What do IQ tests test? [people thrown into existence]

There are some rumors that IQ tests test intelligence. Try these here (they are both free and there is no catch, so why not go ahead and try ’em right quick): 

As you invariably will notice when you analyze your thoughts as you put yourself through this, things are not as obvious as it seems. Both puzzles seem silly and simple.

However, are they really simple? And what are they about?

Start with the easy one and work your way up. So you look at puzzle 2 on the right: select the square and you are done with the second question. But the first puzzle, puzzle 1, this question with the dots, is mean and ugly.

First of all, you will notice that there are five dots on this test sheet (one dot as part of the exclamation mark, two big dots, and two small dots following the numbers under the big dots) – yet, there are two numbers that imply that you may direct your attention to the two large dots. You are asked to connect ‘the dots’, yet this specification does not detail ‘the big dots’, or ‘the small dots’, or the ‘dots outside the title text’, and not ‘the two dots’ (which ‘two dots’ anyway?). Maybe you understand now, that this is not straightforward at all, and so maybe this question is more interesting than you thought when you just sneered at the simplicity of the graphical puzzle as shown in puzzle 1 above (because you sneered, didn’t you?).

Even though the setup of this test makes it appear as a spoof, as a take on a test, it is, in reality, contorted and difficult. However, the picture above, at least by and large, represents the type of question you would typically encounter in an IQ test. Admittedly, not always *as* simple… but with a similarly simple underpinning logic and sometimes with a similar twist to it. Mostly, IQ test questions try to check whether you can identify an implied linear or mathematical progression, symmetry or correlation. The problem is not that they are too difficult – they are usually not, just sit one of these tests to get that out of your system. But typical IQ test questions are extremely simplistic, as if things always progressed or cycled linearly, as if there was symmetry, and if correlation was so important – and, as if there were no erratic jumps, non-linearity, breaks, interference, iterative developments or other! An IQ-test question may test your recognition of a supposed underlying principle which you may or may not be interested in, and which you may or may not have encountered in your education so far, and or which you may or may not have studied. So an IQ-test tests stuff or principles most people may not care about as they appear to be mostly irrelevant, and principles which in real life do not seem to govern or determine much of deeper significance. There is a wicked twist, though, as your ability to detect such patterns may even overshoot the range intended by the test maker. After all, how many dots are there, really, in the left picture (above)? If you find what dots to connect, you are good. But at the point where you can detect and justify more than one ‘correct’ symmetry, progression or correlation or other ‘inherent match’ in such a question, you are better. But you are not just better, in fact you are worse, as well, because you are simply in trouble, as the question was not a qualitative question about identifying double entendres, but it is a one shoot at getting it right questions, connect and you are done. The question oversimplifies the situation in a no-way-out setting. That is the situation that you will find yourself in, and it is not funny. Then, you may use your judgement about any a-priori weights implied by the context to guess your way out of such a situation, but you’re clearly at a disadvantage. Or it seems so. The thing is, that a really good test of intelligence should allow a release of the real sparkle and cognitive blast bottled up in your brain, not get you into any trouble where your only way out is guessing what the folks that cooked the stuff up could have would have might have meant – after all, clarity was what intelligence was after, not more mud, or at least, thus was the prophecy. You know that the table has turned too many times once you are in trouble one you can justify and explain several correct answers in a mediocre IQ-test. Or was it that the concept of testing intelligence was muddled and that just got exposed because really, context and contextual information is needed to narrow down questions better, and also, several incremental questions are needed from the side of the examiner to better understand the thoughts of the student. The above puzzle seems to show this twist clearly: if you were only given the puzzle 1, the dot-puzzle, and if you were given it by me – knowing there’d be a catch – you would seek more than one apparently obvious solution, and you’d easily find more than ‘two’ dots, and you would maybe even try to interact with me while considering the question. If you encounter the dot puzzle in context with some other really mindbogglingly simple questions like the topological problem in the right picture above, you’d be maybe less concerned about misinterpreting the number of dots (yeah, …how many were there again?).

