Scott H Young

Why Your IQ Matters Less Than You Think


I remember the first and only time I got a D in a class. I was studying abroad in France, taking a French class to help me and the other foreign students adapt.

The classes were divided into twelve levels. Level one was for extreme beginners, who had no knowledge of French. Level twelve consisted of people who were, for the most part, already fluent. I must have tricked someone into believing I had moderately competent French, because they stuck me in level seven.

There, with only a couple months of informal self-study, I was in a class that mostly consisted of people who already had at least 2-3 years of French study in university under their belt. I was definitely the weakest student in the class.

I remember the frustration of my teacher. I would make basic errors, she would prompt me to think of what I had done wrong. I would draw a blank and she would exasperatedly explain a rule I had never heard of.

When the final exam came, all the groups were merged, everyone wrote the same test and were graded to the same curve. I don’t blame the test, but it was perhaps a bit unsurprising that I ended up with a ‘D’ given I was writing against those who were fluent before they arrived in France.

From Inauspicious Beginnings…

Despite this bumpy start, I did learn French. In fact, after six months (three months after my lousy exam performance) Benny Lewis was impressed enough with my French after spending some time with me in Paris, to include me as a case study in his book.

After I left France, I continued my French self-education further. I dated French girls, read Verne and Dumas in their original words and even went back to Paris for a month where I was able to live my life in French without any obstacles.

Looking back, I’m so grateful I stuck it through. In retrospect, my slowness in French had nothing to due with my innate intelligence or that I didn’t have a “language gene” but simply because I was less prepared than the other students. They came in with a stronger foundation than I did, so while they built their towers, I was still digging the base.

I think about that experience a lot. In French, I felt like the dumb kid. Reconciling that the others had more practice than me was a hard thing to do when I saw them breezing through topics that gave me difficulty. Had it not been for my previous successes with learning, which gifted me the confidence and stubbornness to grind on, I would probably not speak French today.

“What if I’m not smart enough?”

Having had that experience it also showed me how easy it is for students to believe this about themselves. The student taking the intro computer programming class is discouraged because all his peers have written code since they were twelve. The language learner who only hears noise, and only gets criticized when trying to speak. The biology student oppressed by terminology that classmates memorize effortlessly.

If you managed to restrict the world so everyone has exactly the same prior knowledge and study, would intelligence matter? What happens if we equalized everyone for motivation, confidence and self-discipline? How much would it matter then?

Intelligence certainly has an impact. If in our hypothetical world, some students would learn faster than others, perhaps because their nerves have a bit more mylenation, sending electrical impulses a bit faster. Perhaps their hippocampus is a little more efficient at storing those semantic memories, or maybe they have a slightly higher working memory capacity, allowing them to process a couple more chunks at a time.

However we never view life in a laboratory where such inequalities are omitted. In reality, there are always differences in prior skill (sometimes enormous ones). There are always differences in motivation, confidence and self-discipline. There are always differences in studying habits and technique.

Reality is like my French classroom. I didn’t see every individual advantage, I just saw the aggregate. The aggregate said I was weak, but it didn’t tell me why.

The Problem with IQ

I get many emails from students worried that their IQ isn’t high enough to succeed in a particular subject. They are getting feedback from the aggregated factors of intelligence, prior knowledge and habits which tells them they’re weak. From this aggregated feedback, they blame their IQ.

I profoundly disagree with this sentiment for two reasons. First, the faith they put in IQ tests is misleading and dangerous. Second, even if there is some truth in the number, holding that belief is demonstrably bad for your success (more on that research in a bit).

My first critique is with how people interpret IQ tests. A big part of the problem is that statistics isn’t intuitive and so it is very easy to take a perfectly logical conclusion and twist it into one that isn’t.

The first critique is that people believe IQ tests, in general, measure you innate intelligence, removed from all your prior experiences and knowledge. They believe that IQ truly signals the advantage you would have in the hypothetical situation I gave earlier, where all knowledge, motivation, confidence and discipline were equalized.

This isn’t the case. Most tests measure both fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is closer to what people think they mean when they say IQ, being the ability to solve novel problems. But crystallized intelligence, which depends crucially on prior knowledge, is mixed in on many tests.

Confidence and self-expectations are also something that can’t be eliminated from the test. Indeed, some clever experiments show that when you prime someone with a stereotype of poor performance on a test, they actually do worse. Their innate abilities didn’t change, you just temporarily dinged their confidence and they performed accordingly.

I don’t think IQ tests are worthless. However, people untrained in statistics often give the number far more power than it deserves. If I scored 95% on a history test, I wouldn’t say my History Quotient is 95. That would be ridiculous. Why then do we hold up our IQ scores as if they were any more a part of who we are?

