Mind Over Matter

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If you answered; 4 questions correctly you are a genius, 3 correctly – you are above average intelligence 2 correctly – you are normal 1 correctly – you are below average None – dumbass Ok, so you’ve realized that the above questions were rather random, completely unrelated to each other, more than a bit tongue in cheek, and completely useless in assessing how intelligent you are, but in all seriousness… how much store do you put by the plethora of IQ tests in today’s media? Indeed, what is IQ? This is a subject of much debate, and it is actually considered to be a person’s ability on a variety of tasks. It is not a measure of attainment, but rather mental dexterity, and the extent and way in which it is expressed varies culturally. The debate has raged among scientists for over a century: do we have IQ for lots of different skills, or do we have an overall factor ‘g’, which influences all our mental abilities? The first IQ test was devised by Binet and Simon, who calculated IQ as Mental Age/ Chronological Age on a variety of reasoning tests. Although it was designed specifically to test for children in need of special educational help, its context as a purely academic measure and predictor has been lost. This is the major confound of all IQ tests – they are often taken out of context, and as such their validity is severely challenged. Other tests have been devised with various scales and subtests, and many psychologists have now argued for a much wider approach to intelligence. Vernon, a psychologist in the 60’s, included not only verbal and educational abilities, but also practical and mechanical skills. This approach has formed the basis of many of today’s more serious IQ tests, such as the Weschler test which consists of two main areas of questioning – verbal and spatial. So, is IQ a useful concept? There is no doubt that IQ measurements provide a useful platform for assessing the impact of social factors – there are clear differences between people of different economic status and race, and they have also highlighted sex differences – women perform significantly better on fine manual tasks and verbal tests than men. Recent research into these differences has suggested that the size of a region of interconnecting tissue between the two sides of the brain known as the corpus callosum might be biologically responsible for a percentage of this variation. Perhaps the most well known test at the moment is the BBC Test the Nation Intelligence Test. In an afternoon of work avoidance, some friends and I each took the test, (and breathed a sigh of relief that this 20 minute test deemed us above the national average). But is this test good one? Should we have really put any store by its results, or had we been sucked into the media hype, entrusting our delicate self-esteem to a rather arbitrary 20 minute test? Provided that the factors which are seen as central to each definition and test are established before conclusions are drawn, there is little wrong with IQ tests, and they certainly provide a good alternative to essay writing and proper work. As the a study by the psychologist, Murtaugh, found however, other factors such as context and motivation also influence performance. This study found that female shoppers in California showed excellent skill at buying the cheapest product (by unit), but performed badly on written maths IQ tests. Were the IQ tests wrong? Critics argue that these shoppers use shortcuts rather than complex maths abilities, but this demonstration of mental flexibility towards the task in hand could even be isolated as intelligence itself, and is indeed central to Sternberg’s theory, which emphasizes the context and novelty of any situation. To give credit to the BBC test, their website does point out that IQ is the source of much debate, and that depending on the definition, skills such as body awareness (think of a good dancer and you’ll realize the importance of this trait) and musical ability are also seen as intellectual traits – the importance of such skills is subject to social norms, and is reflected in the questions which comprise the IQ tests. It is perhaps of little surprise that Vernon’s less focused approach to intelligence was developed during the swinging 60s, a time synonymous with breaking social conventions and challenging well established social boundaries. On a more sombre note, IQ tests have been used as the basis for state sterilisation (eugenic programmes) in the US, and were introduced into Britain in the House of Commons in 1989. It was also introduced as an immigration restriction in 1924 in the US with the aim of removing the weakest members of the breeding gene pool to improve the quality of the next generation. Apart from clearly breaching ethical and human rights, such methods of selection rely entirely on the blinkered focus of psychometric IQ tests – in a society of racial and sexual equality, how can this still legally exist? In essence, the national obsession with not only IQ tests, but the wide variety of personality tests supplied by the media, is because they satisfy our self-obsessive nature, as well as our predisposition to categorise the people and world around us – and the BBC producers and magazine editors have been quick to recognize this selling tactic and its guaranteed audience.
ARCHIVE: 4th week TT 2003

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