Tuesday, 14 October 2008

IQ tests: what do they really measure?

For the twelve years of my school life I was an IQ guinea pig. Every year like clockwork I was called out of class and subjected to a battery of tests that usually lasted the whole day. Earlier on, other pupils did them with me; in my last three years of high school I was the only person tested.

The man who ran these annual questionnaires was a stick-insect-like creature who smelled of laundry left too long in a closed hamper and had the interpersonal skills of a wet vest. Much, much later I learnt – when I was forced into a combative interview with him for refusing to take science as a matric subject – that he was the Education Department’s psychologist. Who woulda thought?

As was the way in those days, I never asked why I had to repeatedly do the tests or what they were for, much less what my results were. In fact, it was impressed upon me that my IQ score was highly confidential – particularly from me.

About 15 years ago I decided to take an independent IQ test to satisfy my own curiosity. I booked an appointment with Mensa (the organisation for extraordinarily clever people) and the night before the test I went out with friends and drank tequila until 5am. (This wasn’t by way of preparation; it was purely circumstantial.) So I wrote the test in a post-party haze, and squandered quite a bit of time by rushing outside periodically to puke in the shrubbery.

Nonetheless, clearly I am extraordinarily clever, because Mensa not only passed me with flying colours, but harassed me for several months afterwards to become a dues-paying member. (My decision not to join was vindicated some years later when I was invited by an actual Mensa member to attend a club quiz night at a local pub as a guest. Woefully little drinking got done, the competition was fierce practically to the point of fisticuffs, and there was no dancing afterwards. It was the least fun I’ve ever had in the company of alcohol.)

Tonight I decided to take advantage of the ether age by attempting some of the many online IQ tests available to those with a modem and time on their hands.

I did three separate tests. All were offered *free!!* and guaranteed *immediate results!*.

With awful Internet predictability, all wanted me to sign on after I’d completed the tests and pay the low-low-never-to-be-repeated price of $9.95 to find out what my IQ actually is. (Ah, I get it: the tests are free, the results are not. Not clever enough to work that one out, me.) Some also offered *a comprehensive analysis of your strengths and weaknesses!* and *a full breakdown of your mental faculties!* (which, frankly, I can do well enough on my own with a bottle of tequila).

So I am still no wiser as to the alacrity or otherwise of my grey matter. And anyway, I can’t really see how answering questions like ‘If John is taller than Jack, and Mary has a cousin in Indianapolis, how many apples does Sophie have left in her basket?’ can measure intelligence. I have friends who can barely find their own bottoms in the dark with both hands, yet are geniuses when it comes to design, music, horticulture, philosophy, animals, languages, etc.

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