The IQ test argument is a minor one, however, because most people who worry about their IQ have never taken an IQ test. Instead they use IQ as a synonym for inherited intelligence, another troubling excuse.

Is Intelligence all in Your Genes?

Studies put the heritability of intelligence at around 50-85%. At first, this might seem hopeless. After all, if most of your smarts come from birth, then there’s nothing you can do, so you might as well give up.

Looking a bit more deeply, however, the numbers have a very bizarre pattern. Heritability increases with age. Your genes determine as little as 20% of your intelligence in infancy, 40% in middle school and as much as 80% in adulthood. What could possibly explain that having had more experiences makes your intelligence more dependent on your genes?

There’s a simple possible explanation: young people who are a little smarter get rewarded for learning, so they do more of it. Those who were punished for making slightly more mistakes get discouraged, and remove themselves from cognitively stretching activities. The gap widens, heritability explains more of the difference, but the reason is not that intelligence is fixed, but that it grows.

This is called the Matthew Effect for the biblical phrase from the Book of Matthew: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken even that which he hath.” The rich get richer, the smart get smarter.

But, if the smart get smarter, that also necessarily implies that getting smarter is possible. People see statistics like this and believe that high heritability necessarily implies that intelligence is fixed. It might, however, imply just the opposite.

What Attitude Should You Have?

All of this examination of IQ and genes isn’t to paint a black-and-white picture. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Innate, fixed ability matters, but all the other things you can control matter a lot too. Where that line is eventually settled upon, I’ll leave to the researchers investigating such questions.

What matters to you is what attitude should you have. Should you believe that your ability to learn in a particular domain is fixed, a destined fate of your genes or IQ? Or should you believe that you can improve?

Interestingly, there’s research on this too. Carol Dweck has studied people across many dimensions on whether they have what she terms a “fixed mindset” or a “growth mindset”. The difference is striking—those that follow a growth mindset outperform those with a fixed mindset in almost every case.

What’s more, this mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Those who believe their abilities are innate and rigid tend to stay that way. Those who think they can grow and improve do that too. Perhaps that line researchers are trying to draw depends a lot on which way you choose to look at it.

Innate Talent Matters, Just Not as Much as You Think

People have a hard time thinking in shades of grey. So, I’ll bet there will be a half-dozen comments from people arguing that innate advantages do exist in some form, or that intelligence does have some fixed components.

Those people are missing the point. In reality you never approach the laboratory setting. There are always differences in prior knowledge, confidence and technique. Not to mention that even when we do detect differences because of IQ or heritability, that doesn’t imply that those differences are fixed.

For the majority of students (eliminating the bottom 5% of extreme disability and the top 1% of genius) what matters is what they choose to focus on. I say, focus on growth. Focus on the fact that you can learn new things every day which boosts your prior knowledge, a huge part of your overall intelligence. Focus on building confidence through small goals. Remember that you can learn anything anyone else can, and ignore the people who say it’s impossible for you.


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22 Responses to “Why Your IQ Matters Less Than You Think”

  1. J says:

    I always say that the IQ number is best interpreted as your top speed. Sure, 175 is great, but nothing stops you from getting there at 120 – it will just take a bit longer.

    It also removes all the worries that you’re not smart enough, need to study more before doing what you want, etc.

  2. Jay Cross says:

    In intelligence as in life generally, we need to ignore what we cannot change and change what we can. That could be something like substituting for IQ an attribute that you DO possess (charisma, appearance, musical or athletic talent, etc.) or, as Scott pointed out, adopting a growth mindset toward increasing the 15%-50% of your IQ that is not heritable.

    As one of my favorite writers says, you can find ways to win or find excuses to lose. Don’t go to your high school reunion only to find that people who could’ve made an even longer list of excuses than you found ways to win instead! :)

  3. Mathieu says:

    Kudos for mentioning that intelligence is not fixed and can be improved like any other skills (even if its heritability was 100%). It’s too bad many people (in my experience) don’t realize the “transformative” power of effective (deliberate) practice, especially given the importance of a growth mind set…

    Btw, I just discovered your blog a few days ago when googling ‘Talent Myth’ and came across this post (http://www.scotthyoung.com/blog/2007/02/20/the-myth-of-talent/).

    Keep up the good work!
    Mathieu

  4. Jessa says:

    Are there ways to cultivate the “growth” mindset? I’ve encountered Dweck’s dustibction before, but merely resolving to think in terms of growth rather than fixed ability just didn’t work for me. I guess this is a general problem with habit-formation.

  5. Dorothy Allen says:

    Scott, I’m so glad you posted this blog today. I just read the Wired article about Zhao Bowen trying to crack the genetics of genius. It was a downer. Felt like Gattaca but for real. This makes me feel much better. Thank you!

