IQ might not be the best measure of intelligence

29 Dec

Moi wrote about IQ tests in After the Bell Curve: Research starts the conversation about IQ, again:

Cam Soucy has written an excellent summary of IQ tests for the Livestrong site in the article, What Is the Definition of IQ Test?


French psychologist Alfred Binet developed the the first IQ-style tests at the beginning of the 20th century. The first tests were designed only to assess the intelligence of children. The U.S. military relied on intelligence testing to assess and place recruits during World Wars I and II. Psychologist David Wechsler used the military IQ tests as a model in devising his own test in 1949. Today, a group of tests derived from Wechsler’s work are the most widely used IQ tests.

Download Free White Paper on assessment and teaching from CTB/McGraw-Hill


The fourth version of the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, the WISC-IV, was released in 2009. A companion test, the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, targets people 16 and older. Other frequently used IQ tests include the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, the Das-Naglieri Cognitive Assessment System and the Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children.


IQ tests commonly assess the taker’s logical reasoning, math ability, spatial-relations skills, short-term memory and problem-solving skills.


IQ tests originally were scored by dividing the subject’s “mental age,” as determined by which questions she answered correctly on the test, by her “chronological age,” her actual age in years, then multiplying that quotient by 100. For example, an 8-year-old child with a mental age of 12 would have an IQ of 125, with the calculation being 12/8 = 1.25, and 1.25 x 100 = 125. A person whose mental age precisely matched his actual age would have an IQ of 100, so a 100 IQ was defined as “average.”
Modern IQ tests no longer use such a formula. They simply compare a person’s test results with those of everyone else in the same age group, on a scale where 100 is defined as average intelligence.


Criticism of IQ tests focuses on the content of the tests–that is, the type of questions they ask–and their application. Such areas as vocabulary and “logic” can be strongly influenced by culture and socioeconomics. For example, consider a test that asks what word goes best with “cup”: saucer, plate or bowl. The test may intend “saucer” to be the correct answer. However, a test-taker who grew up in a home where tables weren’t set in a formal fashion might not know what a saucer is. He may be just as “intelligent” as the next person, but his score will suffer because of cultural factors. Authors of IQ tests are continually refining tests to address such concerns; some tests have removed verbal elements entirely.
Even test creators argue that the results are only one tool for assessing a person’s abilities, and that “intelligence” in a person is not a fixed quality, but changeable–even from day to day. In reality, however, people and institutions tend to put great weight on IQ scores. Students have been labeled “learning disabled” based on the outcome of IQ tests alone. As authors revise their tests, they also are revising their instructions to stress the tests’ limited application.

Daniel Willingham, cognitive scientist and a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His next book, “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education,” will be published in July. He is written an interesting summary of his latest IQ study for the Washington Post.

In IQ: Willingham on the newest thinking, Willingham makes the following comments:

The importance of the environment for IQ is established by the 12 to 18 point increase in IQ observed when children are adopted from working-class to middle-class homes. In most developed countries studied, gains on IQ tests have continued, and they are beginning in the developing world Sex differences in some aspects of intelligence are due partly to biological factors and partly to socialization factors. The IQ gap between blacks and whites in the United States has been reduced by 0.33 standard deviations in recent years.

Here is the citation and abstract of the work Willingham is commenting about:

Nisbett, R. E., Aronson, J., Blair, C., Dickens, W., Flynn, J., Halpern, D. F., & Turkheimer, E.

(2012, January 2). Intelligence: New Findings and Theoretical Developments. American Psychologist. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026699

We review new findings and new theoretical developmentsin the field of intelligence. New findings include the following:

(a) Heritability of IQ varies significantly by social class. (b) Almost no genetic polymorphisms have been discovered that are consistently associated with variation in IQ in the normal range. (c) Much has been learned about the biological underpinnings of intelligence. (d) “Crystallized” and “fluid” IQ are quite different aspects of intelligence at both the behavioral and biological levels. (e) The importance of the environment for IQ is established by the 12-point to 18-point increase in IQ when children are adopted from working-class to middle-class homes. (f) Even when improvements in IQ produced by the most effective early childhood interventions fail to persist, there can be very marked effects on academic achievement and life outcomes. (g) In most developed countries studied,gains on IQ tests have continued, and they are beginning in the developing world. (h) Sex differences in aspects of intelligence are due partly to identifiable biological factors and partly to socialization factors. (i) The IQ gap between Blacks and Whites has been reduced by 0.33 SD in recent years. We report theorizing concerning (a) the relationship between working memory and intelligence, (b) the apparent contradiction between strong heritability effects on IQ and strong secular effects on IQ, (c) whether a general intelligence factor could arise from initially largely independent cognitive skills, (d) the relation between self-regulation and cognitive skills, and (e) the effects of stress on intelligence.

