This week saw the news of a 12-year-old girl achieving the highest possible score on a Mensa IQ test, with headlines announcing that she had scored higher than both Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. This feat of a perfect score is achieved by only 1% of those who sit the paper, according to Mensa, the society for people with high IQs, and means she joins two other British children who have so far attained the maximum score of 162 this year.
While these are unquestionably impressive achievements, is it really fair to be comparing them to the likes of Einstein and Hawking, and what does a high IQ score even mean?
First of all, it doesn’t help that there are different tests for those under 18 and those over. Mensa states that the differences in the tests are to adjust for “youth and inexperience or age and diminishing speed.” But considering that the highest possible score for younger participants on this particular test is 162, whereas their older counterparts can only get a maximum of 161, it seems a little unfair, to say the least.
Another thing people might want to consider before comparing someone’s IQ with Einstein's is that he never actually took the test. All the figures quoted – ranging from 150 to 190 and everything in between – are all estimates or extrapolations. And if anything, having children score higher than some of the greatest known minds surely goes to show that the figure isn’t everything.
In fact, some research suggests that IQ scores, while measuring a certain type of intelligence, are also partly a measure of a child’s motivation. Everyone might be instructed to try as hard as they can, but that doesn’t actually mean they do. A meta-analysis – a study looking at the results from many other papers and combing them to get an overall picture – found that as monetary incentives increase, so does the average score of IQ. In some cases, rewards of more than $10 had the effect of increasing an IQ score by 20 points.
The researchers suggest that in children who achieve high IQ scores, this increased motivation might help explain why those with the best scores often go on to achieve the best in life. They stress that intelligence is an important factor in getting a higher score, just probably not the only one. In addition, social and economic factors also likely play a role, which no doubt goes some way to explaining why people from some ethnic groups have been found to have lower average IQ scores. When these factors are controlled for, the differences in IQ between ethnic groups largely disappear.
You can learn about all the other reasons that science in skeptical about IQ tests in our feature here.
So while it is impressive for these young people to achieve such high scores, and no doubt, given the right support and environment, they have a good chance of going on to do great things, it’s always important to approach such headlines as “12-year-old aces Mensa IQ Test, beating scores of Einstein and Hawking” with a little caution.