What do IQ tests really measure?

Ever since I can remember, IQ tests and what they are supposed to measure have been one of the biggest controversies in psychology. The one thing most people agreed upon was that, whatever was being measured, these tests did not measure “intelligence.”

The latest explanation is that they measure a person’s “motivation” and the likelihood of future success. And by “motivation” is meant that of the person being tested for taking the test itself.

Research carried out at the University of Pennsylvania by Angela Lee Duckworth looked for a correlation between IQ test scores and the motivation shown by the test takers – did they bother to finish; did they rush through the test just to be done with it; were they just going through the motions, having no real interest or belief the test meant anything, versus following orders, taking it seriously and thinking a high score would benefit them?

“When people use IQ tests in social science research, where thousands of kids are taking IQ tests where it doesn’t matter to them what they get, what’s the effect of motivation on those scores?” Duckworth asked.

What the research showed was that long-term outcomes could be predicted by these tests (higher economic and social status). “But,” Duckworth said, “what our study questions is whether that’s entirely because smarter people do better in life than other people or whether part of the predictive power [is] coming from test motivation.” In other words, the IQ tests may be measuring motivation to succeed rather than raw intelligence. 

Then she asks, “Could it be that part of the reason doing well on this test predicts future success is because the kinds of traits that would result in you doing well – compliance with authority, self-control, attentiveness, competitiveness – are traits that also help you in life?”

Now “compliance with authority” and “self-control” (i.e. not being rebellious) may well be traits that exploited groups within society lack and thus are traits valued by mainstream society. It would seem the tests also measure docility as well as motivation.

Duckworth’s conclusion regarding her study is that it “means that for people who get high IQ scores, they probably try hard and are intelligent. But for people who get low scores, it can be an absence of either or both of those traits.”

So, if you get a low score, you are either not intelligent or not motivated, or both. It follows, however, that intelligent, even very highly intelligent, people could score low on the IQ test because they are not motivated to go along with the social regime in which they find themselves. Therefore IQ tests are unreliable measures of a person’s “intelligence.”

On the other hand, people who are docile around authority and take orders easily are likely to score high on the test compared to people who question authority and the status quo – everything else being equal – so the test’s main use would seem to be as a tool used by the powers that be to identify and hold back people who might potentially challenge their monopoly and control of power.

The results of Duckworth’s study suggests that progressives should object to the use of IQ tests on students and young people by the authorities in an attempt to classify their future behaviors.

Image: Oliver // CC 2.0


Thomas Riggins
Thomas Riggins

Thomas Riggins has a background in philisophy, anthropology and archeology. He writes from New York, NY. Riggins was associate editor of Political Affairs magazine.