Certain groups perform worse on IQ tests than other. How do psychologists ensure that those differences aren't purely related to differing levels of education between those groups?

How do we know that IQ is a real phenomenon, and not just a purely social factor based on level of intelligence?


2 Answers 2


Short answer
Any intelligence test will be designed for a certain target population. That target population's score is set at an index of 100 for the standard IQ test. The same test applied to people from a different cultural background, or other socioeconomic status may yield numbers that are unreliable, as they my not understand the question (albeit knowing the answer), or they may lack the vocabulary, or even interest altogether.

IQ is highly dependent on education; For instance, an illiterate person cannot perform an IQ test at all. And indeed, education can generally affect IQ scores (e.g., Dear & Johnson, 2010). Further, IQ tests are Western constructs and do not apply in many other cultures. So IQ tests are anything but objective. They only apply validly to compare people with a certain educational background. Bush people in the outbacks of Africa may not use numbers at all, but instead may rely on 'one', 'two', perhaps' three' and 'many'. They may be highly intelligent, we simply cannot assign a number to it, simply because they don't care about numbers, geometry, classifications, logic, and other standard components of IQ tests. The APA says rightfully

Researchers of cultural differences in intelligence face a major challenge, however: balancing the desire to compare people from various cultures according to a standard measure with the need to assess people in the light of their own values and concepts.

- Dear & Johnson, Int J Epidemiol (2010); 39(1): 1362–9

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think the girdlock here is a philosophical one: how we define inteligence in the first place, and whether we can really draw a sharp line between a natural intelligence (e.g. the one found among uneducated Bush people) and how it is evolved and expressed by/in education. I think we need a notion similar to the traditional distinction between a potential and actual intelligence that Muslim philosophers presented (See SEP entry) and indefinite levels that go between, if we are to draw theoratical conclusions from IQ tests. $\endgroup$
    – infatuated
    Commented Jun 7, 2020 at 9:28

I'm a research psychologist. I don't agree with some of the assertions by @AliceD above. A lot of the disagreement on this topic is about what we mean when we say intelligence, so it would be helpful to define what you mean by IQ. To a psychologist, IQ refers to a specific measure, not the general construct of intelligence. Certainly the use of measure matters a lot:

Discussion of what intelligence means across cultures: https://www.apa.org/monitor/feb03/intelligence.aspx

The original IQ tests such as the Stanford-Binet were more culturally dependent, similar to the infamous SAT question about a 'regatta', which is a term that certain income and ethnic groups learn about more frequently.

However, for decades cognitive scientists measure intelligence with diverse methods, many without words at all (so there's less room for some types of bias). Performance on these tasks all correlate positively in populations, and are taken to indicate a stable underlying trait: g for general intelligence. Education improves g, but not very much! About 1 IQ point per year of education, or ~1/15th a standard deviation per year.

The biggest effects on g are genetic mutations, lead exposure, malnutrition, stuff like that. All g outcomes are complex interactions between genes and environment.

Accessible, affordable, brief book of the research that addresses many misunderstandings: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Intelligence-That-Matters-Stuart-Ritchie/dp/1444791877

About the original question, if one measures education and g separately, one can see whether variation in one is due to variation in the other. That's how psychologists assess independence. These are reliably linked, but only weakly.

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not a psychologist, but my partner is an anthropologist and the point is that any test is constructed for a certain population. That population is defined by culture, including education. Populations differ between countries, regions, states, provinces down to suburbs. That will affect outcomes. IQ tests, or g, or whatever measure of cognition are hence always subjective. Regardless whether I fully agree, +1 for the informative answer. $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Sep 7, 2018 at 18:14
  • $\begingroup$ @AliceD "thus it is always subjective you cannot measure iq because each suburb is different". Doesn't it sound wrong to you? It certainly does sound wrong to me. And if if you were right, why not take a person from each suburb, from each country, from each continent, have each one formulate one question of a 200 questions IQ test? why not compare results from race X grown up in country Y to people from race Y? it seems political to you. You don't like the question, so invalidate all answers $\endgroup$
    – Toskan
    Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ No that doesn't sound wrong to me at all. And yes, IQ tests are always biased. It is about how the test is deployed, and how the outcomes are assessed. Further, I have never said I did not like the question, likewise I may not agree with your answer, yet I said it is informative and I upvoted it as well. Please don't put words in my mouth, thank you.Don't take it personally - isn't science all about discussion? $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Commented Sep 11, 2018 at 5:56

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