Jonathan Franzen’s IQ

Jonathan Franzen is a critically acclaimed author who sparked controversy in 2001 after being kicked out of Oprah’s book club after a series of ungrateful and arrogant comments. After a series of apologies, he was finally welcomed back in 2011.


Section 1: Background

In 1996, The Oprah Winfrey Show launched a book club in which every few months or so, Oprah would pick a novel and tell her millions of viewers to read it.  Then a few lucky readers would be chosen to have a televised dinner with Oprah and the author.  The club immediately became the most influential force in American literature for its unparalleled ability to turn obscure authors into #1 best-sellers overnight.  In a daytime television landscape filled with tabloid trash and celebrity interviews, Oprah was praised for bringing literature to the masses and even won the national book award for her literary advocacy.  Being picked for Oprah’s book club was widely seen as the greatest thing that could happen to an author because it meant orders of magnitude more money and readers.

For Oprah, the club was pure marketing genius.  She was getting credit for making the masses more literate while at the same time, building her status as Queen of All Media, and distancing herself from her trashy daytime competitors.

Oprah had brilliantly become one of the rare people in America to achieve three major types of clout at the highest level: money, popularity, and with her book club, intellectual influence.

But not everyone was a fan of Oprah’s book club.

Section 2: Picking The Corrections

In the Fall of 2001, Oprah selected Jonathan Franzen’s critically acclaimed novel The Corrections for her book club, phoning the author to tell him the characters in the book stayed with her for months.  Unlike most people who get a surprise phone call from Oprah, Franzen did not jump and scream with excitement: the first sign there would be trouble.  Because one reviewer had praised The Corrections as too edgy to ever be an Oprah pick, and because Franzen’s book was already a critically acclaimed best seller, from the outset Franzen felt conflicted about being knighted by Oprah, at one point ungratefully suggesting that it does as much for her as it does for him.

Section 3: A hard book for “that audience”

But because no one in their right mind says “no” to Oprah, at least not in North America,  Franzen agreed to be part of the book club and even allowed himself to be filmed for an upcoming show, though he was annoyed that Oprah’s producers wanted to film him at his Midwestern childhood home, not his adult New York environment.

When constantly baited in interviews on his book tour, Franzen expressed discomfort with becoming an Oprah author, telling David Weich of

The problem in this case is some of Oprah’s picks.  She’s picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight.  And she’s an easy target.

It’s somewhat perceptive of Franzen to see through Oprah’s populist persona and realize she’s “really smart”, despite cringing at some of her book choices, despite claiming to have virtually never watched her show, and despite being unaware of my obscure research on her cranial capacity.  Perhaps his cynicism caused him to understand the marketing genius behind her book club, or perhaps the mere fact that she loved his book was enough to be considered “really smart”.

Because apparently Franzen felt a lot of people were not smart enough to enjoy his work, at one point stating:

First and foremost, it’s a literary book.  And I think it’s an accessible literary book.  It’s an open question how big the audience is to which it will be accessible, and I think beyond the limits of that audience, there’s going to be a lot of, “What was Oprah thinking?” kind of responses.  They, themselves, over there at “The Oprah Show”, they have no idea how they’re going to arrange the show because they’ve never done a book like this and they’re waiting to hear from their readers.

Even more disturbing, Franzen condescendingly said in the Philadelphia Inquirer that The Corrections is a “hard book for that audience”.

Section 4: The IQ of Corrections fans

It’s interesting to ask how high an IQ one needs to enjoy The Corrections?  I happen to know two big fans of the book so well I was able to test them:  One has an IQ of about 110  and the other has an IQ of about 130.  Assuming this tiny sample is representative, I would say the average Corrections fan has an IQ of about 120 (U.S. norms): smarter than 90% of America.

Section 5: The IQ of Oprah fans

The IQ of Oprah fans is not known, but if education level is used as a crude proxy, the average viewer of Oprah’s syndicated talk show had an IQ almost exactly at the U.S. mean of 100 and the average Oprah magazine reader has an IQ 112 (U.S. norms).  The magazine readers are probably a good proxy for Oprah Book Club fans, and they’re only about half a standard deviation below Correction fans; suggesting considerable overlap between the bell curves of both populations; perhaps about 27% of Oprah book club fans are smarter than the average Corrections fan.

Section 6: Hoping for a male audience

Another reason Franzen was ungrateful to be an Oprah pick was that he feared it would alienate his target audience.   Franzen told NPR’s Terry Gross:

So much of reading is sustained in this country, I think, by the fact that women read while men are off golfing or watching football on TV or playing with their flight simulator or whatever. I worry — I’m sorry that it’s, uh — I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now at bookstores say ‘If I hadn’t heard you, I would have been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women. I would never touch it.’ Those are male readers speaking.

Section 7: Logo of corporate ownership

Perhaps what bothered Franzen most was the Oprah logo that his publishers were placing on the book’s cover, as Franzen explained:

I see this as my book, my creation, and I didn’t want that logo of corporate ownership on it.  It’s not a sticker, it’s part of the cover.  They redo the whole cover.  You can’t take it off.  I know it says Oprah’s Book Club but it’s an implied endorsement, both for me and for her.  The reason I got in this business is because I’m an independent writer, and I didn’t want a corporate logo on my book.


