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The Intelligence Trap_ Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes

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The Intelligence Trap_ Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes


As they nervously sat down for their tests, the children in Lewis Terman’s study can’t have imagined that their results would forever change their lives—or world history.* Yet each, in their own way, would come to be defined by their answers, for good and bad, and their own trajectories would permanently change the way we understand the human mind.
One of the brightest was Sara Ann, a six-year-old with a gap between her front teeth, and thick spectacles. When she had finished scrawling her answers, she casually left a gumdrop in between her papers—a small bribe, perhaps, for the examiner. She giggled when the scientist asked her whether “the fairies” had dropped it there. “A little girl gave me two,” she explained sweetly. “But I believe two would be bad for my digestion because I am just well from the flu now.” She had an IQ of 192—at the very top of the spectrum.1
Joining her in the intellectual stratosphere was Beatrice, a precocious little girl who began walking and talking at seven months. She had read 1,400 books by the age of ten, and her own poems were apparently so mature that a local San Francisco newspaper claimed they had “completely fooled an English class at Stanford,” who mistook them for the works of Tennyson. Like Sara Ann, her IQ was 192.2
Then there was eight-year-old Shelley Smith—“a winsome child, loved by everyone”; her face apparently glowed with suppressed fun.3 And Jess Oppenheimer—“a conceited, egocentric boy” who struggled to communicate with others and lacked any sense of humor.4 Their IQs hovered around 140—just enough to make it into Terman’s set, but still far above average, and they were surely destined for great things.
Up to that point, the IQ test—still a relatively new invention—had been used mostly to identify people with learning difficulties. But Terman strongly believed that these few abstract and academic traits—such as memory for facts, vocabulary, and spatial reasoning skills—represent an innate “general intelligence” that underlies all your thinking abilities. Irrespective of your background or education, this largely innate trait represented a raw brainpower that would determine how easily you learn, understand complex concepts, and solve problems.
“There is nothing about an individual as important as his IQ,” he declared at the time.5 “It is of the highest 25% of our population, and more especially to the top 5%, that we must look for the production of leaders who will advance science, art, government, education, and social welfare generally.”
By tracking the course of their lives over the subsequent decades, he hoped that Sara Ann, Beatrice, Jess, and Shelley and the other “Termites” were going to prove his point, predicting their success at school and university, their careers and income, and their health and well-being; he even believed that IQ would predict their moral character.
The results of Terman’s studies would permanently establish the use of standardized testing across the world. And although many schools do not explicitly use Terman’s exam to screen children today, much of our education still revolves around the cultivation of that narrow band of skills represented in his original test.
If we are to explain why smart people act foolishly, we must first understand how we came to define intelligence in this way, the abilities this definitio" id="page_13">
problem solving, but which have been completely neglected in our education system. Only then can we begin to contemplate the origins of the intelligence trap—and the ways it might also be solved.
We shall see that many of these blind spots were apparent to contemporary researchers as Terman set about his tests, and they would become even more evident in the triumphs and failures of Beatrice, Shelley, Jess, Sara Ann, and the many other “Termites,” as their lives unfolded in sometimes dramatically unexpected ways. But thanks to the endurance of IQ, we are only just getting to grips with what this means and the implications for our decision making.
Indeed, the story of Terman’s own life reveals how a great intellect could backfire catastrophically, thanks to arrogance, prejudice—and love.
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As with many great (if misguided) ideas, the germs of this understanding of intelligence emerged in the scientist’s childhood.
Terman grew up in rural Indiana in the early 1880s. Attending a “little red schoolhouse,” a single room with no books, the quiet, red-headed boy would sit and quietly observe his fellow pupils. Those who earned his scorn included a “backward” albino child who would only play with his sister, and a “feeble-minded” eighteen-year-old still struggling to grasp the alphabet. Another playmate, “an imaginative liar,” would go on to become an infamous serial killer, Terman later claimed—though he never said which one. Terman, however, knew he was different from the incurious children around him. He had been able to read before he entered that bookless schoolroom, and within the first term the teacher had allowed him to skip ahead and study third-grade lessons. His intellectual superiority was only confirmed when a traveling salesman visited the family farm. Finding a somewhat bookish household, he decided to pitch a volume on phrenology. To demonstrate the theories it contained, he sat with the Terman children around the fireside and began examining their scalps. The shape of the bone underneath, he explained, could reveal their virtues and vices. Something about the lumps and bumps beneath young Lewis’s thick ginger locks seemed to have particularly impressed him. This boy, he predicted, would achieve “great things.”
“I think the prediction probably added a little to my self-confidence and caused me to strive for a more ambitious goal than I might otherwise have set,” Terman later wrote.7
By the time he was accepted for a prestigious position at Stanford University in 1910, Terman would long have known that phrenology was a pseudoscience; there was nothing in the lumps of his skull that could reflect his abilities. But he still had the strong suspicion that intelligence was some kind of innate characteristic that would mark out your path in life, and he had now found a new yardstick to measure the difference between the “feeble-minded” and the “gifted.”
The object of Terman’s fascination was a test developed by Alfred Binet, a celebrated psychologist in fin de siècle Paris. In line with the French Republic’s principle of égalité among all citizens, the government had recently introduced compulsory education for all children between the ages of six and thirteen. Some children simply failed to respond to the opportunity, however, and the Ministry of Public Instruction faced a dilemma. Should these “imbeciles” be educated separately within the school? Or should they be moved to asylums? Together with Théodore Simon, Binet invented a test that would help teachers to measure a child’s progress and adjust their education accordingly.8

To a modern reader, some of the questions may seem rather absurd. As one test of vocabulary, Binet asked children to examine drawings of women’s faces and judge which was “prettier” (see image below). But many of the tasks certainly did reflect crucial skills that would be essential for their success in later life. Binet would recite a string of numbers or words, for example, and the child had to recall them in the correct order to test their short-term memory. Another question would ask them to form a sentence with three given words—a test of their verbal prowess.

