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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While it may be natural to assume that people with extremely high IQs have a knack for success. From Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby” to Lex Luthor in the Superman comics, we having come to associate being super-rich with being super-smart.

Even President Donald Trump has claimed to have an IQ that is "one of the highest" in a well-publicized 2013 tweet, suggesting that his wealth was somehow linked to his intelligence.

But for every individual we ascribe as "genius," from Mark Zuckerberg to Steve Jobs, there are just as many like Nobel Prize laureate John Nash (of "A Brilliant Mind" fame) and mathematician Kurt Gödel who struggled with mental illness and personal crises. In fact, some research indicates a correlation between high intelligence and mental health issues.

When crunching the hard numbers, is there any real evidence that an IQ can predict anything about a person’s likelihood of success, whether it be financial, academic, or creative?

Understanding IQ Tests

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 quickly transformed into a means to identify individuals who had higher intelligence than the average.

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 percent and 1.0 percent of the population fall into this elite category.

Terman’s Study of the Gifted

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. Basing his study in California, Terman selected 1,500 children between the ages of eight and 12 who together had an average IQ of 150. Of these, 80 had scored over 170.

Over the next few years, Terman continued to track 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.

Correlation of Intelligence and Achievement

Among some of the original participants of the Terman study was famed educational psychologist Lee Chronbach, "I Love Lucy" writer Jess Oppenheimer, child psychologist Robert Sears, scientist Ancel Keys, and over 50 others who had since become faculty members at colleges and universities.

When looking at the group as a whole, Terman reported:

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

As impressive as these results seemed, the success stories appeared to be more the exception than the rule. In his own evaluation, 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."

Personality Traits and Success

Researcher Melita Oden, who carried on Terman's research after his death, decided to compare the 100 most successful subjects (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.

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 a person's educational attainment and gender politics which limited the professional prospects of women.

Other 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.

What This Tells Us

One thing 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 as well. However, in some cases, it may just be the opposite.

In fact, some studies have suggested that children with exceptional academic skills may be more prone to depression and social isolation than less-gifted peers. Another found that people with higher IQs were more likely to smoke marijuana and use illegal drugs.

One explanation for this, according to the researchers, was 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. By contrast, being closed to experience is more associated with routine, traditional behavior, and a narrower set of interests.

A Word From Verywell

While researchers continue to debate Terman's research, most are in agreement about the key finding: that while intelligence may suggest a potential for success, fulfilling that potential requires skills, traits, and support that IQ tests alone can't measure.

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