Section 8: The backlash

Little did Franzen know, that Oprah herself was informed of these comments, and she wasn’t amused.  In October 2001, Oprah released a statement saying:

Jonathan Franzen will not be on the show because he is seemingly uncomfortable and conflicted about being chosen as a book club selection.  It is never my intention to make anyone uncomfortable or cause anyone conflict.  We have decided to skip the dinner and we’re moving on to the next book.

The sheer POWER of Oprah was such that with one brief statement, public opinion turned immediately against Franzen, as he went from America’s greatest author to America’s biggest snob, overnight.

“What an ungrateful bastard,” said one major New York literary agent.  “Even if he did have misgivings, he should have just accepted the selection graciously and said nothing.  After all, no one in America has helped sell more books than Oprah.”

Author Andre Dubus III stated:

It is so elitist it offends me deeply.  The assumption that high art is not for the masses, that they won’t understand it and they don’t deserve it — I find that reprehensible. Is that a judgment on the audience? Or on the books in whose company his would be?

Critic Dennis Loy Johnson wrote:

Well, let’s see, how many different people does that offend? Men are too stupid to read but Franzen prefers them to women readers, especially, apparently, those that watch Oprah. Is it misogyny, do you think, or class prejudice, or worse?

It was the “or worse?” that dangled so hauntingly from the end of the sentence.

Prominent publications would slam Franzen for being a “motherfucker”, an “ego-blinded snob” and a “spoiled, whiny little brat”.

In the publishing industry he was commonly referred to behind his back as that “pompous prick”.

Franzen would write a letter apologizing to Oprah, but would not hear back.

For ten long years, Oprah didn’t even bother to comment.  Was she angry, hurt, or simply didn’t care?  No one knew, because for an entire decade, the richest and most worshipped self-made woman on the planet stood in dignified decisive silence.

Perhaps Franzen had hoped that by dissing Oprah, he would be a hero to the cultural elites that so resented her power, but by evicting Franzen from her book club, the cunning Queen of All Media gained sympathy for being the victim of snobbery, and cheers for kicking an ungrateful elitist off her show. Despite the fact that Billionaire Oprah is roughly a thousand times richer than Millionaire Franzen, she was the populist hero while Franzen was the elite villain.

One might argue that this shows Franzen’s lack of intelligence, or at least social intelligence, but such a view would be short-sighted.  For the controversy increased book sales and exposed him to a much larger audience, and as the years passed, and Oprah became seen as more of an elite herself, the whole ugly episode would serve to cement Franzen’s status as a literary rebel, too sophisticated for mass market consumption.  And while he continues to be seen in some circles as a pretentious sexist snob, he appeared on the cover of Time magazine, was invited to meet Obama, and even Oprah finally had him on her show to formally burry the hatchet.

Section 9: When geek is sheek, Franzen’s high IQ fashion statement and the rise of the hipsters

Franzen’s IQ is interesting because rarely do you see someone so self-consciously intellectual.  And although Franzen claims to hate hipsters, he pretty much was one. As one critic observed:

Right down to the wardrobe–thick-rimmed geek glasses and tweed jackets abound–Franzen really wants to be one of these guys, among them someday read by bluestockings and PhD candidates.  And he seems, like DeLillo and Pynchon, to want to comment on society, to try to capture its ethos in print, but otherwise keep his hands clean of pop culture.

Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich observed:

Maybe you’ve even run across Franzen’s official photo during his burst of fame.  He’s a handsome guy.  He looks like he might show up in one of those high-art fashion ads that wants you to believe that the brooding, cleft-chinned model is a Harvard grad student because who else would wear such earnest glasses and not have time to shave?


Franzen’s hipster image further symbolizes his conflict with Oprah.  You see a lot of hipsters who look like Franzen working at Chapters book store  or working as baristas in the affiliated Starbucks where Chapters customers order coffee.   These used to role their eyes at the army of unhip middle aged housewives marching into the store demanding the latest Oprah selection.  Freud might say Franzen’s trapped in permanent adolescence, still rebelling against his Midwestern mother who might have resembled the typical Oprah fan.

Indeed Franzen has stated that as a teenager, when his father would go away, he would then become the man of the house, eating dinner with his mother in place of his father: the substitute husband.  This made the young Franzen very uncomfortable.

Section 10: Subjective impressions of Franzen’s IQ

In a review of Franzen’s latest book Purity, Sean Kinch writes:

Critics who find Franzen’s work too cerebral will bridle at the long passages in Purity concerning the Internet, art, economics, and so forth. Reviewing The Corrections, Norman Mailer said that Franzen “may well have the highest IQ of any American novelist writing today” but, “like a polymath, he lives much of the time in Wonkville Hollow.” Franzen does indeed stuff his novels with arcane information, often reeled off at rates of speed that prohibit first-reading comprehension, but Mailer’s criticism misses what makes works like Purity engaging. Franzen enthusiasts appreciate a writer who depicts educated, professional adults in all their complexity, which includes their intellectual conflicts and the pressures of their white-collar occupations. Purity will reinforce the author’s reputation for tackling esoteric topics, but he never loses sight of the messy, fleshy humans who bring them to life.

