What’s an IQ – An Intelligence Question

What’s an IQ – An Intelligence Question

by Randy Cima, Ph.D.

IQ – Intelligence Quotient – is a problem in psychology. At best, IQ tests provide nothing more than the score you received on a test you took, on that day. At worst, IQ tests can be a humiliating, debilitating, and sometimes a lifelong imposed burden for some that negatively impacts employment, education and, most distressing, psychological assessments.

In general, just about everyone agrees with the following definition of intelligence, more or less, from Wikipedia (bold mine):

Intelligence has been defined in many ways: the capacity for abstraction, logic, understanding, self-awareness, learning, emotional knowledge, reasoning, planning, creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving. More generally, it can be described as the ability to perceive or infer information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors within an environment or context.

With a task of developing a universal tool to measure human intelligence, professionals from more than a century ago disagreed about one essential, fundamental question. Are we creating a test to measure someone’s intellectual ability (skill), or to measure someone’s intellectual capacity (volume)? These are two different things. This question was never resolved then – or now. It didn’t matter to them. Without knowing what, exactly, was being measured, the tests were created anyway.

Authors of WAIS, WISC, Stanford-Binet, Woodcock-Johnson, and others, cleverly alternate the terms ability and capacity when explaining their theories – as if the right answer to the question is “it’s both.” Incidentally, if you read the history of this science, eugenics (“biological determinism”) played a big roll. In 1908, Henry Goddard, an avowed eugenicist, created The Binet Test of Intellectual Capacity, seeking to expose and eliminate the “feeble-minded.” In the next six years his test was being used in public schools, courts of law, and for Ellis Island immigrants. This eventually led to 60,000 sterilizations nationwide of the “feeble-minded,” that also included the poor and a disproportionate number of minorities, California leading the way. (See Buck v. Bell 1927 that found sterilization constitutional, cited as one of the worst SCOTUS decisions ever.)

If IQ is an ability, then it seems some type of coaching would help, as it would with any ability. Or are we just born with limited abilities and coaching is a waste of time? Instead, if intelligence means capacity – more brain cells, more brain folds, more something biological – then is this itself its own natural limitation? Or are there ways to increase someone’s volume of intelligence? None of these explanations appealed to me, then or now, and the science of all of this, once your take the time to look at it, borders on superstition.

As a novice in the late 1970’s I couldn’t help but notice African American kids always scored 10-15 points less than white kids. How was that possible, I asked myself. I knew this black kid here was smarter than that white kid over there. Not according to the test. In addition to race, your gender matters, as does vocabulary, education, income, and a variety of other social variables that impacts the score you received on a test you took, on that day.

The IQ test itself - the actual categories and questions – are created by groups of like-minded scientists. These professionals are particularly detailed, fine-tuning among their specialties. As if searching for something, IQ tests include a number of logic questions, some math questions, questions about perception and spatial relationships, questions about pattern recognition and classification skills, and other obscure areas. The tests are made so that only a few could get the right answers for some of the questions. Then, they take those scores and compare them with other children with scores that deviate one way or another from an arbitrary “baseline” of one kind of another. That’s how we measure intelligence in human beings.

By the way, who does the best on IQ tests? Other like-minded scientists, who else? People like Einstein, most science teachers, all those IT guys and gals that keep our computers alive, and others who are born intrigued by puzzles and are stimulated by logic and similar thoughts. Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson come to mind. They, and others like them, have “high IQ’s.” Which means they did really good on the test they were given, on that day.

As an administrator for children living in mental health facilities, I ignored thousands of IQ tests. Completely. We were required to have them done, I always had a psychologist on my staff to perform this function, and we completed our obligation to our licensing body. We dismissed the results of IQ tests because they didn’t provide any useful information regarding treatment or prognosis. The problem is, most professionals think they do. It is especially prevalent when frustrated adults point to the problem child’s IQ as an “inherent limitation.”

As you can tell, I don’t like IQ tests, for what it’s worth. I suggest you ignore them too.

Randy Cima, Ph.D., is a psychologist by training. He was the Executive Director for several mental health agencies for children. He is avid opponent of psychotropic chemicals for children, and his efforts have successfully reduced and even eliminated chemicals in his work in helping them with a variety of problems. He also teaches, writes, and lectures on these matters.


  • I loved your article and the fact you worked with children, so many others use tools like IQ tests to intimidate them or esteem them higher to their own ideal. Einstein sums up what you are saying, "Everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live it's whole life believing it is a failure." The antidote is to believe in yourself regardless of anyone's measurement. Thanks for writing Randy

  • Hi Kenneth. Thanks for your response. I don’t know what “the construct utility of IQ” means. Also, I limited myself to 800 words for this blog. I would love to expand reasons, facts, and logic with you. Perhaps we could start with whether you think IQ tests are measurements of ability or capacity, or do you think it’s both? Based on my research, I don’t think they measure anything, other than a grade you got on a test you took on the day you took it. Thanks again.

  • Denying the construct utility of IQ is always, as with this article, a purely emotional anecdotal exercise free of any encumbrance of reason, facts, logic, etc. It is disappointing to see ISEPP promoting such.

  • IQ tests tend to be culturally biased. I heard on the radio many years ago about some Hispanics who were falsely labeled as “mentally retarded” by culturally biased IQ tests. Also, even English-speaking Americans don’t always speak the same dialect of English. So children who might be otherwise intelligent might have difficulty understanding the instructions of test administrators. Also, most of the professionals who designed these tests designed them for children from the same white middle to upper class suburban children who were similar to themselves. Also, malnutrition can affect mental development, and it might have affected the IQ tests results. People who have woken up without eating breakfast often have poorer mental performance. Stress can also cause people to do poorly on tests. Some of this might explain why children perform on IQ tests way below their actual abilities. Also, some professionals who are administering IQ tests might unintentionally cause children to perform less well if they have low expectations of the children taking the tests. Some schools have perverse incentives to classify children as “disabled”, such as higher payments from the Federal Government if more children are classified as “disabled”. Sometimes, though, children internalize low expectations, lowering their self-confidence and causing them to perform more poorly on tests, including “intelligence” tests. People are unique and have varied strengths and weaknesses, including in mental abilities. Some may be great with numbers and poor with words, and vice versa.

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