Are People With High IQs More Successful?

A Modern Look at Terman's Study of the Gifted

A high IQ child
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It's easy to assume that people with extremely high IQs have a knack for success. From Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby” to Steve Jobs of Apple, we having come to associate being super-rich with being super-smart.

But there are just as many highly intelligent people, like Nobel Prize laureate John Nash (of "A Brilliant Mind" fame), who struggle with mental illness and personal crises. Some research indicates a correlation between high intelligence and mental health issues. And there is not much evidence that a high IQ can predict anything about the likelihood of success, whether it be financial, academic, or creative.

What IQ Tests Measure

The very first IQ tests were designed to identify schoolchildren in need of extra academic help. Over time, that intention was flipped, and the tests transformed into a means to identify people who had higher than average intelligence.

On a standardized exam, such as the Stanford-Binet test, the average IQ score is 100. Anything above 140 is considered a high or genius-level IQ. It is estimated that between 0.25% and 1.0% of the population fall into this elite category.

Terman’s Study of High IQ People

With the advent of IQ testing, researchers began to examine whether higher tests influenced anything more than a person's academic success. In the early 1920s, psychologist Lewis Terman began to investigate the emotional and social development skills of children with a genius-level IQ. Terman selected 1,500 children in California between the ages of eight and 12 who together had an average IQ of 150. Of these, 80 had scored over 170.

Over many years, Terman tracked the children and found that most were socially and physically well-adjusted. Not only were they academically successful, but they also tended to be healthier, stronger, taller, and less accident-prone than a matched set of children with normal IQs.

After Terman's death in 1956, other psychologists decided to carry on the research, dubbed the Terman Study of the Gifted. The study continues to this day and is the longest-running longitudinal study in history.

Intelligence and Achievement

Among the original participants of the Terman study, more than 50 became faculty members at colleges and universities. When looking at the group as a whole after 35 years of study, Terman reported:

  • The subjects' average income in 1955 was $33,000, compared to a national average of $5,000.
  • Two-thirds had earned college degrees, and a large number had gone on to attain post-graduate and professional degrees. Many of these had become doctors, lawyers, business executives, and scientists.

Still, Terman noted that the majority of subjects pursued occupations "as humble as those of policeman, seaman, typist and filing clerk" and finally concluded that "intelligence and achievement were far from perfectly correlated."

Criticisms of the Terman Study

While the findings of the Terman study were compelling, they are often criticized for excluding factors that may have contributed to a person’s success or failure. This included the impact of the Great Depression and World War II on educational attainment, and gender politics which limited the professional prospects of women.

Some researchers have since suggested that any randomly selected group of children with similar backgrounds would have been just as successful as Terman's original subjects. And many others have expressed concern that intelligence tests, in general, are biased in favor of children of higher socioeconomic status.

Personality Traits, IQ, and Success

Researcher Melita Oden, who carried on Terman's research after his death, decided to compare the 100 most successful subjects from the study (Group A) to the 100 least successful (Group C). While they essentially had the same IQ levels, those in Group C only earned slightly above the average income of the time and had higher rates of alcoholism and divorce than individuals in Group A.

According to Oden, the disparity was explained, in large part, by the psychological characteristics of the groups. Those in Group A tended to exhibit "prudence and forethought, willpower, perseverance, and the desire to excel." Furthermore, as adults, they exhibited three key traits not seen in most Group C subjects: goal-orientation, self-confidence, and perseverance.

This suggests that, while IQ can play a role in life success, personality traits remain the determining feature in actualizing that success. A 2016 study supports this conclusion, noting that grades and achievement tests are "generally better predictors of life outcomes" than IQ tests because they are better able to measure personality traits that also predict success.

Outcomes for People With High IQ

One measure that IQ scores can reliably predict is a person's academic success in school. Research also suggests that people with high intelligence tend to be more successful at work.

However, in some cases, it may just be the opposite. Some studies have suggested that children with exceptional academic skills may be more prone to depression and social isolation than less-gifted peers. They may need support in these and other areas in order to perform to their best ability at school and at work.

Openness to Experience

Research has also found that people with higher IQs were more likely to smoke marijuana and use illegal drugs. One explanation for this, according to the researchers, is a personality trait known as openness to experience. This trait is one of the key personality dimensions described in the big 5 theory of personality.

Openness is a trait that essentially removes unconscious barriers that would otherwise prevent a person from experiences considered socially unacceptable. Moreover, it is moderately associated with creativity, intelligence, and knowledge.

So people who are more intelligent may be more open to unpopular or unconventional experiences. That could lead them to innovation and success, or to negative outcomes like substance use.

Emotional Intelligence

General, or cognitive, intelligence is what IQ tests measure. But another indicator of success may be emotional intelligence, or EQ. This is the ability to express and control your emotions—but also to perceive, evaluate, and react to the emotions of others. People with high EQ are often quite successful in careers and relationships, regardless of their IQ.

A Word From Verywell

While researchers continue to debate Terman's research, most are in agreement about the key finding. While intelligence (or more specifically, an IQ score) may suggest a potential for success, it doesn't guarantee an outcome. Fulfilling that potential requires skills, traits, and support that IQ tests alone can't measure.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do people with high IQ struggle in real life?

The evidence is mixed on whether high IQ people struggle in life. Some do and some don't. Researchers have found that people with high IQ are often successful in school and work. But there are also studies that have found an association between high IQ and mental health conditions such as depression.

What do ultra high IQ people do?

In Lewis Terman's study of children with high IQ, the subjects had a range of careers when they became adults. from filing clerks to doctors. Mensa, an organization for people with high IQ (membership is reserved for people who have scored in the top 2% of a recognized intelligence test), states that its members include police officers, professors, truck drivers, military personnel, doctors, farmers and government officials, among other occupations.

How can you recognize people with a high IQ?

High IQ people are likely to be flexible, curious, and open-minded. But because personality traits can vary widely among people with high IQ, there aren't necessarily clear outward signs that indicate that someone has high IQ. They may or may not be academically successful, choose a high-achieving career, or know a lot of facts and figures.

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