The average creative writer at the elite Iowa Writers’ Workshop has an IQ of 120, so if we assume working novelists also average 120 with a standard deviation of say 14 (Compared to the U.S. mean and SD of 100 and 15 respectively),  and if Franzen has the highest IQ of the some 19,000 working novelists in America (as Mailer implied), that would put his IQ at an astonishing 174! (one in 2.4 million level)

While Franzen is definitely very bright, this figure sounds ludicrously high.

Section 11: Statistically expected IQ of a literary Genius

Franzen is probably considered one of the five most accomplished writers in America, out of some 200 million American adults.  If there were a perfect correlation between IQ and writing skill, this would imply an IQ of 182 (82 points above the U.S. mean), but according to a study reported in the WAIS-IV (intelligence test) technical manual, the written expression subtest of the WIAT-II (achievement test) correlates 0.6 with WAIS-IV Full-Scale IQ.  However because the written expression subtest is just one brief subtest, correcting for its unreliability would raise the correlation to 0.7.   Given this 0.7 correlation between IQ and writing talent, we should regress to Franzen’s likely IQ to only 70% as far above the mean and thus 157.

However great achievement requires more than just raw talent. It also helps to have 10,000 hours of practice, among other things. Raw talent seems to explain 66%  to 70% of the variance in expert level performance, suggesting talent correlates 0.82 with performance.  Thus we need to regress Franzen again to only 82% as far above the mean, which brings his expected IQ to 147 (U.S. norms).

But this is just a crude statistical prediction with a sizeable standard of error.  Is there any evidence to support it?

Section 12: No more guessing games, actual psychometric data

The closest thing we have to an actual IQ test for Franzen is his appearance on Celebrity Jeopardy.  Although Franzen lost to cable commenter S.E. Cupp, that was only because he bet too much on Final Jeopardy.  Before the final bet, Franzen had $14,800, Cupp had $13,200 and TV journalist Chuck Todd had $12,200.  Thus, the three of them had a mean pre-final score of $13,400, with a standard deviation of $1,300 (adjusted for degrees of freedom given the small sample).  So Franzen was 1.08 standard deviations above the mean Jeopardy ability of Celebrity Jeopardy power players .  However in order to convert this to an IQ equivalent, we need to know the IQ distribution of said players.

Given that all the power players that night were either talking heads (average IQ 127) or novelists (average IQ 120), a rough guess is that they have a mean IQ around 125 with a standard deviation of 15 (same as the U.S. SD since they come from a range of occupations).

Thus, Franzen being 1.08 SD above this mean equates to an IQ of:

1.08(15) + 127 = 143

This is very close to the IQ 147 that we’d statistically expect from a literary Genius (see section 11).  Both are in the mid 140s.

Of course this score should be treated with great caution because it is based on only one fairly luck dependent measure of cognition (Jeopardy performance), the sample size against which Franzen was compared was tiny (three people and was skewed by the fact that Franzen himself was one of the three!)

Nonetheless an IQ of 143 (U.S. norms)(142 U.S. white norms) is very believable. Only one in several hundred Americans is this smart.  Incredibly high enough to explain his literary genius and hyper-intellectualism, yet low enough to explain why he was forced to change his major in college from Physics to German because, as he told CBC Radio, he didn’t have either “the talent or patience for high level math”.

Only very smart people should be allowed to vote

The Founding Fathers of the United States should have wrote the constitution such that only the most brilliant people could vote.  The problem is this would result in rich people having more power than they already do which would not be healthy, but if it were up to me I would make it so only the smartest 0.001% of each socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and geographic region of the United States were allowed to vote because that way, all major segments of society would be proportionately represented, but every voter would still be very smart.


No more personal attacks in the comment section

The comment section is getting really ugly and off-topic so I’ve decided to no longer allow personal attacks against anyone here (with the rare exception of attacks against me, if it’s something I feel compelled to respond to).  If I have time or if the comment is otherwise good, I may publish the comment with the personal attack redacted, but if I’m busy I’ll just moderate the entire comment.

Your brain on poverty by Afrosapiens

[Note from Pumpkin Person, July 25, 2017: The following guest post does not necessarily reflect the views of Pumpkin Person.  Out of respect for the author, please try to keep all comments on topic.  I understand conversations naturally evolve but at least start on topic.  It should be noted that the theories described have been severely criticised by Greg Cochran]

Poverty has long been associated with educational under-achievement and various behavioral issues. Although the underlying causes of these differences have been at the center of a nature vs.. Nurture debate for decades, it’s only recently that insights from neuroscience have allowed better understanding of how poverty affects the brain. Observations from MRI scans show slower brain growth in children growing up in low SES households (poor and near-poor) which results in reduced volume and grey matter thickness in the frontal and parietal cortices as well as lower amygdala and hippocampus size. All those affected brain areas are crucial to learning and social functioning as they govern cognitive and executive functions such as language, working and long-term memory, attention, impulse control, emotional management and information processing.


