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This Is How IQ Scores Work and Why That Online Test Your Friends Keep Sharing on Facebook Is Nonsense

And why we're all dumber for having taken it. May God have mercy on our souls.

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I’m going to assume that most people, what with their impressive IQs apparently ranging anywhere from 125-134, have figured out that the IQ test that’s been going around on Facebook lately isn’t exactly any more accurate than the “What Disney Character Are You?” or “Which Friends Character Should You Marry?” quizzes they’ve found on the ol’ social network. Since we’re not all actually undiscovered geniuses, here’s the difference between your online quickie IQ test and a real one and how IQ scores actually work.

If you somehow haven’t seen your friends posting their improbably high IQ test scores on Facebook, the quiz in question is the one you can find at Memorado, which bills itself as a site for improving your cognitive function (also kind of dubious). Why do I say that your friends’ IQ scores from the quiz are improbably high? There are a few reasons—some obvious, some a bit more technical.

First and most obvious, the test is only 18 questions long. If there’s any indicator that this test isn’t so much designed for science as it is as a way to kill five minutes, share with your friends, and get you on Memorado’s website, this is it. Actual IQ tests, like the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales or the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS-IV), contain several hundred questions and take, in the case of the WAIS-IV, between 60 and 90 minutes to complete.

Then there’s the way that IQ scores work. IQ points are arranged along a bell curve so that 100 is at the top of the bulge with most of the scores surrounding it. 100 should always be the average score of an IQ test within its intended audience. If the vast majority of IQ scores from a certain test come in around the 125-134 range, as they appear to on this and several other online tests I’ve seen over the years, the test is inherently broken and not really showing IQ scores at all.

But how is it possible that 100 is always the average for IQ tests? IQ tests are norm-referenced tests (NRTs) based on what is basically a scientific sample. The test is first administered to a norm group intended to be representative of the population that will eventually take the test, and then their raw scores are converted into a scale so that an IQ score of 100 is in the middle. On most modern IQ tests, the scale is arranged so that 95% of the scores spread out across a range of 70 to 130, with 66% falling within 85-115.

In simpler terms, when taking an IQ test, you’re not being ranked against the test based on percent of questions answered correctly like any regular school test. Instead, you’re being ranked against other test-takers, or a sample group thereof, on a weighted scale. So, an IQ score of, say, 130 should mean that you scored higher than 95% percent of the sample group on any given IQ test. Your IQ score is a description of where your test score fell in relation to the greater population.

The Memorado test even acknowledges this, as it tells you upon completion what percentage of the population you’ve outscored, but it instead seems to be simply telling you how much of the population you should have outscored based on your position on the IQ scale. So, I went through and purposefully clicked only the answer choice on the left for each question, and I was rewarded with an IQ score of 110, which should be above average. Then, having figured out what the right answers are to score in the top 1% (for reasons absolutely not related to stubbornness), I went through the test again and deliberately didn’t answer a single question correctly, which got me a score of 98.

Despite purposefully answering incorrectly, I got approximately the score of someone with average intelligence, which means 50% of people should somehow be able to score lower than 0 questions right. Call me an optimist, but I don’t think average human intelligence is low enough to get every question on a Facebook, for-funsies IQ test wrong. Again, it’s more about the numbers than optimism, though: To even be an IQ test, it has to allow for scores that go as far below 100 as above it.

Also, IQ tests are best administered in a 1-on-1 setting with a professional who can gauge the test subject’s knowledge and tailor the test accordingly. A generalized IQ test will invariably be too easy for some and too hard for others without necessarily meaning one of those people is smarter than the other, since the goal of measuring intelligence isn’t to find out what you’ve learned but more to gauge your ability to learn, as demonstrated in studies into how intelligence scores correlate to future academic performance.

But finding a psychologist or someone at a university nearby to give you a personal IQ test sounds like kind of a lot of trouble to go to. So how can you easily get a pretty accurate idea of your IQ? Well, another norm-referenced test is the SAT, and studies have been done which show that similarity means that IQ scores can be relatively reliably extrapolated from your SAT score. Basically, whether or not you think colleges place a lot of emphasis on them anymore, your relative SAT performance is a good general idea of what an IQ score would tell you about who you are or aren’t smarter than.

I’d also ignore any online tests for any reason other than some quick entertainment like any other online quiz. They’re likely unscientific and just flat out inaccurate and pointless, some of them have extremely weird time-based scoring mechanisms, and some of them will even try to look official and then waste a bunch of your time answering questions before letting you know that you have to pay to see your score.

So, here’s a fun exercise: Take all of the IQ scores shared on Facebook by everyone you know and lay them out on a graph. Assign an IQ of 100 to the average (probably around 129-130 from what I’ve seen), and then for estimation’s sake, put 70 at your lowest scoring friend and 130 at the highest. Finally, evenly assign IQs to the rest based on where they fall between the lowest/highest and the average score.

That may not stand up to scientific scrutiny either, but it’s a lot more like a real IQ score than what’s been going around in this test and every other one in the history of the Internet. Congratulations, you’ve just made almost everyone you know a lot dumber.

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