  6. Paulo Andrade says:

    I’ve just watched a lecture by Howard Gardner, on Youtube, named “Multiple Intelligences”

    Howard arguments against the IQ concept are very strong – Some savant people with very low IQ can do fantastic things because they have a very specialized brain.

    I highly reccomend a look at the Gardner’s ideas.

    Tks Scott,

  7. Siddharth says:

    Here is an excellent commentary on the value and limitations of IQ by James Flynn:http://www.cato-unbound.org/2007/11/05/james-r-flynn/shattering-intelligence-implications-education-interventions

  8. Andreas says:

    I agree Steven. Thanks for pointing this out.

  9. N says:

    Good article :) It´s deliberate practise, habitual studying and applying the knowledge and skils. Thats how anyone can become a good student and a top performer.

    Thanks for the motivation.

    Cheers N

  10. Keri Peardon says:

    In regards to the heritability of intelligence, can you not draw the conclusion that nurture, more than nature, determines intelligence?

    I knew a couple of kids who were fairly smart–the little girl especially–but their mother was borderline mentally incompetent. They grew up in poverty, with no father, living off welfare. The boy wanted to be a minister or go into the military, and he could have probably made it, except that his mother didn’t encourage him to study. Instead, he got a girl pregnant while he was still a teenager and dropped out of school. When his girlfriend’s parents threw him out of the house when he turned 18 (and his Social Security checks ended), he ended up running away to another state to avoid child support. He couldn’t get a job because he didn’t even have a GED and he ended up homeless for a while. His sister, who was smarter, kept getting held back in school because her mother didn’t make her go. I can’t remember if she flunked out or finally managed to graduate with a special diploma. There was no reason on God’s green earth why that child should have had to graduate with a special diploma–or not graduate at all. It’s just that her mother didn’t care if she got an education or not. Instead, she encouraged her to get pregnant so they could get some more income coming into the house.

    Both of those children were more intelligent than their mother, but due to her lack of even basic parental skills, she dragged them down to her level.

    Contrast: My mother always told me that I was smarter than her, and she encouraged me to excel in school. When my teachers told her that I really needed to go to a private high school, she sent me to one. Not going to college was not an option. Not graduating from college was not an option. It was a lot of pressure at times, but I entered adulthood with no illegitimate children and I got a decent job to support myself.

    My father is an intelligent man, albeit with no formal education past high school. So you could say I inherited my intelligence from him, rather than my mother, so that proves the statistic. But, had my mother not encouraged me to study and make good grades and better myself, then my intelligence level would have gone down because it would not have been exercised and I wouldn’t have learned how to think.

    This is why teachers are always harping on the need for parental involvement in a child’s education. Even innate ability can be squandered; even lackluster talent can be improved.

  11. John Kim says:

    I am going to be a High school senior this year. As I read the article, I substituted ‘IQ tests’ with ‘SAT tests’. Among Korean Americans, most of us are rooted in tests scores as the one way to success, and many youth, including mysel, attend SAT summer school by droves, hoping that the course itself will increase our score.

    After a test per week for 7 weeks, I’ve seen many that are subpar in ability but a few rising stars, two of whom are younger than me. Perhaps, they have better IQ than I can ever dream of, but I choose not to be discouraged. I see them as people whose skill level I hope to achieve, even if it takes weeks, not people to compete against. I respect myself for my limitations and strive to be better without too much pressure. Moreover, test scores is just one snapshot of my life and can’t fully define my person.

    With this in mind, my summer has been a very pleasant one, balancing my necessities with my interests.

  12. Creativity and willingness to venture into the unknown > Rote IQ tests.

  13. Joseph says:

    I think that there has been too large of an emphasis placed on IQ. To me, IQ is a seemingly arbitrary number that is assigned to people to determine ones superiority/inferiority relative to another. Also, I think that a persons time spent in mentally challenging situations (environment) has a significant influence on their IQ. For example, mathematicians, College professors, and doctors have the highest general IQ.

    When it pertains to academic achievement, I think that self-discipline trumps IQ.

  14. Scott Young says:

    Jay,

    Part of the confusion is about what “heritability” means. It doesn’t, as one would assume, mean “fixed” which is what most non-psychologists actually care about. Similarly, the other non-heritable component of intelligence doesn’t necessarily mean mutable (perhaps childhood conditions fix certain intellectual abilities?).

    What % is fixed and what % is changeable isn’t actually known. Given that uncertainty, I’d bias my beliefs towards mutability of intelligence since that attitude seems to have a positive advantage on its own.

    Keri,

    What heritability tests say is that, now, nature (not nurture) explains 50-85% of the difference in IQ over the examined population.

    The problem is that psychologists and lay people are usually interested in different questions. Psychologists want to know what explains the difference in intelligence in the current population. Lay people want to know which % of intelligence is fixed. The former can be evaluated easily, while the latter is much harder to assess.