Although research using animal experiments indicate that the relationship between poverty and altered brain development is causal, it is yet not clear which aspect of poverty impacts which function the most. The most cited factors are stress, trauma, low stimulation, poor child-parent relationship, poor nutrition and poor health. Although it is also possible that genetics play a role in individual susceptibility to these factors, the idea that genetic background cause people to be poor in the first place and then have their brains damaged by environmental factors is not supported by science and belongs to pseudo-Darwinian creationism, especially since such deficits appear to be reversible to a substantial degree due to brain plasticity.

Various interventions to improve or prevent decrease in cognitive and executive function have shown good and lasting results in reducing behavioral issues and increasing school performance and job market participation. Interventions can take various forms, first of all, since poverty is lack of financial resources, income supports to families with children are an obvious means of limiting children’s exposure to poverty-related adversity. Although this is absolute common sense, conservative ideologues have managed to convince a large part of the public that pro-poor policies would in fact be harmful to the needy whereas pro-rich ones would mysteriously benefit them.

Besides redistribution, executive function coaching in the form of computer or non-computer games, aerobic exercise and sports, music, martial arts and mindfulness practices as well as improvements in school curricula and teaching methods have been shown to improve social and educational outcomes. One last type of intervention that yielded good results is nurse home visits to low-income mothers of young children which had the effect of improving developmental outcomes of children by teaching mothers parenting skills and healthy practices.

These interventions aren’t to be confused with efforts at increasing IQ that caused little improvement beyond temporarily increasing IQ scores, which has no relevance in terms of life outcomes. IQ can probably benefit from increased language skills and executive function but it doesn’t seem to be the target of remedial intervention on those underlying abilities of which IQ test performance would only be a byproduct.

Now you might wonder how big a problem child poverty and its neurological consequences are in contemporary societies. Although the most extreme and widespread child poverty is seen in developing countries, industrialized countries like the USA, Israel, Turkey, Chile and Spain have rates of prevalence above 20%, whereas countries in Western Europe tend to maintain rates around or below 10%.

While informative, reported child poverty rates only include those who live below an arbitrarily defined poverty threshold in a given year, but the effects on poverty likely affect those living only slightly above poverty line and do not meet their developmental needs and those who have experienced poverty in the past but were living above the threshold when the figures were reported.

Within the United States, significant differences in the prevalence and the nature of child poverty exist between ethnic groups with 34% of Native Americans, 13% of Asians/Pacific Islanders, 36% of African-Americans, 31% of Hispanics and 12% of European Americans living under poverty line in 2015.

Comparing African-Americans and European Americans, the nature of poverty differed markedly with 77% of African Americans experiencing poverty at least once in their childhood and 37% living in poverty for more than 9 years.In comparison, only 30% of European American children experienced poverty while growing up, including 5% for more than 9 years. 40% of black children and 8% of white children were poor at birth. Among those born poor, 60% of African Americans and 25% of European Americans were still poor at age 17, among those not born in poverty, 20% of black children and 5% of whites were poor at age 17.

With the effects of poverty worse felt at a younger age and during long periods of time, such interracial differences in prevalence and persistence of child poverty are one plausible large contributor to the observed gaps in educational and behavioral outcomes between the two groups.

Read more:

Estimating Jeff Bezos’s IQ


Commenter Deeru asked me to blog about Jeff Bezos’s IQ.  I don’t know much about him beyond seeing him on Oprah way back in the 1990s or early 2000s.  What I most remember is that he was constantly giggling and when he first came on stage he turned to the audience and said:

I just have one thing to say. I LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOVE OPRAH!…Oprah is the exact same person off camera as she is on TV.

Bezos was there to teach Oprah how to surf the web.

“It was fun surfing with you, Jeff” Oprah said flirtatiously causing Bezos to giggle even more.

At the time Bezos and Oprah were both already members of the Forbes 400 richest Americans list but since then Bezos’s fortune has skyrocketed to the second richest person in the World.

So what is his IQ?

Steve Hsu mentioned the following quote from Jeff Bezos:

So, I went to Princeton primarily because I wanted to study physics, and it’s such a fantastic place to study physics. Things went fairly well until I got to quantum mechanics and there were about 30 people in the class by that point and it was so hard for me. I just remember there was a point in this where I realized I’m never going to be a great physicist. There were three or four people in the class whose brains were so clearly wired differently to process these highly abstract concepts, so much more.

Notice that Bezos is clearly smart enough to understand that intelligence is a PHYSIOLOGICAL ability and not acquired knowledge and skill.  The brains of super smart people are WIRED differently.  He continues:

I was doing well in terms of the grades I was getting, but for me it was laborious, hard work. And, for some of these truly gifted folks — it was awe-inspiring for me to watch them because in a very easy, almost casual way, they could absorb concepts and solve problems that I would work 12 hours on, and it was a wonderful thing to behold. At the same time, I had been studying computer science, and was really finding that that was something I was drawn toward. I was drawn to that more and more and that turned out to be a great thing. So I found — one of the great things Princeton taught me is that I’m not smart enough to be a physicist.

