The Notorious Inaccuracies and Failings of IQ Tests

IQ tests have a shady past – from racial eugenics to questionable educational practices – why do we still use them?
Trevor English

IQ tests have long been thought of as the ideal way to measure and compare one person's intelligence to another. These tests vary highly and the questions contained therein can be simple language tricks to mathematical equations. But, are these tests even accurate?

IQ tests are widely used in society to place students in different educational tracks. They have at least some level of confidence in the educational realm.

Despite what you may think, the actual legitimacy of one's IQ and the way it is tested is still being heavily debated. In fact, these tests have a shady history of marginalizing ethnic minorities.

The Beginnings of IQ Testing

In the early 1900s, different intelligence tests were developed across the world as a means to measure a person's ability grew necessary. One of the first IQ tests ever developed was by French psychologist Alfred Binet, who was given the task of determining which students would excel at school, and which would need the most help. 

What's comical about this first measure of intelligence developed by Binet was that he even claimed it was a poor measure of intelligence. He claimed that the tests were unable to measure creativity or emotional intelligence, key components of a person's overall "intelligence."

The Notorious Inaccuracies and Failings of IQ Tests
Distribution of IQ. Source: Wikimedia/ Paeningenome

Even with the creator's initial lack of confidence in the tests, more IQ tests were created and they became a basis in much of society. Police and military organizations started using them to screen applicants and set bars for what was needed to be admitted.

It was also shortly after their creation that IQ tests started being used in the whole of the U.S. education system to identify gifted and talented students across the country. 

IQ Testing and Eugenics

As the use of IQ testing grew across the U.S. and spread to the world, an idea associated with intelligence began growing too. This idea was that intelligence was influenced by biology. Thus, grew the notions that race could determine how intelligent someone was and that there were less intelligent races. 

Eugenicists latched onto IQ testing as a way to demonstrate that their view on society was right. 


A psychologist by the name of Carl Brigham analyzed testing results from U.S. Army research in the 1920s. He applied a plethora of statistical analysis to the data and concluded that overall American intelligence was on the decline. While that's not necessarily an issue in its own right, he claimed that immigration and mixing of races was the reason.

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Many other psychologists and scientists made the same claims during this period as well. For essentially the entire time since these conclusions were first drawn, psychologists and scientists have been refuting the ties that tested IQ has any correlation to race. 

As eugenics grew in popularity in the U.S. in the late 1920s, the Supreme Courts legalized forced sterilization of lower functioning citizens. And how was that determined? Frequently citizens were identified for sterilization by their IQ scores. This ruling resulted in 65,000 people being sterilized, a large number of which were lower-income and people of color.

Believe it or not, this practice continued until the mid-1970s. 

Modern IQ Testing

IQ testing has fallen out of prominence in recent years, but it's still commonly used or simply referred to in educational settings. Researchers now mostly agree that IQ testing isn't worthless, but the results need context and aren't a measure of a person's true intelligence. 

The Notorious Inaccuracies and Failings of IQ Tests
Example of a question common on IQ tests.  Source: Jirah/Wikimedia

An interesting conclusion some researchers have drawn is that intelligence is likely dependent upon what culture it's being measured in. For example, knowledge of tribal practices could be seen as intelligence in one culture, but in western culture, the logic and thought process doesn't correlate. This means that IQ tests are really only relevant for the culture that they were made in – they're not universal.

This also brings another issue into the spotlight. IQ tests were historically developed and only used in predominantly white western cultures. If IQ tests truly are a reflection of cultural intelligence, then this concept makes IQ testing a little problematic (as if history didn't already prove that).

The Upside of IQ Tests

While IQ testing has become less relevant in the modern era on account of its shady past and lack of universal trust, it's being used in some circumstances for good. 

In the early 2000s, the U.S. banned the execution of individuals who scored low on IQ tests or otherwise register as having intellectual disabilities. 

IQ tests are also still being utilized by educational institutions but in a much more mutually beneficial way. Rather than being used to shame students for their lack of knowledge, they're being used to group similar students into learning groups so that personalized teaching can be carried out. 

Still, the topic of IQ tests being used in education is quite a debate given that the actual efficacy of the tests really isn't agreed upon fully. 

IQ tests have been a topic of disagreement for many since their inception. Whether they're being used for good or for bad, right now they seem to be the best way to somewhat objectively measure intelligence – or at least the ability to take an intelligence test. 

Used with context, there seems to be little harm in IQ testing. However, like most things, when taken out of context, IQ testing can be used to demonstrate superiority, racial inequality, or even simply human eugenics.