A correct answer to puzzle 1, if ever it existed in a clearly presented fashion, may help indicating the presence of a degree or certain amount of intelligence (is that stuff weighed or is a temperature taken, anyway?), and seeing as if different test questions seem to highlight different abilities, some people seemingly thought it’d be good to come up with a uniform representative of what intelligence may be. Interestingly enough, there does not seem to be too much creative thought around on this – so the presence of a strong covariance in school test results (yawn) has been elevated to be an indicator for a uniform type of intelligence. In a sense, the creators of this covariance analysis were after a common denominator of how fast we all think, as they also seem to take speed for quality. The people that seem to believe in such a uniform type of representative of intelligence have termed this factor ‘g-factor’. Arthur Jensen published about this extensively. But is this g-factor not a hype? Does the labeling of co-varying test results not overrate school as such? I mean, how much uncontested belief in authority do we really need if we believe that a ‘covariance in school tests’ says something about the pupils? Since when does school test us in ‘various’ skills? Did you ever look at the different types of bread at the bakery and wonder why all crusts are somewhat gray-brown? Did it occur to you that this is just because they don’t care to change it? Because they simply don’t apply food coloring? Did you ever go to the army and did you ever find that you do the ‘same stuff’ ‘all the time’? Would you be surprised if test results of some people were better than others, and if that was simply a reflection of the army being what it is? Because the flip side is that as long as your particular areas of interest are not taught or tested in school, you are simply out of luck. You can cooperate out of insight, boredom, coercion or necessity – but what does that prove? Is it not, that a strong covariance in certain school tests also indicates that school only challenges one or two, maybe three aspects of a mind, and that none of them really could signify any stricter definition of intelligence at all? How come that some extremely successful entrepreneurs left school early, did that maybe even have a protective effect? At the latest now, we’d wonder what ‘intelligence’ means. Like, know context well enough to know a correct or optimal solution so fast that it makes others’ head spin. But maybe it is even outright dangerous to take some institutions – such as the typical industrialized nations’ schools – and assume that their tasks are in any way ‘stimulating’ or ‘diverse’? Did you ever find school utterly boring, and did you ever wonder why? Did you also pass some training tests with the strong feeling that intelligence is not what was tested – only compliance? 

Surely, ‘intelligence’ can be helpful in solving school tests, particularly if you presuppose that ‘wanting and being able to solve school tests’ is ‘intelligence’. The search for what intelligence may entail could be rather dangerous terrain, however: here, in context of school tests, an overly uncritical submission to an untested authority (untested you read that right; an example of school test in the eighties, history lesson: teacher question Q: “What is the problem with archeology?” – correct / expected answer A: “Bones cannot talk”. – So I became a forensic pathologist…) seems to be averbally underlying the very outset of the definition of ‘intelligence’, and it if not always, then at least sufficiently often enough. Conversely, a particularly high intelligence may also contain the ability to, maybe automatically, phase out irrelevant noise, and if 80% of a test are perceived as pure noise, a person with such an intelligence may have a really hard time getting (overly boring, under-complex, ‘noisy’) simple easy questions right, simply because their brain discards them, long before that person realizes, oops, you should focus to get this trash right, because of everyone else that gets upset if you don’t, and because of the bad consequences for you. A good test taker will spike their tests, either by including true ambivalences, or by including humor, maybe even to make you break out in sweat – “DO NOT DELETE ALL DATA? YES/NO?” – and you be wide awake. But the aspect of high intelligence as an ability to ignore noise is not appreciated by anyone in society.

So a fair amount of alignment with structured, well aligned, socially submissive, orderly, well mannered, focused, well behaving norms are crucial for high intelligence not to derail too fast in what otherwise works as step-wise incremental hoarding of collective insight. Afternoon tea with milk and cookies for everyone. This is probably why the typical homepage of a regional Mensa organization mentions such honorable aspects as scholarships and research, they mention honorable members of our society, such as Victor Serebriakoff and Isaac Asimov, and if ever you tried to change the appearance of a local Mensa homepage to look less like a bunch of 14 year olds trying to sell a 5 page HTML code to the local bank in 1993 you may even be kicked out of the organization. Conversely, typical proponents the IQ fail to mention people like, e.g., the successful sex movie actress Asia Carrera – who was also able to solve tests at Mensa level and who ranks just there, with the other ‘high IQ’ persons. Now think of all the people that sat their IQ test and were like, swipe, swipe, swipe, ah forget about it. Not even 1% of the people that would qualify for Mensa or Triple Nine Society are a member there – and they cannot all be wrong.

Of course, if you are intelligent AND you want to have a good grade AND you happen to have a good day AND you are not asleep yet AND you do not at the same time have important matters to discuss with your bench neighbor AND you happen to have found a good explanation of the subject matter (not all of these correlate positively, either) … then you MAY just pass a particular test with a really good grade. Out of lack of other good reasons, you really just may. But even that is not a given. Maybe it helps for best IQ test or school results if you deprive yourself of any distractions.

To me, a strong covariance in school test results among, say, mathematics and physics indicates strongly that they basically deal with similarities among both fields. To me, a set of co-varying parameters indicates the option to throw some of them out as their physiological underpinning may converge – in terms of what the person gets as input, and in terms of what the person may have to produce as output. In other words, the presence of many co-varying school test results shows that efficient teaching should start by rotating the subject matter list, until you got rid of the repetitive oppressive feeling brought about by the co-varying estimated 60-70%. Only then may the content be considered as possibly diverse. Then you will realize that the school subjects lack all sorts of different elements: social life, finances and taxes, starting a new job, learning practical skills for a job, industrial work, research into a new subject, non-linear developments, and so on. There are plenty of subjects that could really be given different from the ‘learn and regurgitate equation’, ‘learning by heart and regurgitate a telephone’,  or ‘learn and regurgitate language / text’ standards that currently seems to define many school teachings for the most part. You may learn historical facts, or pharmaceutical drug descriptions, or anatomical terms by heart: same difference! Each time you’d be enjoying a corollary of ‘learning a telephone book by heart’. You may be able to ace all by adopting some mnemonic technique – now, this is interesting to do once or twice, but more often? You could try to ace them even more by learning how to efficiently using on-line databases and how to coin useful search terms. I always found context and meaning more interesting to learn than just raw facts – and luckily, this is possible given the right angle and amount of time. Then, facts are contextualized, and that gives some information a better embedding, meaning, maybe helps to limit overfitting, of which our neural databases called brains may have to be particularly careful of.

