News of 12-year-old Lydia Sebastian scoring 162—the top score—on a Mensa IQ test made headlines last week. People were astounded that a child had scored higher than both Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
While there’s actually no evidence that Einstein or Hawking ever took the Mensa IQ test, Sebastian’s score is still impressive—but not for the reason people think it is.
Without having had taken IQ tests, Hawking and Einstein were both considered to be brilliant. But if they had, would their scores have been just as high, or higher, than Sebastian’s? Probably not.
IQ tests aren’t a measure of someone’s intelligence; rather, they’re a measure of someone’s cognitive ability, like reading comprehension or vocabulary size. Ultimately, these scores aren’t an empirical, scientific fact; they’re as much influenced by society and culture—as are fashion trends. Someone like Sebastian has trained herself to think like the test. Einstein or Hawking, on the other hand, thought like a physicist.
We can attribute this disparity to the fact that intelligence is a nebulous concept. According to Joel Schneider, a psychologist at Illinois State University, intelligence really depends on what traits society values in a person.
“We use [intelligence] to describe people who are able to acquire useful knowledge, and who can solve consequential problems using some combination of logic, intuition, creativity, experience, and wisdom,” Schneider said during an interview for Scientific American. “[Do you] see what I just did there? I [just] tried to define intelligence with a bunch of terms that are just as vague as the thing I am trying to define [….] Terms like useful knowledge and consequential problems are abstractions that take on specific meanings only in specific cultural contexts.”
Intelligence might constitute different qualities for an engineer than for an athlete. An engineer would need to have an in-depth knowledge of math and physics. An athlete would have to have great kinesthetic sense—that is, have an acute knowledge of how certain parts of their body are moving in relation to other parts. In both cases, these skills can be honed over time, with practice.
People have to access the resources required to practice a skill before they can get better at it. However, consider a child who was brought up in a middle-class family and went to a good school. This environment is more likely to value strong cognitive abilities, and foster this kind of development through the societal normalization of going to school and then university. Conversely, children who are raised in poorer, more violent neighbourhoods aren’t going to have the same societal pressures—or the same kinds of opportunities—to do well in school or university. Intelligence for these kids won’t necessarily translate into better reading comprehension scores. Knowing how to do calculus probably won’t be a priority for a teenager who needs to work a part-time job in order to supplement their parents’ income.
In fact, research has shown that a person’s socioeconomic status has a huge impact on their IQ score. Eric Turkheimer, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, studied the tests scores of twins who came from a range of families. He measured both genetic variability between the twins and socioeconomic variability between families. Turkheimer’s results showed that for poorer families, environmental conditions had a greater impact on test scores than genetics did. For richer families, genes played a larger part in determining their test scores than the environment.
“IQ scores reflect some varying combination of differences in native ability and differences in opportunities,” Brink Lindsey explained in The Atlantic. “Among rich kids, good opportunities for developing the relevant cognitive skills are plentiful, so IQ differences are driven primarily by genetic factors. For less advantaged kids, though, test scores say more about the environmental deficits they face than they do about native ability.”
A 12-year-old getting the highest score on the Mensa IQ test is impressive. But it doesn’t mean that Lydia Sebastian is inherently a genius; rather, it’s a testament to the hard work and dedication she’s put in over her short life to hone her cognitive abilities. Consider the popular apocryphal quote:
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
This quote, which is often incorrectly attributed to Einstein, perfectly encapsulates that intelligence is as subjective as today’s society.