How to Avoid Misunderstandings Concerning the Intelligent Quotient (IQ) Tests

Intelligence quotient tests, or better known as the IQ tests, are cognitive ability tests that are often used to establish the mental ability or capacity of children in relation to the age of children and relative to children around the same age. Very often, the measurement of these tests and the results thereof create false impressions, leading to stigma associated with poor performance, in the ability tests.

Yet, the reality is that tested intelligence or intelligence test scores should be used to describe potential rather than categorize a person. Many stereotypes have been the result of such labeling and it is often difficult to move beyond them, both for the person tested and for those aware of the results. This article explores ways to avoid falling into such misunderstandings.


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    Understand fully that the IQ test is used to describe and not categorize a person. Unfortunately, IQ tests are often used in a labeling manner by teachers and other educators who often lack sufficient training in the field of IQ testing. As a result, a lot of psychological damage can be done when such information is not handled correctly. By labeling a person as the sum of the results of their IQ test, the person is doomed to negative reinforcement of the test results as if that is all there is to the person and intelligence limits are absolute.
    • Do you perhaps know of a school friend who was perhaps labelled "dull" at school, but who later became very successful, exceeding all expectations? It may even be true of yourself.
    • This cuts both ways. Being labelled as having a high IQ can place unrealistic expectations on a person to always be "the intelligent one", funneling the person's development into certain fields even if they don't want to do these things or are a bad fit overall. Moreover, being labelled as intelligent can actually lower emotional intelligence as a person over relies on IQ as a form of social acceptance and fails to hone EQ adequately.
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    Always be aware of the fact that intelligence is composed of several different functions. Intelligence as stated by an IQ test is not a measure of a single ability. Considering someone to be intelligent or not intelligent based on academic achievement alone is an example of such an erroneous interpretation. And intelligence does not equate with achievement; many a person who didn't have "book smarts" has had "street or business smarts" and achieved a great deal outside of the academic stream. Moreover, the qualifications for successful achievement differ between cultures, as well as being historically grounded - what may be taken as achievement in one century or decade may be viewed as not so useful in another.
    • Can you think of people who are not intelligent in the "conventional" (psychometric, IQ score) sense, but who are achieving or have achieved much in life and who are making or have made a success of their lives? As an example, it was stated that Einstein was not a good scholar, but he nevertheless became one of the most noted scientists of our time.
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    View IQ tests as both a measure of prior achievement and a predictor of future achievement. It is important to note that achievement here refers to scholastic/academic achievement, because these are the types of criteria used to evaluate and assess IQ tests.
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    Realize that there are many other psychological functions that are not measured by the IQ Tests. Aspects such as musical ability, artistic ability or creativity are not covered by the IQ Tests. Success in some fields do not require a high IQ, as measured in the conventional way. And emotional intelligence (EQ) is not covered by IQ tests either. Nor do IQ tests account for people who perform badly under test situations or being tested in the manner in which IQ tests are undertaken. People's emotional states and level of motivation clearly affect performance in general, as well as performance in IQ tests. If people come to a test situation emotionally upset due to some personal crisis, it is clear that their scores that day will not be a true indication of their usual ability. Being distracted, emotionally upset and poor concentration will not allow them to perform at their best.
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    Do not stereotype or label anyone with a low IQ score. The points above are important indicators for every person to remember. Ignorance on these issues can have disastrous repercussions for the growing child, who can very easily be made to feel inadequate in the community or in social circles. Words are powerful and must be used with caution!
    • Stigmatizing a child whose IQ is not high or even average is bigoted and prejudiced. A child whose IQ is mediocre or low does not equate with their fulfillment in life. IQ does not determine how a person loves, is lovable, or whether he or she is likely to lead a happier, more fulfilling life. Each child is a unique individual in need of acceptance for who he or she is. Sometimes mental differences need addressing to ensure the highest possible level of functioning but a child remains the unique, inspiring and incredible individual he or she was born, regardless of the IQ outcome. We are all special in our own way.
    • Bear in mind that a desire to stereotype or confine other human beings to one's own idea of intelligence is about wanting to control others. We can only control ourselves and the best we can do for others is to motivate them to be their very best.
    • Remember that "smart people do dumb things" as much as anyone else in the community. Confining intelligence to meaning one set of currently valued traits is very limiting and unrealistic, and unhelpful to the whole education system.


  • There are also many other types of ability tests in addition to the IQ test, that are used to measure intelligence. Likewise, these tests also do not cover all aspects of psychological functioning.
  • In a nutshell, the meaning of IQ scores have been highlighted in the points listed above.
  • Just to avoid any confusion, psychometric testing is a clinical term used to describe mental ability tests––the IQ test falls into the category of these psychometric tests.


  • IQ tests don't reveal intellectual deficiencies hidden beneath a higher or average IQ rating. One can have an IQ of say, 120, and still be a poor thinker or decision-maker, cognitively inflexible, terrible with words or math, over-confident, incapable of seeing inconsistencies, or a social klutz. Allowing one form of testing to define a person's overall abilities and intelligence is unreasonable.
  • IQ tests don't manage to test rational thinking. Plenty of intelligent people are rather irrational. Even if a child is assessed as having a high IQ, time spent on developing their rational thinking skills is always time well spent.

Sources and Citations

  • Adapted from: Assessment of Cognitive Functioning, Industrial and Psychological Testing and Assessment. Study Guide, IOP 301T, University of South Africa, Pretoria, 2011.

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