This tells us Bezos math IQ was much lower than the top four math students of his Princeton graduating class.  So what was their math IQ?  Given that about 1100 people graduated from Princeton a year, these top four represent the top 0.36%.  If we assume Princeton was representative of the top ten colleges in America, who enrolled 18,000 freshman a year circa 1990, and if we further assume that virtually 100% of the pinnacle of U.S. math talent ended up at a top ten college (and whatever shortfall was balanced by brilliant foreign students), then this top 0.36% of the top ten colleges represented the 65 best math minds out of all 3 million U.S. 18-year-olds per year.  This equates to a math IQ of 161+.

So we know Bezos’s math IQ was much lower than 161.

At the same time, the mere fact that he was in this extremely challenging math class, and was getting good grades suggests his math IQ was well above the average Princeton student’s.  Circa 1990, the average math SAT score at Harvard (and presumably Princeton also) was in the 695 to 718 range (pre-recentering), which I estimated equated to a math IQ of 133.

So we can guess Bezos’s math IQ is well above 133 yet well below 161.  Can we be more precise than that?  A member of the Prometheus high IQ society had a brilliant theory that because the human mind operates in parallel, complex learning and problem solving speed doubles every 5 IQ points.  So if it took Bezos 12 hours to grasp the physics concepts that his math IQ 161+ classmates grasped easily and casually (i.e. in under an hour?), then:

Math IQ 161+ = grasp in under an hour

Math IQ 156 = grasp in under 2 hours

Math IQ 151 = grasp in under 4 hours

Math IQ 146 = grasp in under 8 hours

Math IQ 141 = grasp in under 16 hours

Thus, I’m guessing Bezos has a math IQ above 141 but below 146.  Let’s say 144 (U.S. norms), or 143 (U.S. white norms).  Smarter than 99.8% of Americans in his generation.

Of course math IQ is not the same as overall IQ, but this nonetheless seems like a random non-biased sample of his intelligence so I would not expect his official IQ to regress to the mean the way it does for Ivy League students as a whole.

Converting GMAT scores to IQ

Commenter Deeru asked me to convert GMAT scores to IQ equivalents.  This is always tricky because while IQ tests are normed on the general population of Western countries, college admission tests are normed on only the educated segment of a population, so converting from one type of norming to another requires some assumptions.

According to Wikipedia:

The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT (/ˈmæt/ (JEE-mat))) is a computer adaptive test (CAT) intended to assess certain analytical, writing, quantitative, verbal, and reading skills in written English for use in admission to a graduate management program, such as an MBA.[3] It requires knowledge of certain grammar and knowledge of certain algebra, geometry, and arithmetic. The GMAT does not measure business knowledge or skill, nor does it measure intelligence.[4] According to the test owning company, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), the GMAT assesses analytical writing and problem-solving abilities, while also addressing data sufficiency, logic, and critical reasoning skills that it believes to be vital to real-world business and management success.[5] It can be taken up to five times a year. Each attempt must be at least 16 days apart.[6]

It’s ironic how they deny the GMAT is an intelligence test, while in the next sentence describing it is a test of “problem-solving abilities” because one of the most common definitions of intelligence is the (cognitive) ability to problem solve.  It’s clear that the people who make the GMAT are trying to have their cake and eat it too.  They want the predictive validity of an IQ type test, while at the same time, want to be seen as good liberals who don’t believe in IQ.

Of course any test that measures literacy and numeracy  will tend to correlate substantially with g (the general factor of all cognition, measured by IQ tests) whether the test manufacturers intended it to be an IQ test or not because symbolism itself (words and numbers) is a defining feature of the human intellect.

Here’s some basic GMAT data:


My first observation is that from about 300 to 700, GMAT scores are more or less normally distributed with a mean of 551.94 and a standard deviation (SD) of 120.88.

GMAT scores of 300 to 700

If we assume that the GMAT population is roughly equivalent to the U.S. college graduate population (mean IQ 111, SD = 13.5), compared to the general U.S. population (mean IQ 100, SD = 15), then the following formula equates GMAT scores to IQ equivalents (U.S. norms):

Formula one (for GMAT scores of 300 to 700):

IQ = [(GMAT score – 551.94)/120.88](13.5) + 111

GMAT scores of 700 to 800

However much like the pre-1995 SAT, GMAT scores seem to become much more rare than the Gaussian curve would predict at the highest levels (perhaps because of ceiling bumping or even Spearman’s Law of Diminishing Returns reducing the correlation between sub-sections).  For example, a score of 800 is 2.05 SD above the GMAT mean, which on a Gaussian curve, predicts one in 52 GMAT testees should score 800.  Instead Deeru claims only one in 6,667 scores this high!

