In his excellent book A Question of Intelligence: The IQ Debate in America, former Fortune magazine editor Daniel Seligman describes what it’s like to take the WAIS-R IQ test.  One page 7-8, he describes taking the Comprehension subtest, a measure of practical understanding and social judgement:

Next [examiner] Stern brought on a subtest that, I later learned, is called Comprehension.  It gauges your ability to organize information about the world you live in and arrive at some common sense understanding of various social phenomena.  Most of the questions seemed sensible, but I found myself suddenly rebelling against one question on ideological grounds.  The question assumed a need for certain laws bearing on labor relations and asked why they were needed.  My instant answer,  which would have been backed by many eminent economists, was that the laws are not needed and are in fact counterproductive.  Obviously uninterested in debating social policy, Stern cheerfully restated the question so that all you needed to produce was the theory behind the laws.  I got scored correct for the theory (and generally did quite well on Comprehension); however, I found myself still muttering about David Wechsler’s grasp of economics.

There’s a stereotype that libertarians and economists are a bit autistic or aspergoid (conditions where Theory of Mind is impaired, so they can’t understand how other people think).  Libertarians are criticized for not understanding how society, business and incentives really work and economists are criticized for assuming people behave rationally.  Indeed there’s a whole movement called post-autistic economics.

These criticisms could be nonsense, but I find it absolutely fascinating that the Comprehension subtest, which was created long before people talked about autism or aspergers, yet has historically been thought to measure social intelligence, included an item that libertarians and eminent economists would object to.

Unfortunately Seligman’s score on this subtest can not be deduced from the information he provides, so I can not include it when calculating his full-scale IQ.

Despite the belief that IQ tests don’t measure social intelligence, tests of general comprehension are among the oldest and most popular of IQ test items, appearing not only on the original Binet, but on World War I’s Army Alpha and the National Intelligence Tests.  [Update, Nov 22, 2015:  Although David Wechsler claimed that Comprehension items appear on the National Intelligence Tests (pg 80 of The Measurement of Adult Intelligence Third Edition, 1944) commenter “jeanbedelbokassa” informs me that they did not, despite being considered.]


The test partly measures the ability to understand advantages (i.e. the advantage of certain laws in the example Seligman gave) which fits with my preferred definition of intelligence: The mental ability to adapt situations to your advantage.