Can a person be very intelligent, able to solve difficult problems if given enough time, yet really a slow thinker? Especially if nervous. Could such a slow thinking brilliant person get all the questions on an IQ test correct even though they were 20 minutes beyond the required end of the test?

Another way of putting this question is regarding the validity of time limits on IQ tests. How have these been arrived at? Have other (extended) time limits been tested? Have such time limits yielded different (higher) scores?

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ The difficulty with this question is finding an operationalized and valid definition of "brilliant" that isn't just "got those questions right", because under that definition the question becomes just "Could a slow-thinking person get all the questions correct even though slow?" $\endgroup$
    – Krysta
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 16:14
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Isn't that question answered in your own text? You can't score correctly on the questions after the time limit is up. That doesn't seem like a meaningful question, though. $\endgroup$
    – Krysta
    Commented Jun 3, 2015 at 16:55
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ A computer programmer once told me that a good programmer can do in 3 days what a poor programmer cannot do in a lifetime. Perhaps more on point to your question: Nervousness can cause decrements in performance. $\endgroup$
    – Joel W
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 15:29
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ This question doesn't really make much sense. As Krysta said, IQ tests incorporate a time limit, so if you're 20 minutes behind, you will score low, and therefore can't also score high. How this maps on to your idea of 'brilliance' is unclear. You might want to read Ritchie's new lay book on IQ, Intelligence: All That Matters. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 25, 2015 at 8:59
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Perhaps the question should be "is the IQ test valid," to which you would probably get several reasons why it is not, this perhaps being only one of them. $\endgroup$
    – theMayer
    Commented Jul 15, 2015 at 11:23

3 Answers 3


An otherwise 'brilliant' person can be slow at solving certain problems, yes. And no, cognitive performance is not the same thing as running a marathon. A marathon measures your ability to reach a certain point in a certain amount of time. An intelligence test (or any academic test, for that matter) assesses to make sure that you have learned the material well enough that you can correctly answer a subset of questions pertaining to the material within a certain time constraint. The motivations here are completely different.

That being said, I would argue that the ability to answer questions rapidly has less to do with intelligence and more to do with executive functioning. For the sake of argument, I am going to use the word 'genius' to describe what you may otherwise be describing as a 'brilliant' person:

A genius is a person who displays exceptionally superior intellectual ability, creativity, or originality, typically to a degree that is associated with the achievement of new advances in a domain of knowledge...There is no scientifically precise definition of genius, and the question of whether the notion itself has any real meaning has long been a subject of debate, although psychologists are converging on a definition that emphasizes creativity and eminent achievement.

Notice how this definition capitalizes on creativity, originality, and an understanding of a domain of knowledge to the point where he or she can advance the field forward. Notice how there is no mention of cognitive speed or processing speed outlined here. However, take a look at the definition of executive functioning:

Executive functions (also known as cognitive control and supervisory attentional system) is an umbrella term for the management (regulation, control) of cognitive processes, including working memory, reasoning, task flexibility, and problem solving as well as planning and execution.

Sounds like executive functioning plays a large role in one's ability to rapidly solve problems. And this makes sense.

Consider "wonder drugs" (amphetamines, Modafinil, even caffeine) that typically boost cognitive performance and processing speed. One can take a drug to become more focused, and to increase their executive functioning. Amphetamines in particular (such as Vyvanse, Adderall, Ritalin) are drugs that are commonly administered to children and adults who struggle with ADHD -- a disorder caused by "significant problems with executive functions." 1 These drugs work by increasing norepinephrine and dopamine in the brain, thus temporarily boosting cognitive performance. Would you call a medicated adult with (ordinarily) poor executive functioning 'brilliant', as opposed to the unmedicated adult? To do so wouldn't make sense, unless we are to assume that one's intelligence is malleable based on the drugs that they take -- in which case, perhaps IQ tests (and achievement tests in general) are worthless.

I would reject the definition for 'intelligence' given earlier

The ... capacity of the individual ... to deal effectively with his environment

because it can be used to refer to a multitude of things. The 'capacity of the individual to deal effectively with his environment' would more easily fit the stereotype of the salesman than that of the absentminded college professor. Take this description of Albert Einstein:

[Einstein] was forgetful, could never find his keys and often seemed oblivious to his surroundings.

And take this description of Isaac Newton, taken from the Oxford Press:

Quarrelsome and quirky, a disheveled recluse who ate little, slept less, and yet had an iron constitution, Isaac Newton rose from a virtually illiterate family to become one of the towering intellects of science.

None of these descriptions leave me with the impression that these otherwise-intelligent men had a knack for 'deal[ing] effectively with his environment'. Is the environment not external -- the antithesis of mental?

