IQ is EVERYTHING… and Nothing.

Everybody is obsessed with IQ.

When it supports your absurd political ideology, biological or sociological theory or simply when the “right” people and agendas are associated with a high IQ, it means everything. It is infallible, a marker of definite quality, a sign of the Messiah.

When it offends your delicate sensibilities, disproves or works against your theories and when the “wrong” people have high IQs, or, Heavens forbid, the “right” people have low IQs, it means nothing. It is weak, a poor measure of quality, meaningless.

And once they’ve decided whether IQ is good or bad, people will trot out countless individuals and studies proving their case. It’s astonishing how well science has proven that IQ is the most important measure of individual quality, meaningless on an individual level, a marker of society’s success and independent of social development, all whilst it doesn’t even exist! Truly a miraculous thing.

Now, for what it’s worth, I sort of agree with the last statement. No, not the sarcastic remark, but that IQ doesn’t exist. At least not in the way people think about it, or want it to exist.

Many people assume IQ is a definitive marker of intelligence, like a brain scan, an exam score or the likes. Something that tells you, with at least 80% accuracy, how smart, wise, bright or otherwise intelligent a person is. The reality is a little duller. What even the most culturally neutral, squares-vs-circles, spot the difference IQ test measures is actually mathematical ability. In other words, how well you can put two and two together, order things by size and shape and work out the next item, word or number in a sequence. Which I’m pretty sure we all mastered by the age of six. Even very autistic or mentally handicapped children can do such things, albeit not always on demand.

I’m not saying these things aren’t important, mind. Being able to quickly, consistently and efficiently do such things plays a huge part in your life. Being able to work out if you got the right change, to guess which data plan suits you best, to gauge the time it will take a gazelle to reach your hiding spot, to take apart and put together machines, to whittle a point to just the right size, etc have always been important skills for humans. We need to do these things in order to live. We always have and we always will. Because regardless of your job, lifestyle, age or status, a human who can’t remember the difference between a moving and a still car, who can’t remember the severity of car impact, who can’t gauge the speed of an oncoming vehicle, who can’t work out the probability of getting hit and who can’t weigh the pros and cons of crossing an open road versus looking for a pedestrian crossing is probably a dead human. Maths matter, folks.

So why is a measure of simple mathematical ability used as a measure of intelligence? Well, it isn’t. Even the most hardcore IQ-loving scientist understands that IQ isn’t telling you how intelligent someone is. It is simply telling you their potential for intelligence. How intelligent they could be if everything worked out right.

The difference between IQ and intelligence is similar to the difference between a talent and a skill. Let’s look at my family, for two reasons. One is we are a very artistically gifted (or talented) bunch, the other is there are a lot of us. My father is a skilled musician, a decent writer and a good painter; my mother is an excellent painter and a good crafter; my eldest brother did not exploit his talents as far as I know; my other brother is a good singer; my eldest sister is a good writer and a good sketcher; my other elder sister is a good singer, but I’m not sure what else; I like to think I am a decent painter and a good crafter, sketcher and writer; my younger sister is an excellent painter and a good writer; my youngest sister is a good painter, writer and jewelery maker. So with genes that are somehow conducive to artistic talent, we all wound up with different sets of skills. And we all use those skills differently. I will write absolutely anything, my younger sister writes scripts, my father writes songs and poems. I paint landscapes and surreal and impressionist art, my father painted a lot of abstract work, my mother paints realistic portraits and illustrations and my younger sister paints manga and pop art. We have used what nature gave us very differently.

And that is the difference between talent and skill. An artistically talented two year old who never exploits this gift will not grow up to be a great artist. They will paint better than the average two year old, but no more. Likewise, a brilliantly gifted abstract artist may paint more realistic portraits than Joe Average, but will pale in comparison to a talentless professional portrait artist with years of experience. Your talent is what you are born with. Your skill is what you learn. Together, they are your total ability, your limitations. Likewise, your IQ is a rough measure of your potential intelligence. What else you have and what you do to build on it is what makes your actual intelligence.

So what are the other sides to your intelligence, the other things that contribute to how smart you can possibly get?

The first is commonly called “Creative Intelligence” or “Creativity”. The most correct term for it is “Latent Inhibition”, ie, how naturally inhibited and obedient you are. The higher the latent inhibition, the more likely you are to need rules, even instruction, before you dare act. The lower the latent inhibition, the more likely you are to do something on impulse or to break boundaries. Everyone needs both the ability to follow some sort of order, even if it’s just remembering the consequences of your actions, and the ability to act independently, even if it’s just weighing several rules or orders against each other. I have a theory that it is often a poor balance between IQ and LI that results in stranger or less adaptive behaviours, rather than low IQ causing all the trouble. Individual motivations and interests aside, someone with a below average IQ with above average LI will be just as law-abiding as someone with a high IQ and average LI and probably moreso than someone with above average IQ and below average LI.

The next is social learning. This could be in the form of empathy, sympathy, cooperativeness, etc. Basically, it’s your ability to learn from others without instruction. This is where a lot of people on the autism spectrum fall. They may have a high IQ and moderately low LI, but without the ability to infer from others and properly observe them, you can’t begin to learn. Social learning is the groundwork for all other forms of learning. This is how you integrate into your culture, develop an accent or a walk. You don’t study another person’s accent, but if you live with them it will merge with yours, either from empathy, cooperation or just acclimatization.

Finally comes education. If you just have IQ, LI and social learning as distinguishing elements of intelligence, we would be no different to most social animals. However we also have education. This comes in many forms, from schooling, to training, to immersion, to passing old wives tales around. Your education is what you have learned from others through instruction and your IQ, LI and social learning abilities will all reflect on how easily you can be educated. Therefore, the last factor is simply your personality and culture. Are you willing to be educated? Are you overly trusting, maybe not trusting enough? What will you focus on learning? What education do you have access to? What education do you need? Someone with a high IQ, high social learning, and low LI could easily avoid educating themselves, be taught the wrong thing or live in a society where certain matters are not essential to their lives. Therefore, you can have someone who is set up for high intelligence, who is wrong about many things due to cultural factors, obstinacy, lack of educational resources or emotional intensity.

Of course, a hard limit on intelligence is a hard limit. All things being equal, someone with an IQ of 120 is smarter than someone with an IQ of 70. Just as, all things being equal, a man with two legs runs faster than a man with only one. And of two people in a class, all being equal, the one with the higher IQ will be able to advance to a level where the one with a lower IQ gets stuck. It’s as simple as that.

But there is simply more to it than that in real life. All things aren’t equal, for starters. Someone may have dyslexia, synesthesia, psychopathy, nerve damage, autism, etc. And the cultural environment in which our education happens can shape us permanently, so that someone very bright is reluctant to leave the social norm, or someone very dim is in the right setting to learn harsh truths the bright person can’t. And, finally, probably most importantly, few people reach their full potential anyway. When the environment is at its harshest we are encouraged to develop our intelligence as far as possible, but we rarely have the means to become educated. When the environment is at its gentlest we are hand-held through life and discouraged from developing our highest intelligence, but we have the luxury of great education. And which matters more? Who knows. Both are highly adaptive strategies.

What does matter is IQ. Just not in the way people think it does.

TTFN and Happy Hunting.