    Jessa,

    A growth mindset means you agree and believe in the thesis of this article–that intelligence is not fixed, but something that you can change. Many people do not believe it and instead worry that intelligence is rigid and not something you can put effort in to change (as if it were like foot size, for example).

    Dweck’s research shows that those who believe that intelligence isn’t fixed outperform those who do. So it makes sense to cultivate this belief regardless of the actual truth of the situation.

    -Scott

  15. Ahmed says:

    Hi scot
    .I liked your story. I also like those guys who don’t give up easily. This certain issue is my daily argument while doing my job as a teacher of English. Millions of people have the same situation that you had when you were struggling to find your way to master French. They find themselves obliged to face some challenges which they are not adequately prepared for. In the beginning they accuse themselves and they end up accusing English itself while the reality is that they don’t have the same advantages of the others like having the ability to speak and listen to native speakers or finding a teacher who can help them properly through real English material. Of course the innate intelligence matters .It decides the starting point and also your pace but when I look around and search for the most successful persons I come across another different criterion which is momentum by which I mean determination and perseverance. My modest experience tells everyday that this characteristic makes the difference of the others are level .without it you couldn’t have proceeded with your study despite your unfavoured beginning

  16. John says:

    Thank you Scott for this post.

    In my opinion this was your best post yet.

    I really appreciate you exposing your initial incompetency in French. I have followed your MIT Challenge and participated in Learning on Steroids and to see that even the Great Scott Young struggles sometimes inspired me.

    Often when we see word-class athletes or students we assume their success comes from innate talent when in reality they have worked hard to become the best in their field.

  17. sadkan says:

    hey young, really top notch stuff

    can you tell us how to learn law, i have this international law and it has like 500 sections, i know i am putting it in the wrong article, but i have always crammed law. However i just dont wanna go through all again coze i have some other subjects to take care of

    so can you write something on it?

    thanks

  18. On changing the “fixed mindset”, here’s a useful resource:

    http://mindsetonline.com/changeyourmindset/firststeps/index.html

    To implement these suggestions, I have created a brief Anki deck, which I’ve made public here:

    https://ankiweb.net/shared/info/3484058259

  19. Jonah says:

    I took this IQ test when I was 12 because I was having trouble. I didn’t try in school, I wanted to be average. I was given the IQ test and it was 125, not bad, not great either. But it was meant for a 17 year old! Thats about 185, I think. My mom is very intelligent, and so is my dad. But my grandma was about the same as me when she was my age…. Do I get it from my grandma, or is it a combination of my mom and dad?

  20. Cristian says:

    Awesome article! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!
    Still on the topic I recommend anyone interested to watch this video from the World Science Festival http://worldsciencefestival.com/videos/beautiful_minds_the_enigma_of_genius

  21. Geraldine says:

    Thank you Scott, I couldn’t agree more with you. I think the IQ value nowadays is highly overrated, people often don’t know that the IQ test originally was developed by Binet to predict the performance of children in school and to identify those children who might need help to manage the curriculum. It was never intended to measure a person’s ability to perform in life generally. The emphasis some people put on the IQ value is absurd and in fact there are today so many studies that show that other factors like self disipline, frustration tolerance, or empathy have a much greater influence on life and career success than the IQ value alone.
    Furthermore, the IQ is not an exact measure, it can vary by as much as 20 percent points depending on daily form, whether you take the test before or after summer break, whether you are confident of yourself or not, whether you are stress resistant or not, and so on.
    Apart from that, people often don’t realise that IQ is a relative measure and thereby can be manipulated by the designer of the test in any direction she wants. An example: if a group of people with attribute A has a slight advantage in solving spacial problems and a group of people with attribute B has a slight advantage in solving math problems, it’s easy to manipulate the test so that persons with attribute B seem smarter than persons with attribute A by putting a higher weight on math problems.

    So yes, I couldn’t agree more with you, it’s time we move on and teach people that everybody has the possibility to do well in life and should stretch to reach his or her potential. Je suis complètment d’accord avec toi ;) .

  22. The Truth Hurts Losers says:

    The author’s title is, “Why your IQ matters less than you think,” yet nearly every subheading contains qualifiers like, “Innate talent matters” or “fixed intelligence is important.” Cognitive dissonance par excellance.

    More hilarious is the part where the “smart can get smarter.” Well what happens if you’re dumb? That makes iq much more valuable than if it was purely innate.

    A person would have to be stupid to read this article and come away with hope that their average/sub-par intelligence genetics is going to result in any happiness or success in their life. A more reasonable assumption would be that assisted suicide should be provided free of charge to those unable to enjoy the fruits that intelligence endows upon those most fit to enjoy life. Intelligence is destiny regardless of the author’s attempt to reframe this objective assessment of reality.

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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