IQ is not a simple concept and this newest research points to more questions than answers.

Michelle Castillo of CBS News reports about IQ in IQ scores not accurate marker of intelligence, study shows:

Could IQ scores be a false indicator of intelligence?

Researchers have determined in the largest online study on the intelligence quotient (IQ) that results from the test may not exactly show how smart someone is.

“When we looked at the data, the bottom line is the whole concept of IQ — or of you having a higher IQ than me — is a myth,” Dr. Adrian Owen, the study’s senior investigator and the Canada Excellence Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience and Imaging at the university’s Brain and Mind Institute said to the Toronto Star. “There is no such thing as a single measure of IQ or a measure of general intelligence.”

More than 100,000 participants joined the study and completed 12 online cognitive tests that examined memory, reasoning, attention and planning abilities. They were also asked about their background and lifestyle.

They found that there was not one single test or component that could accurately judge how well a person could perform mental and cognitive tasks. Instead, they determined there are at least three different components that make up intelligence or a “cognitive profile”: short-term memory, reasoning and a verbal component.

Scientists also scanned participants’ brains with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and saw that different cognitive abilities were related to different circuits in the brain, suggesting that the theory that different areas of the brain control certain abilities may be true.

Researchers also discovered that training one’s brain to help perform better cognitively did not help….

For some reason, people who played video games did better on reasoning and short-term memory portions of the test.

However, aging was associated with a decline on memory and reasoning abilities. Those who smoked did worse on short-term memory and verbal portions, while those with anxiety did badly on short-term memory test components.

“We have shown categorically that you cannot sum up the difference between people in terms of one number, and that is really what is important here,” Owen told the CBC…

The study was published in Neuron on Dec. 20.

Here is the citation:

Neuron, Volume 76, Issue 6, 1225-1237, 20 December 2012
Copyright © 2012 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Adam Hampshiresend email, Roger R. Highfield, Beth L. Parkin, Adrian M. OwenSee Affiliations

  • Highlights
  • We propose that human intelligence is composed of multiple independent components
  • Each behavioral component is associated with a distinct functional brain network
  • The higher-order “g” factor is an artifact of tasks recruiting multiple networks
  • The components of intelligence dissociate when correlated with demographic variables


What makes one person more intellectually able than another? Can the entire distribution of human intelligence be accounted for by just one general factor? Is intelligence supported by a single neural system? Here, we provide a perspective on human intelligence that takes into account how general abilities or “factors” reflect the functional organization of the brain. By comparing factor models of individual differences in performance with factor models of brain functional organization, we demonstrate that different components of intelligence have their analogs in distinct brain networks. Using simulations based on neuroimaging data, we show that the higher-order factor “g” is accounted for by cognitive tasks corecruiting multiple networks. Finally, we confirm the independence of these components of intelligence by dissociating them using questionnaire variables. We propose that intelligence is an emergent property of anatomically distinct cognitive systems, each of which has its own capacity.

The traditional way of looking at intelligence may be limited.

Sarah D. Sparks has written a good synopsis of the report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century in the Education Week article, Study: ’21st-Century Learning’ Demands Mix of Abilities:

The committee found these skills generally fall into three categories:

  • Cognitive skills, such as critical thinking and analytic reasoning;

  • Interpersonal skills, such as teamwork and complex communication; and

  • Intrapersonal skills, such as resiliency and conscientiousness (the latter of which has also been strongly associated with good career earnings and healthy lifestyles).

Stanford University education professor Linda Darling-Hammond, who was not part of the report committee, said developing common definitions of 21st-century skills is critical to current education policy discussions, such as around Common Core State Standards.

Unless we want to have just a lot of hand-waving on 21st-century skills,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said, “we need to get focused and purposeful on how to learn to teach and measure these skills, both in terms of research investments and in terms of the policies and practice that would allow us to develop and measure these skills.”

The National Research Council has published the report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century which looks at transferable knowledge and skills.

The goal is to recognize those who can contribute to society in a positive manner no matter what their raw IQ score happens to be.

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