Is It Useful to Tell a Child He Has a High IQ?

I have a higher-than-normal (self-tested) IQ, but I accept that there are many things that I am just not good at. Many people I know cannot accept that there are some things that they are just not good at. Or are they telling themselves the lie, thinking it will make them better at these things? Is it a confidence booster? Does believing it make it so? Positive thinking can only go so far. Even if I were to delude myself into believing that I am 6′ tall, I am still only 5’4″. If we’re referring to mental skills that we’re not good at (instead of physical characteristics that we can’t change, such as being taller), even then there is a limit to what someone is able to learn (possibly related to IQ). Unless you have physical problems with your brain/nerve structure, you have the ability to learn almost anything, limited only by the time you might need to learn it. You might just learn in a different way than the person sitting next to you in class.

For example, when I was in high school, girls were not expected to be “good at” math. Not that we shouldn’t care about math, but that we couldn’t be good at it! We were supposed to be better at Language Arts than the boys. All but one of the math teachers in my high school were men. I think if I had more support and more of a “belief” that I was capable of doing advanced math in high school, I probably would have tried harder. But why bother when everyone tells you it can’t be done? I might as well have tried to be taller.

When I went back to college in my 30s, I started all over again with math: Fundamentals of Algebra, College Algebra, Precalculus (trigonometry), and then Calculus. I was careful to choose female instructors for the algebra classes, because I think it’s true that women and men learn differently, and because a female math professor isn’t going to think (consciously or unconsciously) that I can’t do it simply because I’m female. I got As in Algebra. Precalculus was a summer class and only had a male instructor available. I got a B, but only because he allowed us to write formulas on a 5″x7″ index card and use it on the exams–otherwise, it would have been worse. In Calculus, I asked if we could use the index card, but no, we were to memorize the formulas. I got a C. Barely. The next semester, in Calculus II, I realized I was in way over my head and dropped the class, changed majors so that I didn’t need any more math, and graduated with a BA in Communication instead of a BS in Engineering, proving the stereotype true, once again.

I could go back to school and start over again with precalculus, but I really have no incentive to do so. Instead I’ve convinced myself that “I’m just not good at trigonometry.” And if I ever need one of those formulas, I have books and Google to help me out. I knew how to use the formulas, I just couldn’t remember them. (Yet I rememberl the formula for how to find the reactive capacitance of a parallel circuit, which I learned in 1978: XL = 2πfL.) The brain is such an odd, complex thing. So my point is that with time and practice, I did get better at math–just not as good as I needed to be to do advanced calculus in my head, and I wasn’t willing to keep trying until I got it right.

The average IQ is 100. That’s just the number that was chosen when they came up with the theory of IQ. People of less-than-average intelligence have an IQ lower than 100; people with a higher-than-average intelligence have an IQ higher than 100, the classic bell curve. 95% of the population scores between 70 and 130. 98% are below 131. MDs and PhDs tend to test around 125; college (Bachelor/Master level) graduates, around 112-115; factory workers, truck drivers, high school graduates, around 90-95. (Which tells me that education has a bit to do with how well you score on an IQ test.) Mensa requires a supervised test score at the 98th percentile–1 person out of 50. The 98th-percentile score under these conditions is 131.

This blog http://onemansblog.com/2007/11/08/the-massive-list-of-genius-people-with-the-highest-iq/ provides a list of people with the highest IQ (and a good, layman’s description of what IQ is). When you see how many people he lists, you might start to think that having an above-genius-level IQ is common. It’s not. Note the ones that he says have a “verified” high IQ versus an “alleged” high IQ, such as “Author Marilyn Vos Savant has a verified IQ of 186” and “Actress Sharon Stone is alleged to have an IQ of 154.”

In contrast to the blog article, according to the references below, “The highest reported standard score for most IQ tests is IQ 160, approximately the 99.997th percentile. IQ scores above this level are dubious as there are insufficient normative cases upon which to base a statistically justified rank-ordering.”

  • Hunt, Earl (2011). Human Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 8. ISBN 978-0-521-70781-7. Lay summary (28 April 2013).
  • Perleth, Christoph; Schatz, Tanja; Mönks, Franz J. (2000). “Early Identification of High Ability”. In Heller, Kurt A.; Mönks, Franz J.; Sternberg, Robert J.; Subotnik, Rena F. International Handbook of Giftedness and Talent (2nd ed.). Amsterdam: Pergamon. p. 301. ISBN 978-0-08-043796-5. Lay summary (6 October 2013). “norm tables that provide you with such extreme values are constructed on the basis of random extrapolation and smoothing but not on the basis of empirical data of representative samples.”
  • Urbina, Susana (2011). “Chapter 2: Tests of Intelligence”. In Sternberg, Robert J.; Kaufman, Scott Barry. The Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 20–38. ISBN 9780521739115. Lay summary (9 February 2012). “[Curve-fitting] is just one of the reasons to be suspicious of reported IQ scores much higher than 160.

Seems as though the only valid IQ test would be around 6 years of age, after the brain has developed and before a lot of education. Or maybe at high school graduation. But then they say that the risk center of a man’s brain is not fully developed until after age 25, so maybe after college would be a better time to test men. Unless you didn’t go to college. Or high school. I suspect IQ scores have some education bias.

Is it useful to tell a child that he has a high IQ? Even if he doesn’t? If you frequently tell your child how smart, how handsome, how important he is, when he goes out into the world, he may be very, very confused and disappointed when the rest of the world doesn’t share your opinions.