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History

Sir Ken Robinson on the Invention of the IQ Test and How it Permeated Throughout Our Culture

We know what an IQ score test is and what it measures, but we don’t know why it matters. Who really goes around boasting their IQ score?

When we think of a high IQ, we think of Albert Einstein, the genius, and how his unique brain fostered creative scientific laws of the universe. Even easier to condemn yourself and believe that such a level of intelligence is impossible. We focus more on the IQ and less on his environment, upbringing, predilection for science, and dedication to his craft.

Sir Ken Robinson, in Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative, explains the invention of the IQ:

“Like the motor car, television, the micro-processor and the Coca-Cola bottle, IQ is one of the most compelling inventions of the modern world. It is an idea in four parts. The first is that each of us is born with a fixed intellectual capacity or quotient: that just as we may have brown eyes or red hair, we have a set amount of intelligence. Second, how much intelligence we have can be calculated by a series of pencil-and-paper tests of the sort illustrated above. The results can be compared against a general scale and given as a number from 0 to 200. That number is your IQ. On this scale, average intelligence is between 80 and 100; above average is between 100 and 120 and anything above 130 gets you into Mensa’s Christmas party. The third idea is that IQ tests can be used to predict children’s performances at school and in later life. For this reason, IQ tests are widely used for school selection and educational planning. Finally, IQ is taken to be an index of general intelligence: that is, these tests are assumed to point to a person’s overall intellectual capacities. Many people now seem to think that it is enough to roll out their IQ score for everyone to grasp how bright they are, or not. As a result of all this, the popular idea of intelligence has become dangerously narrow and other intellectual abilities are either ignored or underestimated. For all these reasons, since the idea of IQ emerged about 100 years ago, it has had explosive consequences for social policy and especially for education.”

Just a 100 years ago…

It’s important to note that Robinson isn’t saying that we have a fixed intellectual capacity—that’s a fixed mindset—but rather the IQ test makes us believe that we do. Any kind of test measuring performance becomes a game, a way to prove to yourself and others that you are indeed born-smart—that’s where the shame lies and where the point is missed. Although the test does measure our overall intelligence (and the measures are relative to the time we’re taking it), it doesn’t mean that we can’t improve our intelligence.

Sadly, many people will live as if they can’t get smarter. The belief that you are the way you are is far more comforting than the belief that you can transform yourself through hard work. This fixed mindset, a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck, is entirely unhelpful in all areas of our lives.

Being aware of an invention, especially one that has taken such root in our culture and is only 100 years old, helps us determine its purpose and meaning. There’s a 99.9% chance that no one will ever ask for your IQ score. But it’s disheartening to realize that it will be asked in the kind of institutions that should be readily ignoring these faux and entirely unhelpful measures of something that isn’t concrete, but rather changes and improves with effort.

— PAUL JUN