But in order to map this to the IQ scale, we need to know how many people  would score 800 on the GMAT if all four million 22-year-old Americans took the GMAT every year (including college dropouts, high school dropouts etc).

I begin with the assumption that the higher you would score on a graduate school admission test, the more likely you are to actually take such a test (given the correlation between academic talent and education level). and so roughly 100% of U.S. 22-year-olds who would score perfect on a graduate school admission test, actually take such a test, and whatever shortfall there may be is roughly balanced by perfect scoring foreign-test takers, or test-takers from other age groups.

Thus people who score perfect on graduate school admission tests did not merely score higher than those who are applying to graduate school, but they scored higher than all 22-year-olds in America, if all 22-year-olds took these tests.

So if only 30 people a year score perfect on the GMAT, does that mean that only 30 of the four million 22-year-olds in America each year would score 800 on the GMAT?  No, because there are many genius 22-year-olds who would have scored 800 on the GMAT had they decided to major in business, but instead are busy acing the LSAT or the GRE or the MCAT etc.

Only 23.6% of advanced degrees are in business, thus I estimate that only 23.6% of people who write graduate school admission tests are writing the GMAT.  But if 100% of aspiring grad students wrote it, then the number scoring perfect each year should jump from 30 to 127.

So assuming roughly 100% of U.S. 22-year-olds who would have scored perfect on grad school admission tests actually take said tests (and whatever shortfall is roughly balanced by foreigners and other age groups), and assuming only 23.6% of said testees take the GMAT in particular, then:

if all four million U.S. 22-year-olds took the GMAT, only 127 would score 800, which means that an 800 is a one in 31,497 level score.  This equates to an IQ of 160 (U.S. norms).

So given that:

GMAT 800 = IQ 160

and given that 700 = IQ 128 (per formula one), then the following formula equates high GMAT scores to IQ (U.S. norms):

formula two (for GMAT scores 700 to 800):

IQ = 0.32(GMAT score) – 96

I do not consider the GMAT or any other college admission test to be a particularly good measure of intelligence, however when scores from actual IQ tests are not known, the above conversions are a useful proxy.


Intelligence and problem solving

Commenter Gypsy recently sent me the following email:

I know it’s a little dumb to mention it again, especially after so much time has elapsed between convos about it, but I feel as though definitions of intelligence posed most commonly (Adaptability, problem solving, even potentially reasoning) lack an intuitive connection to an essential side of intelligence commonly ignored mainly because of our main practise for assessing intelligence: Problem POSING. We discover intelligence broadly by posing questions and assessing the ability of the candidate to deliver the correct answer, but the construction of a sophisticated plan is an essential and actually more used element of intelligence that is not immediately implied by the definitions we propose.

I know that problem proposition is implied by the definition, but the language doesn’t intuitively convey it and it is thus not immediately implied. I think the language used should be as intuitive as possible so as to immediately capture the essence of the thing itself all at once.

Thanks for reading,

If I understand Gypsy’s email correctly, he seems to be saying that the inherent flaw in how we define and measure intelligence is that we only look at the ability to solve problems, when a crucial part of being smart is identifying the problem itself.

Of course I would argue that it’s not our intelligence that identifies the problem, but rather it’s our feelings.  If we feel the slightest bit of discomfort, even if it’s something as trivial as an itch that needs to be scratched, it’s by definition a problem (since it’s bothering us), and our intelligence is just the brain’s problem solving computer that solves whatever problems our feelings identify.

Now we evolved to feel pleasure when we are engaging in behavior that enhances our genetic fitness (surviving, making money, making love, making friends) and feel pain when we are denied these achievements, and so we are generally motivated to use our intelligence to our genetic advantage,  at least to some degree, or it couldn’t have evolved in the first place.

However because everyone’s incentive structure is unique, one man’s problem is another man’s solution, so an IQ test must DECIDE for us what the problem is, so everyone’s problem solving computer (IQ) can be tested by the same standard.

However where Gypsy makes a very good point (if I understand him) is that the problem solving IQ tests often demand is very one dimensional, while in the real life strategic situations Gypsy is interested in, we have problems within problems within problems.

So instead of the problem being clearly defined like it is on most IQ tests (how do I fit the puzzle pieces together to make an animal?) it could be something as complex as “how do I win a war?”  This is such a complex problem that you have to break it down into lots of mini-problems, and solve them in the correct sequence, while at the same time, the problem is constantly changing because your enemy is adapting to each of your moves.

German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke famously stated ““No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

I actually don’t think IQ tests do a very good job at capturing this kind of dynamic interactive problem solving because all of the problems on IQ tests are static and simple enough to be solved in a few minutes.  What is needed is not so much an IQ test, but an interactive IQ contest, where people compete in a cognitively demanding zero sum game where one person must outsmart the other.

I used to think chess was the ultimate test of intelligence, but its sensitivity to practice and teaching, and the fact that computers do better than people, dampened my enthusiasm.