Binet himself was under no illusions that his test captured the full breadth of “intelligence”; he believed our “mental worth” was simply too amorphous to be measured on a single scale and he balked at the idea that a low score should come to define a child’s future opportunities, believing that it could be malleable across the lifetime.9 “We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism,” he wrote; “we must try to show that it is founded on nothing.”10
But other psychologists, including Terman, were already embracing the concept of “general intelligence”—the idea that there is some kind of mental “energy” serving the brain, which can explain your performance in all kinds of problem solving and academic learning.11 If you are quicker at mental arithmetic, for instance, you are also more likely to be able to read well and to remember facts better. Terman believed that the IQ test would capture that raw brainpower, predetermined by our heredity, and that it could then predict your overall achievement in many different tasks throughout life.12
And so he set about revising an English-language version of Binet’s test, adding questions and expanding the exam for older children and adults, with questions such as:
If 2 pencils cost 5 cents, how many pencils can you buy for 50 cents?
And:
What is the difference between laziness and idleness?
Besides revising the questions, Terman also changed the way the result was expressed, using a simple formula that is still used today. Given that older children would do better than younger children, Terman first found the average score for each age. From these tables, you could assess a child’s “mental age,” which, when divided by their actual age and multiplied by 100, revealed their “intelligence quotient.” A ten-year-old thinking like a fifteen-year-old would have an IQ of 150; a ten-year-old thinking like a nine-year-old, in contrast, would have an IQ of 90. At all ages, the average would be 100.
Many of Terman’s motives were noble: he wanted to offer an empirical foundation to the educational system so that teaching could be tailored to a child’s ability. But even at the test’s conception, there was an unsavoury streak in Terman’s thinking, as he envisaged a kind of social engineering based on the scores. Having profiled a small group of “hoboes,” for instance, he believed the IQ test could be used to separate delinquents from society, before they had even committed a crime.13 “Morality,” he wrote, “cannot flower and fruit if intelligence remains infantile.”14
Thankfully Terman never realized these plans, but his research caught the attention of the US Army during the First World War, and they used his tests to assess 1.75 million soldiers. The brightest were sent straight to officer training, while the weakest were dismissed from the army or consigned to a labor battalion. Many observers believed that the strategy greatly improved the recruitment process.
Carried by the wind of this success, Terman set about the project that would dominate the rest of his life: a vast survey of California’s most gifted pupils. Beginning in 1920, his team set about identifying the crème de la crème of California’s biggest cities. Teachers were encouraged to put forward their brightest pupils, and Terman’s assistants would then test their IQs, selecting only those children whose scores surpassed 140 (though they later lowered the threshold to 135). Assuming that intelligence was inherited, his team also tested these children’s siblings, allowing them to quickly establish a large cohort of more than a thousand gifted children in total—including Jess, Shelley, Beatrice, and Sara Ann.
Over the next few decades, Terman’s team continued to follow the progress of these children, who affectionately referred to themselves as the “Termites,” and their stories would come to define the way we judge genius for almost a century. Termites who stood out include the nuclear physicist Norris Bradbury; Douglas McGlashan Kelley, who served as a prison psychiatrist in the Nuremberg trials; and the playwright Lilith James. By 1959, more than thirty had made it into Who’s Who in America, and nearly eighty were listed in American Men of Science.15
Not all the Termites achieved great academic success, but many shone in their respective careers nonetheless. Consider Shelley Smith—“the winsome child, loved by everyone.” After dropping out of Stanford University, she forged a career as a researcher and reporter at Life magazine, where she met and married the photographer Carl Mydans.16 Together they traveled around Europe and Asia reporting on political tensions in the build-up to the Second World War; she would later recall days running through foreign streets in a kind of reverie at the sights and sounds she was able to capture.17
Jess Oppenheimer, meanwhile—the “conceited, egocentric child” with “no sense of humor”—eventually became a writer for Fred Astaire’s radio show.18 Soon he was earning such vast sums that he found it hard not to giggle when he mentioned his own salary.19 His luck would only improve when he met the comedian Lucille Ball, and together they produced the hit TV show I Love Lucy. In between the script writing, he tinkered with the technology of filmmaking, filing a patent for the teleprompter still used by news anchors today.
Those triumphs certainly bolster the idea of general intelligence; Terman’s tests may have only examined academic abilities, but they did indeed seem to reflect a kind of “raw” underlying brainpower that helped these children to learn new ideas, solve problems, and think creatively, allowing them to live fulfilled and successful lives regardless of the path they chose.
And Terman’s studies soon convinced other educators. In 1930, he had argued that “mental testing will develop to a lusty maturity within the next half century . . . within a few score years schoolchildren from the kindergarten to the university will be subjected to several times as many hours of testing as would now be thought reasonable.”20 He was right, and many new iterations of his test would follow in the subsequent decades.
Besides examining vocabulary and numerical reasoning, the later tests also included more sophisticated nonverbal conundrums, such as the quadrant on the following page.
The answer relies on you being able to think abstractly and see the common rule underlying the progression of shapes—which is surely reflective of some kind of advanced processing ability. Again, according to the idea of general intelligence, these kinds of abstract reasoning skills are meant to represent a kind of “raw brainpower”—irrespective of your specific education—that underlies all our thinking.
Our education may teach us specialized knowledge in many different disciplines, but each subject ultimately relies on those more basic skills in abstract thinking.


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