Scrapbook style image of cutouts layered upon each other in a disorderly fashion representing the brain and DNA

Anthropology: Sociocultural Impact of IQ Tests and Scores

From the early 1900s, people and education systems have measured the world against intelligence scores. Comparison of people based on individual numbers has had a lasting impact on societies all around the globe. While the ideas presented by Alfred Binet have changed over time, the general concept has not. If anything, it has become more complex. Let’s look at the history of the IQ test and why it matters to anthropologists today.

Creation of the IQ Test

Black and white photograph of Alfred Binet, the creator of the IQ test
Credit: VeryWell Mind

In 1905, Alfred Binet was commissioned by the French government to identify school students that were more likely to have difficulties with the material. In response to a recent law at the time that required school attendance, the government wanted to anticipate which kids would need more assistance.

Binet worked with Theodore Simon to create questions that were not specifically school related, but were intelligence related. These topics included problem-solving, memory, and attention. From these questions, Binet and Simon decided which would best predict school success.

In testing children, Binet and Simon learned that some children were able to answer harder questions, while other kids weren’t able to. From this knowledge, the team theorized about mental age. One’s mental age was based on the average abilities of a certain age group. This is an important element of mental age to remember for our later discussions.

How It Works

The score itself is a single number that is calculated by one’s age and test score. Certain questions are believed to reveal a person’s mental age. This number is divided by the person’s actual age, or chronological age. Said new number is then multiplied to produce one’s overall Intelligence Quotient (IQ) Score.

First Usages

Simon and Binet’s first intelligence test was referred to as the Binet-Simon Scale. Used throughout some French schools, this version of the test did not last long. Surprisingly, Binet did not believe in his own work. While the project was able to provide an estimate of a person’s relative intelligence, Binet didn’t believe it was able to describe a person’s true intelligence.

Overall, Binet believed that intelligence is much too organic and broad to be consolidated into a number. Binet, instead, understood intelligence as an ever-changing, multi-faceted element of human beings. The test he and Simon created was only able to provide insight into the relative intelligence realms. Children in similar geographic, economic, and situational areas could be measured against each other. Such comparisons were not able to be done with a large audience.

Around the World

When this test was introduced to the United States, people became very curious about its abilities. Lewis Terman, a psychologist from Stanford University, took particular interest in the work. He took Simon and Binet’s test and applied it to a group of Americans. This particular test became known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale. Shortly after it’s introduction, it became the scale that all intelligence was measured against in the US.

Similar patterns followed in other countries as well. The original Simon-Binet Sclae was introduced, adapted by a local scholar or doctor, and applied to that population. While there have been many alterations to the test over the years and from various countries, the core Intelligence Quotient test has worked as the primary marker.

Academics and the public alike have become increasingly interested in what the IQ score is and how it works. Binet strongly believed that this test could only be used in reference to the surrounding population. This opinion became a topic of discussion as well. Anthropologists and psychologists, in particular, wanted to understand all that impacts and is impacted by such a score.

IQ in Other Topics

Scrapbook style image of cutouts layered upon each other in a disorderly fashion representing the brain and DNA
Credit: Slate

There are many important factors to the Intelligence Quotient that can greatly impact people and whole societies. Firstly, we see from Binet’s criticisms that the test needs to be considered in small populations that are relatively close to each other. Many consequences come when it is not used correctly. Secondly, the ability to measure intelligence allows us, as humans, to make assumptions about people’s abilities and worth in society.

As we will see in the following examples, there are many ways that the IQ test has impacted research and those that are studied. From small changes to crucial alterations, Binet and Simon’s work has been anything but forgotten.

Family Size

From a study in 2010, psychologists focused on whether one’s IQ score is impacted by family size. Through many tests and studies, their end result concluded that family size does not impact a person’s score. However, this result came with a catch.

Family size was not found to impact children’s IQ scores when the children were born in a typical, sequential order. When the family contained a set of twins though, the researchers found that there was a negative impact on IQ scores. Families that had at least one set of twins were found to have decreases in their children’s scores. Children’s IQ scores decreased even more when the twin’s birth was unexpected.

This begs the question of nature vs nurture; is one’s intelligence increased or decreased due to your surroundings? Remember Binet’s original criticisms of his own test; it is conditional on the surrounding environment of a person, particularly a child. And people’s intelligence can only be measured in relation to their peers, not to any general population.

American Immigration

In being able to, or supposedly able to, measure intelligence, people took this idea and ran with it. Carl Brigham was one of the people to take it the farthest. Through his work at Princeton University, he believes he was able to apply this test to the entire American population. In his analysis from the 1920’s, he believes the entirety of the American people were losing intelligence.

His closed-minded opinion allowed him to claim that such low scores were due to an increase in immigration. Additionally, Brigham also accused racial classes of being the cause of score decreases. Brigham’s response was to call for social policies that would restrict immigration in an effort to increase America’s IQ score.

Race and Sterilization

Another dark usage of the IQ score, one that went even further, came from psychologist Lewis Terman. In his work, he claimed there were direct links between intelligence and race. Believing that certain races were more equipped for education than others, his writings resulted in many harmful policies and actions. It went so far as to become a forced, and legal, sterilization of anyone deemed unintelligent.

In total, there were over 65,000 individuals forcibly sterilized due to Terman’s assumptions. While claiming to be based on IQ tests, those sterilized were primarily poor, people of color. Such sterilization was continued based on IQ criminal offenses, and being, what some considered, too sexually active.

