Psychology and the relevance of IQ testing in today’s world

January 5, 2021

Tamsin Copans

When I was young, I had a friend at school who was 18 months older than all the other children in her class. She had been held back based on learning disabilities, that include dyslexia. Her struggles to learn at school, which seemed to have been confirmed by a standard IQ test, had labelled her as below average.

The value of art in education

I had the privilege of sitting next to her in art class. She was a master of the pen, paint and charcoal. Her pictures drew you in and then spat you out. They were filled with emotive lines, curves and pointillism. I always had a sense of her insecurities at school. In art class she was different. She was chatty, curious and confident.

She left school at 16 and went to work on her family’s farm in Oranjezicht, Orange Free State in South Africa, as though this was always to be her fate. The diagnosis seemed to have eradicated any hope of her ever pursuing an academic career, let alone using her amazing talent. Over the years, I always wondered what happened to her, whether she had taken her artistic talents further, or whether she had succumbed to a school system that celebrated academia over art and creativity.

These questions stayed with me for many years. Finally, after I had embarked on my psychology degree, they were again exposed following the eruption of a debate. Although, I wasn’t aware of my school friend’s history or circumstances, I do know she wore that label like a scarlet letter, never daring to speak up or propel herself further in any other class. I always wondered whether half her problem was just that she thought she was unintelligent and incapable. And yet it seemed like all those labels just disappeared in the art room

These tests should empower individuals, yet their flipside is that they also narrow job options as results can both expand and contract an individual’s possibilities, all in one go.

A different end to the same story

Many years later, whilst lazily glancing at books on a coffee table, I was attracted to a beautiful leather tome. The cover was breathtaking but what was more breathtaking was the title clearly embossed and written in a beautiful copper plate script, Anika – in the eye of the beholder. I opened the book to find thin vellum sheets, protecting exquisitely crafted individual pen and ink etchings. Anika worked on the farm before her family realized that milking cows or growing vegetables was never going to be her skill set or her heart’s passion.

Many stressful months passed. Eventually her parents took her to see a family friend where she was exposed to, once again, more tests! Same diagnosis of dyslexia and learning disabilities. The prognosis being that she would always have problems with anything that required academic skills.

However, this time round, Anika was evaluated by a specialist skills psychologist, who was able to identify that Anika’s visual perception skills were unusually well developed. Her use of color was exceptionally pleasing and her mastery of pen, paint and brush were astounding, especially for someone with her challenged abilities.

IQ tests can result in labels and little boxes

Although, the rest of the story is history, it made me aware of how individuals are who we actually want them to be, and how we choose to see them. We tuck them into a little box and give them a label. But, so often this is not who they actually are.

This story of someone who lacks positive self-image and confidence illustrates the challenges psychologists face. Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, testing sits center stage as the protagonist that decides on and labels an individual’s potential. This would work beautifully if all test subjects also sat center stage.

I must confess that, although I knew the meaning of IQ, the actual application was much more complex than I had imagined before I started my degree. IQ testing plays a pivotal role in our society. Why? The ability to predict an individual’s potential for success in numerous cognitive fields has meant that testing has gained huge popularity.

IQ tests can influence the selection of candidates for primary and secondary schools, and admission to college and university courses. Choosing new employees has become easier with the implementation of IQ testing. These tests should empower individuals, yet their flipside is that they also narrow job options as results can both expand and contract an individual’s possibilities, all in one go.

It seems that based on IQ, individuals are placed into little boxes and put on a shelf where all the little boxes look just the same. This, of course, makes IQ testing economically viable by embracing economy of scale which is good for businesses, governments, armed forces, commerce and much more. For psychologists the tests act as a general guide against the “norm” using a statistical approach based on the scientific evidence.

Simply, IQ is the measure of one’s ability to comprehend, combine and use information constructively. Current IQ testing is based on the work of Binet and Simon, French psychologists who developed the assessments at the beginning of the 20th century. Binet had originally intended that IQ tests be used to assist those children in schools who were considered to be at risk. Adult testing followed based on the original tests and expanded to match adult standards.

A high IQ does not necessarily mean automatic success with the current testing systems. More importantly a low IQ does not mean someone is tagged as a failure, misfit or a social disaster.

Where is your IQ located?

As a child, were you encouraged to take an IQ test or entrance exam to be accepted into a school or college? Did you take speed tests, enjoy mental arithmetic challenges, compete in general knowledge teams? Did you play sports, pound athletic tracks, camp out? Did you learn kung fu, jujitsu, meditation? Or did you learn to play the guitar, sing in a choir or march in a brass band? All of these activities tap into your IQ. All are very different activities requiring different skill sets to allow you to play, enjoy and compete successfully. Verbal skills, nonverbal skills, perceptual reasoning and processing speed are all being put to the test.

It is important to remember that the idea of the existence of our IQ is virtual. There is no section in the brain that houses IQ. Various parts of the brain have been identified as controlling different elements of the body. The temporal cortex controls emotions, verbal linguistic intelligence, and the ability to use words for communication, which is located in the Broca’s area on the left side of the brain.

The assumption that intelligence is normally distributed in the brain is integral to the design of IQ tests, and has been accepted by psychologists and the scientific community at large. These communities also recognize that there are several intelligence streams which combine with general intelligence, as noted by the 1904 study by Spearman, and stand on their own in terms of assessing potential.

Today, psychologists can test human potential using standardized IQ tests. The scaling of the IQ systems has allowed enormous access to opportunities which would have been denied in the past based on social circumstances, including poverty, race, ethnic beliefs, and access to information.

Many different tests have been designed over the past decades, but the IQ test continues to be used and has become much more than a guide for psychologists. It has become a corner-stone for the futures of millions of people.

For me, the statement – the more we learn the less we know – says it all. There are still many hidden secrets in understanding IQ. There is also a very long journey ahead before we fully understand where our minds can go. We know that people need people. We need to see, feel and communicate. Thanks to Goleman (1995) and Sternberg (1998) respectively, we already know that emotional intelligence and creative intelligence are exceptionally significant in IQ and need their own individual streams.

We also know that the rapid changes over the last 25 years, mean that adjustments will be needed in the administration of standard IQ tests, possibly moving these assessments online. This will bring a new set of challenges to provide answers to questions including:

  • The science of IQ testing is apparent, but where is the art?
  • How can these tests be evaluated to ensure fairness, especially to those who are at risk or sit outside the box?
  • Who will define the personality traits, like empathy, courage, honesty, intuition and talent, that distinguish human beings from each other?

Scientific IQ testing OR the art of creative intuitive analysis?

Future psychologists will need to explore many more facets of client personalities as they seek to access an individual’s IQ. A high IQ does not necessarily mean automatic success with the current testing systems. More importantly a low IQ does not mean someone is tagged as a failure, misfit or a social disaster.

The challenge for psychologists is to identify the limitations of current IQ tests. Uncovering the gaps in our knowledge about how the brain works, correlates with the realization that psychology is only in its infancy. Perhaps by tapping into the different human talents that scientists believe exists, psychology can be officially viewed as a creative art.

Psychological IQ testing is contentious, necessary and subject to challenges as the world changes. It is food for the most inquisitive minds, and is a hot topic now and for the future. As a subject the creeps into the human consciousness, the question to ask is: are you up for the challenge?

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