What is needed is a version of chess that’s constantly changing, so you can’t practice it or study openings, endgames, and traps, you must constantly invent your own; because one day the board has 64 squares, the next day it has 225.  One day each side has one queen, the next day each side has eight queens etc.  Perhaps some genius could write a computer chess program where such changes would occur randomly, so whoever had the highest rating on this constantly changing version of chess, would be judged the smartest person.

But unfortunately no matter how much you altered the size of the chess board or the number of pieces, computers would probably still beat people, so what is needed is a strategy game that computers can’t outsmart us at, if it’s going to have credibility as a test of intelligence.

Mug of Pee’s IQ

Commenter Philosopher wanted to know what I think Mug of Pee’s IQ is.

On college admission tests, Mug of Pee’s IQ equivalent is as high as 160, but on actual IQ tests like the Wechsler intelligence scale which he took at age nine, I crudely estimate Mug of Pee scored 127 (after adjusting for old norms).

Now, normally when someone has a huge achievement score > IQ score gap, they are described as overachievers, because they have learned far more than their IQ would predict.  Instead of humbly accepting this label, Mug of Pee has devoted his life to denying any distinction between IQ tests and achievement tests, irrationally claiming the SAT is the best IQ test and  pretentiously dismissing actual IQ tests as “soi-disant IQ tests”.

So what is his true IQ?

In order to answer this question, we must first note that IQ tests are largely considered valid to the extent that they measure g (general intelligence).  g is simply whatever causes all cognitive abilities to positively correlate.  The g loadings of the Wechsler and the SAT in the general U.S. population are not known, but by dividing their correlations with the Raven by the Raven’s g loading, it can be estimated that the Wechsler has a g loading of 0.94 and the SAT has a g loading of 0.68.  Further, based on the fact that Dartmouth students, largely selected based on SAT scores, regressed nearly half way to the U.S. mean on the WAIS, I estimate the WAIS and SAT correlate 0.52.

Armed with these three statistics, the following regression equation can be built (hat-tip to a member of Prometheus who suggested such equations to me many years ago):

Expected g Z score = 0.8(Wechsler Z score) + 0.26(college admission test Z score)

So, since I estimate Mug of Pee has a Z score of +1.8 on the Wechsler (IQ 127) and as high as +4 on college admission tests (IQ equivalent of 160), we’ll plug those values into the equation:

Expected g Z score = 0.8(1.8) + 0.26(4)

Expected g Z score = 1.44 + 1.04

Expected g Z score = 2.48

So on a hypothetically perfect measure of psychometric g, Mug of Pee would be expected to score 2.48 standard deviations above the U.S. mean (IQ 137).  We can say with 95% certainty that his true level of g is between 129 and 145.


The SAT is to IQ as shadows are to height


Arthur Jensen noted how measuring a trait indirectly can often lead to misleading conclusions.  He compared it to measuring a person’s height by measuring the height of their shadow.  The correlation between actual height and shadow height could be extremely strong under controlled conditions, but when the position of the sun moves, the measurements become meaningless.

I think giving someone an official IQ test like the Wechsler, is somewhat analogous to measuring their height directly on a stadiometer, while giving someone the SAT is like measuring height from one’s shadow.  Because you’re not directly observing how fast one can learn like you do on many Wechsler subtests, you’re indirectly inferring it from how much they know.

Of course shadow measurements can be extremely accurate.  If everyone is measured at the same time of day,  shadow height will correlate near perfectly with actual height, and when everyone takes the SAT with a similar academic background, the SAT correlates near perfectly with general intelligence (the g factor) as found in a sample from the University omTexas at San Antonio.

.However in America, there’s a strong class divide, so you have the upper class, who studies AP algebra, geometry, calculus and Shakespeare, and then you have the lower class, who attends working class schools and is dissuaded from going to college at all.  The lower class tend not to even take the SAT, but when they do, they tend to score below their genetic potential.  For example Bill Cosby had an IQ equivalent around 80 on the SAT despite being very intelligent on an official IQ test and known for his comic wit.  Other quick comic minds from working class backgrounds who underperformed on the SAT include Rosie O’Donnell and Howard Stern.

A good analogy would be the upper class has their shadow height measured in the morning where shadows are quite long.  The lower class has their shadow height measured in the afternoon, when shadow height is quite short.  Now within each class, shadow height may correlate near perfectly with stadiometer height, just as within each class, the SAT may correlate near perfectly with official IQ.  But when the ENTIRE population is aggregated, the correlation between shadow height and stadiometer height plummets because of the class inequality, just like the correlation between SATs and official IQ scores plummet.

This explains why people who are 46 IQ points above the U.S. mean on the new SAT regress to only 21 IQ points above the U.S. mean on the Raven IQ test, suggesting the new SAT correlates 21/46 = 0.46 with the Raven in the general U.S. population.  Arthur Jensen noted that the correlation between two tests is a product of their factor loadings, so assuming the only factor the SAT and Raven share is g, then dividing their 0.46 correlation by the 0.68 g loading of the Raven tells us the SAT also has a g loading of 0.68, or roughly 0.7 if you like round numbers.

