his probable ability (whatever that means…).

Then there are the anecdotes of those who score extremely high on these tests having taken them multiple times. Rick Rosner, for example, who appeared in the excellent TV series First Person being interviewed by Errol Morris comes across as someone who achieved most of his unusual feats through sheer persistence (one might even say: pathological and obsessive persistence). One wonders if his extremely high IQ scores have something to do with this also.

While IQ is generally thought in contemporary society to mean something like “raw intelligence” there seems very little evidence that this is the case. Some of what the tests pick up might be along these lines (indeed, I am not saying that a person with Down’s Syndrome can increase their IQ to normal levels through sheer effort), but much of what they pick up is probably not intelligence at all. And for that reason the social status of this measure should, I think, be called firmly into question.

Intelligence is an extraordinarily vague entity and people tend to be “intelligent” in vastly different ways. To single out one measure – which seems completely context dependent anyway – as having special status really does appear misleading. I really don’t mean this in a wishy-washy “everybody’s special” way either. It seems to me rather that the test is designed by people, frankly, that would do fairly well on the test. Indeed, the scent of elitism which some might catch a whiff off may be easier to explain than many might think.


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