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Does A High IQ Guarantee Success? Maybe Not


The Intelligence Quotient (IQ) doesn’t measure what we know; it measures what we are able to understand. An IQ test consists of a series of exams aimed at assessing how well we reason, process information, and solve problems relative to other people our age. Anyone scoring within 10 points of 100 is said to be of average intelligence, which makes someone who scores a 130 the smartest person in the room. That is, unless they’re in a room with some certifiable genius types such as Einstein, Da Vinci, Plato, or Ivan Drago (aka Rocky Balboa’s rival), who all have an IQ over 160. But even those with the gift of genius aren’t handed a guarantee — success, like batteries, is sold separately.

Smart from the Start – Why it Matters

Since studying is unlikely to boost our IQ, being born with genius in our genes is kind of like hitting the intelligence lottery. Although it is possible to boost cognitive ability by learning new skills and playing problem-solving games, these changes are unlikely to increase overall IQ (sorry, Sudoku lovers). In this way, IQ is like physical health: We can exercise our brain and muscles to help them grow, but the changes aren’t permanent; the moment we stop exercising, our brains and muscles start to return to their original form [1].

If we assume we’re all racing towards some version of “success,” a high IQ is one heck of a head start. But that doesn’t mean we should give up just because our number falls a little lower on the scale. The first runner out of the blocks doesn’t always win the race, and having the highest IQ in the crowd doesn’t guarantee success. That’s because there are some things an IQ test can’t measure. For starters, there’s no Street Smarts section on an IQ test, meaning a degree from the school of hard knocks doesn’t carry much weight. Testing our reasoning also overlooks the various ways we learn: Some people can read and retain information while others need to get hands-on, and so on. One method isn’t necessarily “smarter” than another; they’re just different.

IQ also overlooks what researcher Howard Gardner refers to as “multiple intelligences,” or the human capacity to possess a range of traits and abilities — not all of which can be measured via testing. Similarly, the IQ test fails to measure traits such as creativity, imagination and innovation, all of which can contribute to a person’s success (or lack thereof) [2].

what iq can do for you — and what it can't

Despite flaws in IQ testing, intelligence has been shown to play a role in determining achievement, business success, and even the rate of our mortality — mostly because IQ strongly correlates with income [3]. Having a high IQ also increases the likelihood of becoming a high-performer in a variety of aptitudes, from science to music. That’s because a genius can process, store, and recall an absurd amount of highly complex information — it’s called working memory capacity [4] [5].

But if being a brainiac was the one and only criterion for success, everyone with a lofty IQ would be wildly successful — and obviously, that’s not always the case. Even a genius can squander their intelligence jackpot [6]. When smart people encounter a problem that needs solving, they tend to forgo facts in favor of mental shortcuts. Trouble is, these shortcuts can lead to foolish mistakes and ultimately the wrong answer. Turns out Mom was right: We can be too smart for our own good.

So if great intellect doesn’t guarantee success, what factors separate an average Joe from a highly intelligent outlier? The real question becomes: Can we actually compete with genius by going from good to great?

The Genius Myth — The Answer/Debate

Genius is real, but it can also be really misleading. For one thing, putting too much stake in “genius” implies the entire average-achieving population is virtually helpless. When taken at face value, the idea of innate intelligence plays into the genius myth. This legend would have us mere mortals believe that we either have it or we don’t — whatever “it” is. But when the curtain is pulled back, we see that genius is nothing more than a comforting parable. It comes in handy when trying to explain why some people seem to have it all, but it doesn’t accurately depict the full scope and scale of human intelligence.

In reality, success is based on a whole lot more than genius alone. Persistence, practice, socio-emotional skills, our environment, the way we’re raised, and luck all combine to determine what we will achieve [7]. This explains why early interventions in child development so often improve individuals’ chances of success — our potential isn’t fixed the day we’re born; rather, it's highly fluid and dependent on a number of both external and internal factors.  

One of these factors — grit — has been shown to play a particularly big role when it comes to success. Grit is best defined as the perseverance and passion for a long-term goal. It’s a single-minded focus that allows us to persist well beyond the point at which others would give up. One study found that West Point cadets and spelling bee superstars linked this grit factor with success time after time [8]. The soldiers and spellers who were most successful were more determined, had greater willpower, and exhibited better self-control than their lower-achieving peers. Researchers found that the smarter kids just didn’t try as hard or want it as bad as the gritty kids [8] [10]. Grit and IQ are only weakly associated with each other, so a person doesn’t need to be a genius to be gritty as all get out. I guess we could say it’s better to be average and hardworking than to be a lazy genius.

Smart Versus Successful — The Takeaway

When it comes determining to success, IQ isn’t a promise, it’s more of a performance enhancer. If genius is the elevator to the top, we’ll just have to take the stairs. It may take longer, but it’ll still get us to where we want to go. 

Do you believe that a high IQ guarantees success? Share in the comments below!

Works Cited

  1. Individual differences in working memory within a nomological network of cognitive and perceptual speed abilities. Ackerman PL, Beier ME, Boyle MO. School of Psychology, Georgia Institute of Technology. Journal  of Experimental Psychology. 2002 Dec; 131(4):567-89
  2. The use of imagery by intelligent and by creative schoolchildren. Shaw GA. Journal of General Psychology. 1985 Apr; 112(2):153-71
  3. Longitudinal cohort study of childhood IQ and survival up to age 76. Lawrence J Whalley, Ian J Deary. Department of Mental Health, University of Aberdeen. British Medical Journal. 2001 Jan
  4. The relationship between working memory capacity and executive functioning: evidence for a common executive attention construct. McCabe DP, Roediger HL, McDaniel MA, Balota DA, Hambrick DZ. Department of Psychology, Colorado State University. Neuropsychology. 2010 Mar; 24(2):222-43
  5. The generality of working memory capacity: a latent-variable approach to verbal and visuospatial memory span and reasoning. Kane MJ, Hambrick DZ, Tuholski SW, Wilhelm O, Payne TW, Engle RW. Department of Psychology, University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Journal of Experimental Psychology. 2004 Jun; 133(2):189-217
  6. Cognitive sophistication does not attenuate the bias blind spot. West RF, Meserve RJ, Stanovich KE. Department of Graduate Psychology, James Madison University. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2012 Sep; 103(3):506-19
  7. Beyond IQ: broad-based measurement of individual success potential or "emotional intelligence". Mehrabian A. Department of Psychology, University of California. Genetic, Social and General Psychology Monographs. 2000 May; 126(2):133-239
  8. Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Duckworth AL, Peterson C, Matthews MD, Kelly DR. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2007 Jun; 92 (6):1087-101
  9. Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Duckworth AL, Peterson C, Matthews MD, Kelly DR. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2007 Jun; 92 (6):1087-101
  10. Role of test motivation in intelligence testing. Angela Lee Duckworth, Patrick D. Quinn, Donald R. Lynam, Rolf Loeber, and Magda Stouthamer-Loeberd. Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania. Psychological and Cognitive Sciences. 2011 April 25