Are High IQ People More Successful?

A Modern Look at Terman's Study of the Gifted

A high IQ child
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It is often assumed that high IQ people will be more successful. From Jay Gatsby in “The Great Gatsby” to Steve Jobs of Apple, people often associate success with intelligence.

However, evidence suggests that having a high IQ is hardly a guarantee for financial, academic, or creative success. This article explores whether high IQ people may have an edge when it comes to success, as well as some other factors that might play a part in determining life outcomes.

What IQ Tests Measure

The very first IQ tests were designed to identify schoolchildren in need of extra academic help. Over time, that intention changed. 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. About 2% of the population scores 130 or above.

Limitations of IQ Tests

It is important to remember that IQ testing has both limitations and biases. IQ tests only measure a specific range of mental abilities, but not all experts agree on a standard definition of intelligence. 

Some tests may be more reliable than others, but it is also possible that IQ scores can change over time. Many factors can affect IQ test scores, including access to education, cultural factors, overall health, and nutrition.

The way that tests are constructed and scored can also affect scores. Some research also indicates that many IQ tests are biased against certain groups of people.

What tests often miss are other skills that contribute to intelligence, such as emotional understanding and interpersonal abilities.

Characteristics of High IQ People

Highly intelligent people are sometimes easy to recognize, but it is essential to remember that each individual is unique. Intelligence is about more than just IQ, and includes characteristics like flexibility, curiosity, and emotional understanding. A few characteristics that intelligent people may share include:

  • Adaptability: High IQ people are flexible and willing to try new things and explore different ways of approaching a problem.
  • Curiosity: Highly intelligent People are curious about the world and want to learn more about how it works.
  • Recognition of limitations: They can also recognize their limitations and admit that they don't know the answers. By doing this, they can keep exploring and finding answers.
  • Empathy: Intelligent people also tend to be interested in others, including their feelings. They have a great deal of emotional intelligence, which means they are skilled at understanding, managing, and expressing emotions.
  • Open-minded: High IQ people are willing to approach problems with an open mind. They enjoy novelty and crave new experiences.
  • Solitary: Some research suggests that more intelligent people prefer spending time alone. Researchers found that spending more time with people led to less overall satisfaction with life.

Highest IQ People

Some people reported to have very high IQs include:

  • Marilyn vos Savant, a magazine columnist, with an IQ score of 228.
  • Dr. Evangelos Katsioulis, a Greek physician, with an IQ between 198 and 205.
  • Richard G. Rosner, an American television writer, with an IQ between 192 and 198.
  • Garry Kasparov, a Russian chess player, with an IQ of 194
  • Paul Allen, Microsoft co-founder, with an IQ between 160 and 170
  • Stephen Hawking, a theoretical physicist, had an IQ of 160.

Research on High IQ People.

When IQ testing was introduced, researchers examined whether higher test scores were linked to more than just doing well in school. In the early 1920s, psychologist Lewis Terman began investigating the emotional and social development skills of kids with genius IQ scores.

He chose 1,500 children in California between the ages of eight and 12 who 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 average IQs.

After Terman's death in 1956, other psychologists decided to carry on the research, which was 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

So how did Terman's original participants turn out? 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.
  • A large number had gone on to attain post-graduate and professional degrees.
  • Many of these had become doctors, lawyers, business executives, and scientists.
  • More than 50 became faculty members at colleges and universities.

Still, Terman noted that most pursued more humble occupations, including police officers, sailors, typists and filing clerks. He ultimately concluded that "intelligence and achievement were far from perfectly correlated."

Criticisms of the Terman Study

While such findings are compelling, Terman's results are often criticized for excluding factors that may have contributed to a person’s success or failure.

  • Important events such as the Great Depression and World War II may have significantly affected educational attainment.
  • Traditional gender roles and sex-based discrimination also severely limited the professional prospects of women.
  • Some researchers have 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 characteristics such as:

  • Desire to excel
  • Perseverance
  • Prudence and forethought
  • Willpower

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 realizing 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 can better measure personality traits that also predict success.

Outcomes for People With High IQ

While a high IQ can't predict success in life, it does reliably predict academic success in school. Research also suggests that high IQ people 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 intelligence may be more prone to depression and social isolation than less-gifted peers. They may need support in these and other areas to perform well at school and work.

Openness to Experience

Research has also found that high IQ people were more likely to smoke marijuana and use illegal drugs. A personality trait known as openness to experience might help explain this connection. 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 more intelligent people may be more open to unpopular or unconventional experiences. That could lead them to innovation and success, but it might also lead to riskier behaviors such as 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.

Your score on an IQ test can be an interesting way to learn more about some of your cognitive abilities, but it is essential to remember that such tests have significant limitations. And as the research has shown, IQ may predict academic success, but it doesn't necessarily correlate to other life outcomes.

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 often succeed in school and work. But some studies 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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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.