These practices continued until the 70’s, when organizations began filing law suits. It wasn’t until 2015 (just six years ago!) that people were compensated by the government for being forcibly sterilized in such government-funded programs.

To learn more about racism throughout history, check out this blog from Yoair!

Western Societies

A common topic of discussion that scholars have in relation to the IQ test is how biased it is towards Western societies. All categories of intelligence are based on one’s ability to survive and thrive in Western cultures. While it has moved beyond a “test-taking” ideology that was present in earlier versions, the test still relies on Western ideas of intelligence.

Many scholars point out the relation the IQ test has to the modern media. Often, intelligence is presented as being smarter or faster than those around you. The media furthers these ideas with various programs such as The Big Bang Theory or game shows that require speed and efficiency.

General Skills

Today, many people have come to accept that IQ tests are empirically true. This assumption is made from studies showing a positive correlation between cognitive abilities and IQ test scores. While studies do indeed show a correlation, they are based on general cognitive skills, such as working memory, vocabulary, and abstract reasoning.

These general skills are malleable and can greatly change based on one’s environmental factors. It’s for this reason that social scientists would rather consider the IQ test to be a snapshot of one’s intelligence, rather than a complete summation. In other words, the IQ test works well to explain how a person’s intelligence is at a particular moment in specific settings, but it does not explain their overall abilities.


Vendiagram titled “Neuroanthropology?” With three circles, one labeled “embodied brain”, the second “culture” and the third “environment”
Credit: SlideShare

The above examples show us just how inconsistent and problematic the IQ test can be. While created with good deeds in mind, this test is not intended to be used with large populations. Results are relative to a group or society and are not universal truths. Many anthropologists, specifically neuroanthropologists, consider IQ to be a “cultural test” for this reason.

Anthropology and IQ

Many anthropologists study the IQ test similarly to as they would any other topic, with a critical eye. In these criticisms, anthropologists ask important questions about the fundamentals of such a system. They focus on the prejudices engrained in the IQ test, as we see developing with the above examples.

Studies have found that such prejudices are from the ideas of western intelligence, which was mentioned earlier. Anthropologists have also worked to understand the process of power that has maintained the testing system, both for IQ, but also tests like SAT, matriculations, and gaokao.

A Wise Fool

Psychologist Michel Cole provides a good example of how intelligence can be culturally charged. When Cole and his team were in Liberia, they asked members of the Kpelle tribe to complete a test based on the ideas of an IQ test. The task was to sort items (food, tools, containers, and clothes) into categories. Cole and his team anticipated the items to be separated, as I just explained them, categorized by similar items.

The Kpelle, instead, paired the items together in ways that they understood as functional. Such as a potato and a knife, being that one cuts a potato with a knife. When asked by Cole’s team why the items were separated as such, the tribesmen explained that is how a wise man would complete the task. The researchers then asked them to sort the items in a way they consider foolish. Promptly, the tribesmen arranged the items by large categories of similar items.

The Genetic Switch

Neuroanthropologists have been particularly interested in brain development and it’s relation to intelligence. Through many studies of children and young adults, they have found that intelligence is indeed connected to genetics. However, it’s not quite in the way we might assume.

Correlation of DNA to intelligence is not based on whether there is a genetic marker for intelligence, but on what genes are activated and when. Researchers have found that the proteins and structure of the brain can be altered by many external or internal influences.

While the research indicates that DNA can be connected to intelligence based on one’s experience, it isn’t a solid basis for determining one’s abilities. Again, it works more as a snapshot of a person’s current intelligence, rather than a complete analysis.

Cultural Intelligence

Sillhouetted map of the world with a circle of people made of various country’s flags on top
Credit: A-Speakers

Neuroanthropologists have paid attention specifically to the types of intelligence that is required to take an IQ test. Think back to what Binet said in the original construction of the test: it is meant to be used relative to one’s surroundings. Neuroanthropologists confirmed his belief with their study of cultural intelligence.

To pass a test, or succeed in any way, a person has to have cultural intelligence about the world they interact with. Neuroanthropologists have found how important social elements are in test taking. Thinking patterns, familial reinforcement, and behavioral skills are just some of the information people need to have in order to succeed.

Compared to one’s socioeconomic status (which is also a great influencer), cultural intelligence has a direct impact on a person’s test score. It’s not just the information needed to answer a question, but also the knowledge of how to present such information.

Continued Conversation

This topic of testing and cultural intelligence has become a cyclical conversation in many areas. Anthropologists, especially, examine the details of IQ in research, later relating the information back to larger topics of culture and intelligence. This relationship then goes on to impact how they understand the details that have already been studied.

Similar to many other topics that anthropologists study, it’s complex and convoluted research. Involving multiple moving parts and layer upon layers of analysis, the research is not an easy task. Yet anthropologists, and many other professions, find the endless puzzle a fascinating adventure.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

In regards to the general field of anthropology, the study of IQ and its testing has had a great impact. It has gone so far as to help create the branch of Neuroanthropology. This focus of study has impacted many fields and many people. Being able to understand the brain is one thing, but understanding it in relation to the outside influences is another. Neuroanthropologists work on this connection because it allows scholars to learn so much more about humanity.

Psychology, neurology, and sociology are directly impacted by neuroanthropologists’ work because of how their theories build upon each other. Other fields are also impacted by these findings because of how they affect the larger discourse. Knowing that one’s socioeconomic status influences their IQ score, and that the IQ test is more of a cultural test, would allow scholars to bring their own theories of intelligence to the field, rather than relying on IQ.

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