Technically, I doubt that IQ tests really test intelligence in the sense as intelligence signifies context sensitive, rapid and educated decision making that results in output that should be rated highly.

Such IQ test results may loosely correlate with whatever anyone may define as intelligence and supportive cooperation of the individual, but in any specific instance, they may just not. There is a significant pre-test bias in voluntary IQ tests, as people who are intelligent feel that this should be something they would like to try. Sure, test results may discern some test-takers for some particular analytical tasks – particularly and for example, if coding program code involves similar abstractions – but in any general way, IQ testing does not deliver. Particularly, if underlying common ground – interest in test patterns, interest in getting the test right the way the teacher may have meant it – is absent.

Until proven otherwise, I would guess it is safe to follow the assumptions of some authors in that IQ tests may build on class- and society-specific assumptions, and that strong covariance of school test results could point to the lack of imagination of the creators of the content being tested. In other words, the presence of a ‘g-factor created by psychologists’ probably proves what I always felt was somehow correct: some scholars and some teachers seem to believe that school is diversely stimulating and challenging – which is not a bit supported by my own experience: in reality, all the real people still have to drink coffee and play practical jokes in order to stay awake – in school, and wherever else people use reverse covariance to generate ‘multiple subjects’ from ‘one idea’ before they unload them all unto you, upon which you find the common denominator and fall asleep again.

You have to do simple counting, you have to learn lots of things by heart, you have to shut up when others speak, and you have to be orderly and write legibly. You have to follow orders, and you have to be dressed properly and neatly. You are not supposed to do more homework than asked, and surely not read schoolbooks ahead of time. Eventually, you’re invited to offer a regurgitation of the 1, 2, 3, 4, .. (5, maybe?) test in various versions. Not that there’s anything wrong with sitting down and doing really repetitive and simple tasks under different headlines or subjects – and it definitely teaches you, question is more what it teaches you; I say just don’t overrate them, and if you tell people it’d be exciting and testing “intelligence” – don’t expect everybody to just believe it face value.

While it can be fascinating to speculate that a g-factor defines a higher level of understanding intelligence, the reality of this factor falling out of simple statistics is probably totally profane: that school subjects are so similar that achievements simply correlate between different pupils, based on their achievement, whether it is by learning by heart, thinking or whatever else it is. It could be a wake-up call to teachers: when you find correlations between English and Mathematics scores, why not sub-differentiate the tests and perform a PCA to see what parts of a field coalesce with other parts? 

All in all, I am not denying that there may be something like ‘intelligence’, but by my definition, what is intelligent primarily depends on the context.

So, if I was to test intelligence, I would start by introducing vastly different contexts some of which may be unknown to the test subject. By my perception, intelligence really involves the concept of “null”, “not applicable”. So the next thing I’d test is to see whether someone can delineate various boundaries between entities and “null” values. After that, I’d be interested in the degree of tunnel vision that can be inflicted on a person; by offering a range of, say, four wrong answers and by saying, “you have to mark one of these answers” or, of course, by being more subtle about it.

I also believe that using specific tests for specific tasks can be very sensible – if a specific test really tests what a specific task really requires. So, if a task involves coding algorithms, the ability to recognise mathematical sequences matters to some degree, and then a test that tests for the recognition of such sequences, appears to be useful.

IQ-tests usually are a geek pastime, a way to occupy oneself as a geek, nothing more. They cannot be taken too seriously to identify people as intelligent. If you are after a person’s particular real life performance, better check that performance itself, easier and more relevant. But as is, IQ-tests are a test: you should be able to walk past one with a relaxed mind. An IQ-test does something to your inner feelings only if you let it. If you must, sit down and do one and get it over and done with. But you want to leave these tests alone, they do not make you happy. They do not have that capacity.

Further reading:
Richardson (2002) What IQ tests test

Introduction to terminology

Triple Nine Society

IQ BAZAR – high IQ fan wear

Disclaimer: This is a personal rant & rave, definitely not a scientific paper.


Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: swisswuff.ch - What do IQ tests test? [people thrown into existence]; published 13/04/2005, 14:22; URL: https://www.swisswuff.ch/wordpress/?p=1619.

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1642803185, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{swisswuff.ch - What do IQ tests test? [people thrown into existence]}}, month = {April}, year = {2005}, url = {https://www.swisswuff.ch/wordpress/?p=1619} }