Is our level of intelligence inborn or acquired during our lifetime? Is it possible to become smarter and increase our IQ score? This is one of the hottest scientific and politically sensitive questions in the field of psychology. However, the scientific and political controversy that this question has caused for a century boils down to some simple misunderstandings about the nature of intelligence and IQ scores. The fact is, intelligence can be increased – and quite dramatically. But those who claim that IQ is fixed for life are in fact referring to our IQ test scores, which are relatively stable – not to our intelligence levels, which are constantly increasing. Sounds like a contradiction? No wonder the public are confused. Here we explain why every reader of this article is already getting smarter, even if their IQ score has not risen by much over the years. But more importantly, we outline the one sure way to increase both your intelligence and your IQ score.

 The Intelligence/IQ sleight of hand

Intelligence is a complex concept that is constantly evolving within the field of psychology. What is considered to form part of our intelligence changes from time to time and has altered remarkably over the past century since people like Sir Francis Galton (cousin of Charles Darwin) first mused on the topic. Standard IQ tests involve answering a very large number of questions, and solving a range of puzzles that psychologists have agreed are a good measure of what our culture means by “intelligence” (yes it is that arbitrary!). But in particular psychologists have spent decades working out what types of questions best measure your ability to perform well in school and at work. If being able to answer an IQ test question correctly does not allow the psychologist to predict your school grades, for example, the question is of little use in the test and so it is removed. After decades of fine tuning, we now have sets of questions and puzzles, your answers to which fairly well predict your school and work performance.

So now for the sleight of hand. IQ tests are what psychologists call “standardized tests”. That is, your score does not really matter so much as how your performance compares to other people of your own age. So regardless of your performance on the test, you will never be considered very intelligent unless you score higher than most other people. In other words, the IQ score does not represent your intelligence level in some absolute way, but simply where you stand relative to everyone else. The average score is always called 100 (regardless of how many questions an average person gets correct), and everyone else is scored as being above or below that average to varying degrees. So now you understand that your score is not really a score in the usual sense, it is an estimate of a relative level of intellectual ability that you have.

So what do we mean when we say that people are getting smarter? Well, it is a well-known fact that the intelligence of the general population is improving with diet, longevity, general health and better access to education. A psychologist by the name of James Flynn has documented this well and the IQ drift phenomenon coined the “Flynn effect” is named after him. The problem for your IQ score, however, is that while people are becoming more mentally adept over the generations, they are all doing so at a roughly equal rate! So your IQ score, which is always relative to everyone else, stays about the same across your life.

Even if the whole population was not getting smarter, individuals also do better on IQ tests across the years of their life, and even from quarter to quarter, simply from practice at mental tasks, exposure to educational challenges, acquiring more knowledge and so on. But their IQ test score will never reflect this because yet again …. you guessed it … everyone else’s performance is also improving from quarter to quarter at about the same rate. All of this stability in IQ scores creates the illusion that your intelligence is fixed for life. But it is important that we do mistake the level of mental skill that you possess (your intelligence), with your score on a test of those abilities.

The mistake is easily made because psychologists have made a “construct” out of intelligence, or more fairly they have (what clever-sounding philosophers of science call) “reified a construct”. Put simply, an idea such as intelligence that was meant only to help us describe arbitrary but interesting differences we see among people, becomes something that is real and somehow possessed by people, fixed for life and as real as our bones, our hair and eye color. Constructs, however, are only supposed to be used like metaphors; as ideas or guiding models to represent something abstract. They are not and are never real, no more than a made up concept like sense of humour, really and naturally exists in a person, although we can invent a measure of this if we like. A culture can come up with any number of ways to describe a person, but not every one of those descriptions has to correspond to some real and existing trait. These ideas are often what psychologists refer to as social constructs.

The Social & Moral Consequences of the Idea of Fixed Intelligence

The consequence of mistaking a mere idea for a real, permanent and unchanging trait, are rather serious because they have led to psychologists giving up hope of developing methods to raise the intellectual ability of children and adults who need our help. Sure, we play around the edges teaching some school material in more accessible ways, and we try to educate children as well as we can, but we are not trying to increase their general and overall intellectual ability precisely because psychologists believe it is impossible. This in effect is a moral issue as well as a scientific one. Would medics give up on cancer research based on some theoretical grounds that a cure is impossible? Would physicists give up on predicting sub-atomic activity just because it violates some Heisenberg principle? The answer to both of these questions is a resounding no! In fact, modern physics and medicine would not have made the progress they have if scientists had not pushed forward with ambitious research questions despite the theories! And yet many psychologists have to be dragged screaming to even consider the idea that a child with a low IQ score, given the right educational intervention, could one day function at an intellectual level that is considered normal. This is a travesty and goes against the very spirit of the label “caring profession” that psychologists are so keen to adopt.

