A history of IQ testing

Ever since its conception, IQ tests has had its relevance, usefulness, and legitimacy constantly questioned and challenged—with good reason, albeit said reasons aren’t what we will be focusing on in this article. Instead, we would first like to set the stage for examining said reasons by taking a look at the history of the IQ test.

Previously, we went through a brief introduction of the IQ test’s origin, in Is IQ the Same as Intelligence?. This time around, we’ll be looking at not only how it was conceptualized, but also how it has evolved, and its utility throughout the times

The beginning

Documentation reveals that early intelligence tests were likely to have first been developed in Europe and America, with said tests attesting to their unbiased measurement of cognitive abilities.

We’ve already talked about the very first of these tests developed by the French psychologist, Alfred Binet, and how the Binet-Simon Scale thereby became the cornerstone for contemporary IQ testing.

What we’ve yet to mention, however, is how Binet had actually voiced his opinion that such tests were largely inadequate measures for intelligence, due to their lack of capacity in capturing aspects such as creativity and emotional intelligence.

Regardless, it being a quick and simple indicator of intelligence—though unthorough—was still highly valued by society for its usefulness in the screening of applicants, with many institutions in the United States (such as its military, police force, and education system) employing its utility.

The popularization of IQ tests came also with an argument that one’s level of intelligence was heavily influenced by one’s biology and race, due to the pointing out of apparent gaps between the scores returned by ethnic minorities and the whites, as well as between low- and high-income groups.

A Step Further (in the Wrong Direction)

Carl Brigham, one of the early founders of psychometrics, then published his book, A Study of American Intelligence, wherein—via statistical analyses—he puts forth a declining American intelligence and states its culprits to be increased immigration and racial integration. He then proposes social policies restricting immigration and prohibiting racial mixing as solutions.

Though seemingly absurd in the times we live in today, Brigham was by no means alone in his argument. Many acknowledged scholars—such as Lewis Terman—had cited a similar argument, or expressed agreement in one way or another.

IQ tests then were largely used as a powerful tool in excluding and controlling marginalized groups, via biased and unthorough empirical and scientific backing. Over 65,000 Americans who were found to be ‘feeble-minded’ due to low IQ scores were forced into sterilization; they were disproportionately from colored and low-income communities.

This continued for about fifty years.

A Step Forward (in the Right Direction)

Thankfully, the compulsory sterilization of American citizens based on levels of IQ has since been delegitimized by the 1970s. Arguments against the previously dominant hereditarian hypotheses have started to garner more much required traction, and it is now mostly recognized that its precedent opposing studies had major flaws—namely a severe lack of evidence, weak statistical analyses, and an obvious underlying racial biasness.

It is now largely acknowledged that intelligence is very much culture-specific, in that what can be considered to be intelligent in one community may not be as such in another. The dated IQ tests did not consider such a factor of influence, and were designed in a mainly white, Western context, which makes them potentially inaccurate and problematic in its implications.

Today, IQ tests pose as a much greater tool for aide than harm, where its often employed in education systems to facilitate tailored education for those recognized as being ‘gifted’, to fully nurture their potential. They’ve also been used in the identification of structural inequalities, by using IQ scores in adolescents as potential indicators for consideration when evaluating the impacts of environmental exposure to certain substances (such as lead) on brain health.

All in all, IQ testing has come to a much better place than before, albeit there are still active debates left unaddressed. If you’re interested, we’ve a few exploratory articles in this regard, such as Is Intelligence Hereditary? and Culture-Fair Intelligence Tests. Alternatively, you can also click here for a full list of related topics.