  • $\begingroup$ Einstein said something like ,imagination is more important than intelligence. So maybe I.Q. tests are not a good measure of intelligence potential.... $\endgroup$
    – 201044
    Commented Jul 25, 2015 at 11:12
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ IQ tests are typically looking for one 'right' answer (a 'convergent' solution) to a problem, whereas creativity (by loose definition) capitalizes on one's ability to produce a novel and often brilliant solution to the same problem (a 'divergent' solution). In fact, those who struggle with convergent thinking often compensate with an extraordinary ability to think divergently. I believe that Einstein was one of these men. Neither method is incorrect, and both have contributed to the advancement of scientific reasoning. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 26, 2015 at 1:40
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ I think I.Q. tests really measure how fast one can efficiently process information and thus creativity-potential might not be considered. Although if one uses creative ' leaps' or ' cleverness' one could probably 'see' shortcuts to useful answers faster than just processing relevant information quickly.. $\endgroup$
    – 201044
    Commented Aug 29, 2015 at 5:12

There are many definitions of intelligence. I find the one given by David Wechsler (1944) useful in the context of this question:

The ... capacity of the individual ... to deal effectively with his environment

Finding a solution quickly is sometimes necessary if you want to deal with your environment effectively. Not all problems will wait for you to solve them slowly. Which is why the concept of intelligence usually includes a time component and a person solving the same problem slower is considered less intelligent.

"Brilliance" is not a psychological concept.


  • Wechsler, D (1944). The measurement of adult intelligence. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins.
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ If a person is able to solve problems consistently in clever ways but he or she does not do this in what might be considered a rapid fashion would they not be considered intelligent only because of the time taken? $\endgroup$
    – 201044
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 6:59
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Brilliance may not be a psychological concept ( why though is it that psychologists are the ones who 'make up' these tests?) but how one handles one's intellectual ability and how one uses it when interacting with others is a psychological concept. How one is regarded because of any so-called measure of intelligence is a psychological problem if as Binet once alluded to ; that I.Q. tests could unfairly categorize people. For instance a very creative thinker might not be 'good' at I.Q.-style puzzles. $\endgroup$
    – 201044
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 20:11
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ This site is about psychology and the cognitive sciences. We are not concerned with what lay people might find reasonable. When we talk about intelligence, that is a scientific term with a clear definition, and if you ask us what intelligence is or isn't our answers will be based on that definition and not the informal everyday meaning of the word. For that you must consult a dictionary. This site is not for lay people. We require a certain expertise, if you want to ask a question. Otherwise you will be unable to comprehend the answer. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Jun 24, 2015 at 18:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Intelligence testing DOES concern lay people and also whether certain 'average' people may qualify for a job or university placement; intelligence tests may be administered by so called experts in cognition but they may miss the possibility of a clever person being terrible at time-limited tests , that happen to hold the key for a better job or school. As 'what' says if cognitive analysis is ONLY understandable by professionals and yet many 'average' people are limited by these very same tests ( in what jobs or school they can 'enter' ) that they couldn't understand ; this seems unfair. $\endgroup$
    – 201044
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 2:31
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The problem with your argument is that a fast thinker will solve more problems in the same time as a slow thinker. Even if the slow thinker can solve equally difficult problems, there is a difference in performance. If your concept of intelligence ignores this difference, then it does not encompass all aspects that are relevant to cognitive performance. You are basically saying that someone who walks a marathon in two days is just as good an athlete as a person who runs it in two hours. And that is ridiculous. $\endgroup$
    – user3116
    Commented Jun 28, 2015 at 4:17

Even though this is an old post, I'll post what I found online. I found the accepted answer to be missing something. For me, the definition of intelligence includes (even) more than either processing speed, or

"creativity, originality, and an understanding of a domain of knowledge",

the points Sydney names. There's also the ability to understand difficult concepts with ease, for example.

So, I understood the question as "Are there people who understand difficult concepts very easily, but take longer than others to solve simpler problems / understand simpler concepts?" (While these others might not manage to understand the difficult concepts at all, or at least take much longer until they do).

I found only annectotal evidence that "brilliance" while being slow could be possible: - In his post, Jonah Sinick writes that "They referred me to a school psychologist, who found that I had exceptionally high reasoning abilities, but only average short term memory and processing speed:[...]"

At least it seems that processing speed can be separated from other factors of intelligence:

  • In their book "Information Processing Speed in Clinical Populations", J. DeLuca and J. Kalmar describe (in chapter 1, paragraph "Processing speed in the assessment of intelligence", ~p.12-14 - I could read it on google books), how they added another factor "processing speed" to the "Wechsler adult intelligence scale - III" because they found it to be an indepentent factor. (Other "indices" are verbal comprehension, perceptual organization, working memory. Don't know whether there are more.)
  • In an article on childhood math skill development: " Findings suggest that EC [they mean 'executive capability'] and processing speed are tightly intertwined in early childhood. As EC becomes progressively decoupled from processing speed with age, it begins to take on unique, discriminative importance for children's mathematics achievement."

I'd say

  1. Processing speed definitely is a part of intelligence (as other posts say).
  2. It's not the only factor, and an IQ test should make it possible to measure other factors separately.

There's different IQ tests out there, I don't know how much they separate this factor from others.

Edit: Regarding the 'Wechsler adult intelligence scale' IQ test:

According to Wikipedia, in WAIS-III and WAIS-IV, there are only the mentioned four secondary indices. And WAIS-IV seems to separate a category not depending on neither working memory, nor processing speed; it's called "General Ability Index".


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.