What is IQ?

Published on: 24 Jan 2020
Clinically Reviewed by Reshawna Chapple, PhD, LCSW
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Since we were kids, most of us have thought of IQ tests as the be-all, end-all way to measure a person’s intelligence. You may have even been given an IQ test at some point. Perhaps your IQ score is a source of pride; maybe it’s a source of shame. Whatever the case is, IQ tests are still generally thought of as a respected and reliable method to measure a person’s intelligence.

Although many of us think of IQ tests in this exalted way, we may not be entirely clear about what these tests measure, what exactly the scores mean, and what the evidence says about their validity as tests of intelligence. Ready to take a look?

History Of IQ

IQ tests, or intelligence quotient tests, are the mastermind of Alfred Binet, who created the first IQ test in 1904 in an effort to measure the intelligence of French school children. Binet worked at the behest of The French Ministry of Education, which wanted to develop a test to help identify French school students who had mental deficits and learning disabilities.

These first IQ tests, which are still used in some form today, measured the intellectual development of a child in comparison to peers of the same age. Binet found that some children had a mental age that was more advanced than their peers, others seemed on par or average, and others fell below average.

Binet never intended his test to be the sweeping measure of intelligence that it is viewed today. As the American Psychological Association (APA) describes, “Binet equated intelligence with common sense.” Further, “Binet also believed that intelligence is a combination of many skills — skills that are shaped heavily by the environment.”

IQ Testing Today

These days, IQ tests, usually administered by psychologists, are still used frequently in educational settings to identify students who have special needs or to identify students who are highly gifted. Colleges and universities often administer the tests to their entering students. Some companies use the test as part of their hiring process. Even the U.S. military uses an IQ-type test to determine eligibility for assignments and job placements.

There are many IQ tests used today, including a version of Alfred Binet’s original test called the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales. Other commonly used tests include:

  • The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale for Adults
  • The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children
  • Wechsler Individual Achievement Test
  • The Kaufman Assessment Battery for Children
  • The Cognitive Assessment System
  • Woodcock Johnson III Tests of Cognitive Disabilities
  • Universal Nonverbal Intelligence
  • Differential Ability Scales
  • Peabody Individual Achievement Test

What IQ Measures and How It’s Calculated

Simply put, IQ measures a person’s mental intelligence, or what is referred to as your “fluid and crystallized intelligence.” IQ tests zero in on your reasoning and problem solving skills, and include visual, mathematical, and linguistic elements. They also challenge your ability to remember information and process it quickly.

The first IQ tests developed by Alfred Binet were calculated by dividing your “mental age” score by your chronological age. This number was then multiplied by 100. Current tests now mostly use the “deviation IQ” method, where your score on the test is compared to the average, or mean score.

The mean score on most IQ tests is 100, and the majority of people tested (more than two thirds) fall within 15 points of this average score. In general, IQ scores are interpreted as follows: scores below 70 may indicate a mental disability, scores in the 100 range indicate average intelligence; and scores over 130 indicate “genius” status.

Is IQ The Best Way To Measure Intelligence?

Some researchers argue that the IQ tests simply measure how well an individual is able to perform on the test and how motivated they are to succeed. Although many believe that our intelligence is an inborn, genetic trait, others argue that our environment has tremendous influence as well. For example, people who are given fewer educational or socioeconomic opportunities might not score as well on IQ tests are those who have been afforded those privileges.

Others emphasize that IQ doesn’t tell you about a person’s ability to succeed in life — i.e., get an education, get a job, or become a productive member of society. Although some people with “genius” IQs do go on to win Nobel Prizes and make groundbreaking discoveries, many lead average lives. Some even struggle to function successfully. On the flip side, many people who have average scores on IQ tests go on to have wonderfully successful and thriving lives.

There Is More To Intelligence Than IQ

While writing this article, I personally went and took an online IQ test. Or rather, I attempted to do so. I have a college degree and a Master’s degree in English. I taught college for five years, and I have published two books and hundreds of journalistic articles. I could not get through the first few questions of the test.

I think that if I were to really buckle down and try, I might be able to finish the test with an average score, but the test was clearly testing my weaknesses: numbers and logical reasoning. And yet, by many traditional markers I am someone who is very intelligent and successful.

It’s important to remember that there is more to intelligence than logistical thinking and your ability to problem solve mathematical and linguistic conundrums. And remember, creative abilities, “outside the box” thinking, and the fundamental qualities of emotional intelligence are not measured by an IQ test.

I think the bottom line is that it’s vital to take tests like these with a grain of salt, understand in what ways they may have value — and most of all, avoid the temptation of comparing yourself to others. We are all geniuses in our own way, high IQ or not.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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