Intelligence is overrated

I am sometimes surprised in conversations and reading letters of recommendation when people mention someone’s intelligence (e.g. “XYZ is really smart”). I don’t always understand what they mean. Can XYZ think something the rest of us cannot? Can they solve a puzzle in their heads, that others can’t? Were they formally tested? Such details are usually not provided.

(I should note parenthetically that the content and tone of the conversation is very different when it comes to other species. For instance, when someone mentions that poodles are smart, you can generally count on critical questions such as “What can they do? What about German Shepherds?”, etc. That critical mindset is generally lacking when it comes to people.)

Defining intelligence is a bear, so I will just refer to “IQ” type intelligence for this post. This type of intelligence is measured by IQ tests and is subject to all kinds of biases that overlap with race and affluence, but there is evidence that higher IQ is associated with all kinds of positive things ranging from education achievement and income. Certainly, institutions of higher learning use these measures extensively (e.g. SAT and GRE tests).

I sometimes think about the role intelligence may have played in my own life. In general, this is hard to know, but one episode does make me think it doesn’t matter much.

When I was applying to medical school, I somehow thought having Mensa on my resume would look good (which, perhaps ironically, seems stupid in retrospect). Mensa’s only requirement for entry is an IQ score (or equivalent) in the top 2% of the population. After I qualified, I was invited in the welcome letter to the next regional meeting with a free coupon for me and an “accompanying adult”. I dragged my old friend Tim with me to the meeting at a hotel ballroom by Chicago’s O’Hare airport and wasn’t sure what to expect. We arrived to a dull meeting of ~50 people complete with an agenda and insider jokes. Later, there were drinks and board games. The people were seemingly normal (like me and Tim) and from a broad cross section of professions and certainly not the Who’s Who of the intellectual world. I’m not sure what that scene would that look like or why I would want to be there, but this wasn’t it.

As Tim and I stood there nursing our free drink (that’s what the coupon was for) and taking in the scene, we heard a lot of loud cheering from the neighboring ballroom. We headed over to find it was the a meeting of the National Dog Groomers Association (I could be wrong about the exact name of the group, but definitely dog groomers). We stood by the open door of their meeting room and saw the source of their cheers. They were playing human bowling. Each table in the ballroom was a team that nominated a member to enter inside a spherical wire cage-type contraption. The rest of the team would roll this contraption down a red carpet to try and knock down some large foam pins. Before we knew it, we were seated at a table and the evening turned out to be a hoot.

I did not put Mensa membership on my resume and never paid my dues. It did not appear to hurt my chances of getting into medical school.

Beyond having a certain minimum amount, I doubt that intelligence matters all that much. I would be surprised if being in the top 20% (or 30 or 50) is that much different than being in the top 2%. In life’s long course, one’s other qualities (emotional IQ, grit, etc.) and the influence of family, teachers and mentors probably matters far more). One problem of studying this question is that a lot of the variables are intertwined. Being raised in an affluent, stable family is not only associated with a higher IQ, but might also set you up with better teachers and mentors.

Graduate students and medical students starting out sometimes worry that their classmates are a lot smarter than they are. They can’t all be right, but even if someone is smarter than you, it is probably not by much. Even if they are, the combination of other factors probably matters more.

My suggestion is to not worry about intelligence, your own or anyone else’s. And, if you are ever confronted with a direct choice between attending a Mensa meeting and the Dog Groomers’, I strongly recommend the dog groomers.