A g loading of 0.7 is not low, and tells us the SAT is a reasonable proxy for g in the general U.S. population, but it’s nowhere near the 0.9 g loading the SAT enjoys in more socioeconomically homogenous subsets of America such as students at the University of Texas at San Antonio.  This is because the general U.S. population is analogous to people having their shadow heights measured at different times of day, while the students at a given local university are analogous to students all having their shadow height measured at the same time of day, thus maximizing the correlation between shadow height and real height. 

Reaction norms vs independent genetic effects

Commenter Mug of Pee writes:

he rots in the [Northern] california coast.


he sears/is sere and dies in the Saguaro National Park.


so [an HBDer] walks through Redwood National Park. he looks around and sees no cacti. he concludes that cacti are genetically inferior to redwoods.

he walks through Saguaro National Park. he looks around and sees no redwoods. he concludes that redwoods are genetically inferior to cacti.

Mug of Pee has been preaching the gospel of reaction norms for years and insisting that HBDers don’t grasp the concept.  I think I do, though I never heard of it until Mug of Pee mentioned it.  It was not discussed in any HBD book I read (though I’ve only read a few authors).

The Phenotype = Genotype + Environment model (independent genetic effects)

Of course I was well aware that environment affects IQ (the Flynn effect is proof of that), but my thinking was confined to the Phenotype = Genotype + Environment model which states that while the same genotype can have a very different phenotype depending on which environment it’s reared in,  the rank order of phenotypes will remain very constant regardless of which environment the genotypes are reared in, as long as they’re reared in the same one.

So for example, although environment drastically affects the heights of men and women (both sexes are much taller today than in the 19th century, and both sexes are much taller in the developed World than in the Third World) the male > female height gap remains of similar size and direction across time and place.

Reaction norm model (dependent genetic effects)

The reaction norms model is more subtle, instead arguing that genes for tallness in environment A might be genes for shortness in environment B, so while men might be taller than women in America, if those same genotypes were raised in a different country, the women might be taller than the men.

Of course in reality we don’t see this.  Men are taller than women on average in every country and time period I’m aware of, thus the sex-linked height genes would be what Mug of Pee calls “independent genetic effects”, meaning their effect on the phenotype is independent of the environment (the Phenotype = Genotype + Environment model) because no matter what environment you’re in, having a Y chromosome adds height.

You’ll be much taller if raised in 21st century Western Europe than in 19th century sub-Saharan Africa, but in both times and places, you’ll be much taller with a Y chromosome than without.  Mug of Pee concedes that physical genotypes (i.e. height genes) tend to have independent genetic effects, however he suspects that mental genotypes (IQ genes, personality genes, genes for autism and schizophrenia) have dependent genetic effects because humans are cultural creatures known for our behavioral plasticity.

Mug of Pee feels that most estimates of the heritability of IQ (whether from twin studies of Genome-wide Complex Trait Analysis) are too high because they are limited to people in the same country, and it could be that a certain genotype increases IQ all over that country, thus spuriously increasing heritability, when in another country it may decrease IQ.  To get a better estimate of heritability, Mug of Pee would like to see a study where identical twins reared apart were not just raised in different towns, but different developed countries (i.e. an American’s identical twin is raised in Japan, a Canadian’s identical twin is raised in Germany).  If this were done, Mug of Pee feels the adult IQ correlation of identical twins raised apart would drop precipitously because a genotype that intellectually benefits from one country’s language or education system might be stunted by another’s.

In support for the reaction norm model of IQ, Mug of Pee frequently cites Ashkenazi Jews who were intellectually super accomplished in the 20th century, but barely a blip on the radar screen in prior centuries.

Ability vs. success

The problem with thinking IQ follows a reaction norm model is that IQ is moderately correlated with physical traits like brain size and highly correlated with physiological abilities like the speed and consistency of complex reaction times and physical genotypes seem to have independent genetic effects.

However Mug of Pee might be half-right.  While IQ genes probably have independent genetic effects, success genes (i.e. wealth, status, power, eminence) probably follow the reaction norm model to a large degree.  So while Ashkenazi Jews may have had higher IQs than gentiles for many centuries, their achievements only surpassed those of Gentiles in the 20th century because the cultural and economic changes that occurred were both favorable to the Ashkenazi genotype and unfavourable to the Gentile genotype.

So wealth, status, and achievement genotypes may have environment dependent effects.  Billionaire Warren Buffet has stated that his brain is just wired for a certain type of thinking that happens to be valued in modern markets, but in other periods of history he would have been a loser.  So while Warren’s mathematical genotype is an independent genetic effect, his wealth genotype may be a dependent genetic effect.  Bill Maher has stated that he’s only rich because it’s a fluke to live in a society where you gain wealth by telling jokes.

So one can see how a reaction norm view of humanity would correlate with Marxism and commenter Mug of Pee is a devout Marxist.

I suspect the heritability of income, power, and status would drop much more when moving from a within country twin study to an international twin study, than the heritability of IQ would because I suspect achievement is much more culture dependent than IQ.  Nonetheless, I feel even the former variables are caused by some independent genetic effects.