When the thermometer was invented back in the beginning of the 17th century, nobody really understood what temperature was. The same is now true of intelligence; we can measure it, but its nature remains a mystery.

There’s a consensus among research psychologists that intelligence can be objectively gauged. In spite of many competing definitions, experts in the field also agree that what’s quantified in IQ tests has to do with two things:

  • the ability to learn from experience, and…
  • the capacity to adapt to new conditions.

There’s also a broad agreement that these abilities are transferable between domains. That is to say: if you’re good at one particular cognitive task, chances are you’ll also be good at others. This is referred to as the g factor and it’s been known for about a hundred years.

Here’s another thing research can tell us: people with exceptional IQ live longer than the average, also when compensating for socio-economic factors.

So wouldn’t it be great if you could just gather all the smartest people and put them in control of the human destiny, creating some kind of aristocracy of intelligence?

As it happens, that was exactly the idea behind Mensa (which was originally called the “High IQ Club”). At the organisation’s 50th anniversary however, its founder Lancelot Ware expressed disappointment that his creation had turned into little more than social gatherings for people who enjoyed solving clever puzzles.

And if you’re like most people – which is to say that you have an average IQ – you’ll probably love that story. Just as you’ll love it when I’m quoting (in my own translation) from Isak Asimov’s autobiography I.Asimov. A Memoir, explaining why he left Mensa:

“The members obviously tended to be politically reactionary, and I generally find it terribly hard to sympathise with such point of view. But worse than that, there were groups who believed in astrology and plenty of other pseudo-sciences. Where’s the honour in being associated with that type of thing, even if only peripherally?”

You’re likely to remember anecdotes like these, because they seem to prove something we want to be true; that smart people aren’t really that smart.

And don’t take my word for it, I only borrow the observation from someone a lot smarter than me. IQ-envy is one of the leitmotifs in science reporter Maria Günther‘s book Smart : What Science Says About Intelligence.

We love to find proof that intelligent people aren’t really all that smart, since elites are always provocative, and especially so in an egalitarian society such as ours. (If people happen to be born into said elites, they’re obviously even more provocative).

Günther – herself a Mensa member – notes that many of the friends whose judgements she trusts and respects the most, aren’t really all that smart. Meanwhile, she’s met with plenty of highly intelligent people with crazy opinions, who’ve made lots of disastrous decisions in life.

She goes on to explain how this does not in fact point to a defect in how IQ tests work, since they were simply not designed to measure the capacity for rational behaviour.

One test that was designed for exactly that, is called CART, short for Comprehensive Assessment of Rational Thinking. It was developed by Canadian psychologist Keith Stanovich, the research of whom proves that the correlation between intelligence and rational thinking is surprisingly weak.

Another counter-intuitive finding comes out of the research done at university of Graz, where Mathias Benedek is taking a hard look at the link between intelligence and creativity.

What Benedek says is this: Creative people are also (to some extent) intelligent, but intelligent people aren’t necessarily creative.

Let’s unpack that.

There seem to exist some kind of a minimum IQ-threshold for creativity, meaning you have to have some smarts in order to get creative. But the correlation between intelligence and creativity fades the smarter the test subjects get, meaning that smarter isn’t necessarily better (which incidentally was the title of one of the earliest posts I wrote for this blog. It’s about the particular types of HR-related challenges facing a company like DeepMind, which always recruited the brightest candidates)

The fact that a link between intelligence and creativity exists at all, has to do with our working memory. It turns out that both intelligent and creative people are good at keeping multiple factors in their minds eye simultaneously. Creative people however, also have a unique ability to flush their working memory from information which has seized to be relevant, they’re good at what’s called inhibition.

I had been spending weeks trying to wrap my head around the issue of intelligence when, the other day, I had lunch with a friend of mine. The work he’s doing in probabilistic modelling and machine learning is absolutely cutting edge; the papers his group publish gets quoted by the best, and he’s also on his way to build a startup which is likely to make a big splash one day.

So I asked him for his thoughts on the matter.

He said he never got tested himself, but had the feeling that his IQ probably wasn’t all that exceptional. Instead he felt that his one true talent, was to intuitively know what problems were worth tackling. This, he said, probably has more to do with experience and setting than anything else. (To explain what he meant by setting, he told me how he himself hadn’t been particularly productive during his PhD years, but started blooming later, when he was surrounded by people who complemented his skills).

My friend’s thoughts seem to align well with much of research, which show that while raw IQ does predict how successful someone will be on a particular position, personality traits is vastly more important in forecasting how successful a person will be in getting and keeping a job.

Or otherwise put: the way nature has stacked your cards is important to how successful you’re likely to be, while the nurture you’ve received is a more powerful indicator of your ability to avoid failure.

Two days after publishing this post, I got an email from the friend that is mentioned in it. With regards to the topic of nature vs. nurture he pointed me to this research paper, which was published only last month. Its results are veery interesting, but the story behind the study is also heart wrenchingly moving. In short:

Once upon a time in South Korea, there were two little girls who were identical twins. One day when they were two years old, their grandma took them to the market to buy vegetables, but one of the girls got lost and didn’t see her biological family again until decades later. She’d been adopted by an American couple and grown up on the other side of the planet. It had been tough going, lots of tension in the household, whereas her sister back in South Korea had had a poor but happy childhood.

As the twins got reunited (after having mapped their respective DNA and posted it online), researchers jumped on the case, eager to see how these radical environmental differences (=nurture) had impacted the two women.

Now for the shocking findings: the twins shared so many things; but the one who’d grown up in America scored 16 IQ points below her Korean sister. SIXTEEN POINTS!

That fact is so sad and such a cause for optimism at the same time!