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Creativity and IQ: What 1500 Kids Can Teach Us

December 17, 2015

 

How does your IQ affect your creativity? One might assume that having a super high IQ would garner you more powerful creative flights of fancy, and more control over the process, whether top-down or bottom-up. But as is so often the case with preconceived ideas, things are not always what they seem.

 

We can trace the American fixation on IQ back to the beginning of our involvement in World War One. The U.S. War Department was searching for ways to rank their recruits by intelligence, and to identify who would be best suited for which jobs, from scouts to officers. For help in making these judgments, the military turned to psychologists like Lewis Terman of Stanford University.

 

Terman had tweaked an intelligence test devised by the famed French psychologist Alfred Binet to create a new version called the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales. He initially promoted this as a tool for classifying developmentally disabled children, but the U.S. military was so impressed with Terman's work, they hired him and six others to create the "Army Alpha", an assessment test which was administered to 1.7 million GIs.

 

Since at the time, there was no other widely circulated intelligence test to use as a benchmark, it's hard to measure the test's net effect. However, the allies went on to win the war and Terman went on to screen children for signs of "genius level" IQ.

 

Several years later, Terman used these screening results to kick off a study aimed at understanding the wide-ranging effects of "genius". (Eventually, the study would abandon the emotionally charged—and difficult to quantify—label "genius" in favor of "gifted.") He began in 1921 at Stanford. Terman looked at 1500 children, male and female, attempting to track everything from their developmental progress, their interests when playing, their medical condition, how much they read and how many books were available to them at home. Then he continued to periodically check in with those same individuals throughout their lives.

 

An early example of a longitudinal study, it's also the longest-running of its kind and still continuing today—to be concluded at the death of its final subject.

 

This work eventually begat Terman's multivolume Genetic Studies of Genius, considered a seminal document in American psychology. (That's not to say that Terman's scholarship all holds up by today's standards; in testing across cultural and racial groups he reached many conclusions that are unquestionably racist.)

 

However, he did debunk a number of then-common misconceptions about high-IQ children: his research showed them not to be physically frail or socially maladjusted. In an era where parents often held their children back a grade to prevent the kid from being the youngest in their class, Terman found that being the youngest in a class was, in fact, a predictor of a high IQ.

 

For our purposes, Terman's most interesting result concerns creativity.

 

To the extent it could be measured, Terman found that the 1500 study subjects did make an above-average number of societal contributions in creative fields. This, on the face of it, would suggest that a high IQ delivers a key creative boost, but in a separate study, sociologist Pitirim Sorokin showed that a random group of children coming from equivalent socio-economic backgrounds would do just as well. This would seem to indicate that environment plays a larger role, which makes sense: if you're not sure where your next meal is coming from, you're less likely to give, say, oil painting, your full focus.

 

Faced with the data, even Terman had to admit: "We have seen that intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated." This sentiment is echoed by many other studies: abnormally high IQ is no guarantee of academic achievement or high creative output. It's been suggested that Terman's research supports what's called the Threshold Theory, which states that an IQ of 120 (above average but certainly nothing extraordinary) is enough to achieve "creative genius". Anything above that point doesn't seem enormously helpful to the individual.

 

This seems to suggest that creative thinking is well within the reach of a large number of people, given hard work, focus, and a certain dose of luck.

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