IQ testing’s problematic past

Utilised by education systems, researchers, and medical institutions, IQ tests have retained considerable power in the West for over a century. Yet these seemingly objective instruments for measuring intelligence have a deeply problematic past which demands recognition – a past that painfully intersects with the eugenicist project of the 20th century. By scrutinising IQ testing’s guise of ‘science’ and ‘progress’ and probing beneath the surface, we can necessarily illuminate the unsavoury legacies of death, disempowerment, and despair they have engendered for entire communities.


The origins and appropriation of IQ testing

In an attempt to identify subnormal pupils within French schools, Psychologist Alfred Binet pioneered the first IQ test in 1905. His standardised method for determining the students’ cognitive abilities to facilitate educational interventions was later appropriated by scientists; suddenly, the formula ‘intelligence quotient = score/age x 100’ acquired significant influence as a means of classifying and ranking individuals’ intelligence in quantitative terms. This relies upon a reductionist view of intelligence expressed in Spearman’s g – whereby cognitive skills are reducible to an underlying general intelligence. Such a notion neglects the fact that intelligence is an essentially contested term, and one that has subsequently been manipulated for ideological and political purposes.

The First World War marked a critical juncture in the history of IQ testing: in addition to the use of the Stanford-Binet Scale after 1916, psychologists like Yerkes developed tests to be conducted in the US military to inform role allocation. Accordingly, around 1.75 million men completed intelligence tests in 1917. Crucially, the results of these tests – which were not only poorly administered but also culturally biased – had consequences that superseded immediate military rankings. With questions pertaining to a particularly white, middle-class, American experience, the tests enforced the epistemological dominance of an elite group and branded it as ‘culturally fair’. It was thus unsurprising that BME, working-class, and immigrant recruits garnered the worst scores. From Boring’s biased analysis of the results, it was ruled that black men had an average mental age of only 10.41, and that most American men fell into the category of ‘moron’.


Eugenics and intersectionality

The enormity of the implications of such results cannot be understated. Indeed, they served to strengthen an existing eugenicist movement in the US inspired by Sir Francis Galton’s work on the genetic determinants of intelligence. Sensing a threat to America’s Anglo-Saxon supremacy, academics like Terman rallied for both the sterilisation of poor Americans and the implementation of stringent immigration policies to prevent the ‘dangerous’ arrival of Central and Southern European immigrants on America’s shores.

The IQ test findings catalysed the mobilisation of an Immigration Restriction League which called for a more obstructive policy. Accordingly, the Immigration Act of 1924 denied entry for Asian people and implemented national quotas to minimise the possibility of an IQ reduction amongst the US population. Such assumptions of inferiority also served to bolster racist, xenophobic, and classed conceptions of intelligence which have reinforced stereotypes with profound social, economic, and political consequences.

Moreover, 1924 witnessed Virginia’s legal implementation of a Sterilisation Act whereby those with hereditary illnesses and ‘mental deficiencies’ would be forcibly sterilised – a practice which continued until 1979. In line with America’s institutionalised racism, classism, and sexism, it was poor black women who were victimised most within the pernicious system that affected more than 60,000 people before the 1960s – typifying the cruciality of applying an intersectional lens to IQ testing’s history. This marginalised group was unknowingly targeted under the campaign; a Senate committee in 1972 underlined at least 2,000 cases of sterilisation conducted on black working-class women without their knowledge. This signifies the politicisation of certain groups’ reproductive rights in part due to the catalyst of IQ testing.

These arguments about the intellectual inferiority of disabled and ethnic minority individuals were replicated in Nazi Germany, where the eugenicist project was perpetuated on a horrific scale. It was both a public reckoning with the Holocaust and the outcry of Civil Rights activists in the 1960s that undermined the wider acceptance of eugenicist ideas – but not before thousands had already been sterilised, discriminated against, and denied entry into the US to escape fascism.


‘Intelligence’ and IQ today

As such, the history of IQ testing intertwines with the politics of eugenics in insalubrious ways, yet recent decades have witnessed an erosion of these problematic trends. In the late-20th century, scientists not only developed more multi-faceted definitions of intelligence (such as Gardner’s 8-factor model) but also produced more objective tests and showed increased awareness of IQ’s environmental determinants. For example, the Flynn Effect – which indicated a progressive increase in IQ scores across generations – pointed to the impact of variables like nutrition and affluence on intelligence scores. This undermined both IQ tests’ hegemony and arguments about their exclusively biological underpinnings (which is now widely refuted). IQ tests continue to be used in institutional settings and undeniably retain utility as a means of classification, yet it would be unwise to disregard their harmful potential.

Irrespective of IQ tests’ value in capitalist societies which privilege quantification and selection, they continue to champion the reductive view that their results provide a neutral indication of intelligence. This is despite their omission of emotional intelligence and alternative forms of knowledge, which points to processes of exclusion and hierarchisation. As these tests continue to be employed, we must avoid complacency regarding their validity and acknowledge the atrocities committed in their name. Accordingly, it is more important than ever to confront the acutely problematic past of IQ testing.


Featured image: Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

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