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Are You as Smart as They Think?

History behind IQ tests and How to Interpret It

Throughout history, philosophers and psychologists debated the concept of intelligence. Intelligence and its assessment is a vital aspect of today’s business world.  Often, taking an IQ test means that you can quantify how smart you are.  Yet, today’s testing involves consideration of various cultures, socioeconomic background, ages and gender. Thus, the ability to truly determine an individual’s cognitive abilities and intelligence greatly depend on your cultural background.  Being an immigrant, you may not want to get stuck on a specific IQ…as there is scientific proof that many of the common tests have some degree to bias against ethnic populations.

So what does it mean if you got a score of 140 an IQ test?  Are you really that smart?  If you subscribe to the traditional wisdom of IQ, the score could be meaningful if you fall into a specific group which the test was standardized on. Yet, if you’re an immigrant, it could be meaningless.  For example, in some cultures such as China and Jamaica, conformity lies at the center of one’s culture.  This cultural attribute can significantly alter one’s concept of intelligence as an internal process, rather than an external process.  Going further, even with similar cultures in Taiwan and China, the need for conformity in China creates contrasting definition of intelligence between the two countries with similar cultures.  An “intelligent” individual in China would remain silent to show respect.  On the contrary, in Baganda of Uganda, an intelligent individual would externalize thought, not to keep quite.  Since we claim to respect diversity in many institutions in the United States, specific ecological and social requirements define intelligence. These different cultural norms create unique concepts of intelligence on a new dimension that the traditional IQ tests are expanding to encompass.

The effort to define intelligence within various cultures began by the end of the 19th century. Within each culture, intelligence may have a fresh perspective not shared by others.  For example, a study conducted by Irvine in 1988 found unique aspects of intelligence in the Shona of Zimbabwe.  According to his study, intelligence exhibits behaviors such as knowing one’s limits and respecting elders, while unintelligence exhibits behaviors such as having an invented ambition and poking fun at elders.  Other parts of the world such as Songhay of Mali and Samia of Kenya value social and communal traits as a part of intelligence.  In Kipsgis of Kenya, another study found that intelligent behavior include a verbal quickness that assumes a high level of comprehension of complex matters.  In contrast, the same verbal quickness is disrespectful and unintelligent in Taiwan when addressing someone who is older.   

Studies have proven these differences in IQ scores based on cultures.  With the United States, African American children tend to score 15 points lower than whites.  Furthermore, the Hispanic children’s differences are lower; neither study took into consideration the socioeconomic status of these children. Another interesting finding was that a child with one parent tend to score 6 points lower than a child with two parents.  Isn’t that interesting?  Other studies found that Lithuania children score 6.8 points lower in Full Scale IQ, while the greatest difference was 9 points in the Verbal index, which is one of the subtests.

One of the rationale for these lower test scores lie in the process of test taking. As an immigrant, English is probably not your first language.  As you’re taking a test of any kind, your mind is racing the translate the language.  This translation complicates the assessment of intelligence, since your mind is working at multiple contexts.  From our history, we know that the first intelligence assessment was in French.  When the test arrived in the United States, many simply took a direct translation.  This yielded challengeable results.  Terman, one of the founding fathers of intelligence assessment had the wisdom to consider cultural aspects of the measurement in addition to translation.  For example, certain phrases may not exist in your language.  Even between English, British English is different from American English.  A vacation in American English is a holiday in British English.  Another examples is the consideration of specific words.  For example, a skunk is a mammal with distinct scent features in America.  Some southern Caribbean islands do not have skunks; thus, there is no correlation to scent.  These facts bring forth one of the fundamental challenges in psychology today, the question of whether a universal psychological process exists across cultures.  Based on Terman’s belief, one cannot simply translate an intelligence scale into a different language.  Consideration of cultural norms is critical to intelligence assessment.

The challenge to define intelligence based on cultural context is increasing.  As the world continues to mix through a global economy, cultural boundaries are being crossed and mixed.  Even within the United States, the melting-pot of the world contains many immigrants from multiple generations who consider intelligence uniquely. The differing social facets and behaviors that define intelligence will continue to be a challenge for theorists to define.  These differing perspectives on intelligence challenge users of assessments to carefully consider the interpretation of scores. With a vast number of studies on many cultures, consideration of cultural differences is part of the ethical responsibility of assessment users.  Consider that IQ scores are only a temporary measure of one aspect of your intelligence.  That intelligence has the potential to change in various environments and situations.  As much as our capitalistic society enjoys categorization of its workforce, choose to be elusive in that categorization.  In many research circles, the concept of multiple intelligence has been widely accepted.  Many instruments measure emotional intelligence or EQ.  Some scholars and authors believe that as human beings, we cannot produce without emotions behind them.  Emotions are the core of humanity.  Within the context of many organizations, the emotion of fear is the foundation for most policies and norms.  Positive emotions such as happiness and inspiration have proven to be much more powerful in driving productivity.  So perhaps, in addition to looking at your IQ, look at your EQ as well.  Under this paradigm, understanding your EQ can be a powerful tool to your success.

Whether it’s EQ or IQ or any other forms of assessment, your cultural background makes you unique beyond the measurement of any tests.  Continue to reinvent yourself on all levels of intelligence and apply these tests only as a road marker, rather than a judgment of your true intelligence.  As long as you’re growing, you are brilliant just as you are.

 By Dr. Ted Sun 

May, 2006

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