The scientifically sound and moral stance to take on the IQ matter is to allow IQ limits to be found, not assumed. As a pertinent example, we have now accepted that we vastly underestimated the intellectual potential of children presenting with Down Syndrome. Given just a few decades of research into teaching methods, and a genuine care for these individuals in the home and school setting, we have raised their IQ to near normal range levels. Now why can the same approach not be taken for everyone?

The following scenario might illustrate just how determined psychologists are to prevent our intelligence to be treated as a malleable skill set. Imagine that psychologists finally crack the nature of the skills and training you would need to really ramp up your intelligence (however we want to define it). Now imagine that the whole world is offered the opportunity to engage in this new educational programme designed to raise the world’s intelligence. Even though it may work, and even though the whole world may massively improve in their intellectual ability, psychologists would be all the while busily revising their IQ tests to make them even harder in order to ensure that only a small number of people could complete the tests perfectly. This is the art of IQ testing!

The simple reasoning behind the drive to keep IQ scores constant, whatever it takes, is the assumption that we can’t all be geniuses. But why not? This all goes back to some rather seedy and embarrassing politics that psychologists got involved in around the time of Sir Francis Galton. At that time it was assumed that any mental trait would be distributed normally across the population. That is, it was assumed that precisely 67% of people should have an IQ score within 15 points of the average of 100. Approximately 2% of people should score above 130, which was classified as “genius”. The tests were constructed and then adjusted and readjusted until the scores fell precisely into this pattern. They were then rather ironically used to prove that IQ is “naturally” distributed across the population according to this pattern (a rookie mistake that any Psychology 101 student should spot!).

Early psychologists needed to assume these very specific details about intelligence because it was a pattern found for the scores in lots of naturally occurring phenomena, like the heights of fir trees, the weights of cabbages and soldiers in the British army! It was reasoned that if IQ scores fell in the same pattern across the population – it must be a natural trait, and this was important because the first developers of IQ tests were Eugenicists. That is, many of the first IQ test developers believed that certain sections of the population were intrinsically inferior. These early psychologists favored the compulsory sterilization of the “mentally unfit”, which was a pseudo-compassionate way of referring to certain classes in society. Ever since IQ tests were first designed to give normally distributed scores, psychologists have been reluctant to accept that intelligence may not be normally distributed at all! Maybe it is clustered? Maybe we are all closer in intelligence that we would like to believe – or further apart? The problem is that we can never know, because the tests are only accepted by psychologists when they can give the kinds of distributions in ability they had been looking for, and do not show up any gender or racial differences, because that would be politically unacceptable. Not at all coincidentally IQ test scores rarely throw up any politically sensitive findings, and when they do the test are hurriedly re-examined with an eye to altering them to obscure any socially unacceptable group differences. Incidentally, this makes it a profoundly meaningless exercise to search for gender or race differences in intelligence using IQ tests, although several researchers have tried.

You are not condemned by your IQ score

Most individuals have an IQ score in the region of 80-119 points, with the population average being 100 (by definition). This is considered normal range intellectual functioning. However, we have learned a lot about intelligence over the past century and we now understand that the skill sets underlying this measurement of mental capacity are variable. They can rise slightly in response to increased educational quality across a long period and numerous studies in our field of behavior analysis have proven that IQ can be raised. Other studies by Susan Jaegii and colleagues in the cognitive field have shown that a task called the dual n-back task, raises what is known as fluid intelligence to a degree that outstrips the normal increase in IQ from quarter to quarter and year to year. One long-term study conducted in Norway by Christian N. Brinch and Taryn Ann Galloway involved examining the effects of an increase in the duration of compulsory schooling in Norway in the 1960s. This change extended the minimum time in education for all Norwegians from 7 to 9 years. The authors cleverly hypothesized that the IQs of people who experienced this extra mandatory education should have increased by the time they reached adulthood. The researchers had access to excellent records of cognitive ability taken by the military for all eligible males at age 19 and they used these to calculate the IQ of each individual in the study. This allowed them to show that IQ had risen by 0.6 of a point on average for all Norwegian males over the period of study, but had risen by 3.7 points for every extra year of education received. These findings provide very strong support for the ideas that education can increase intelligence at a faster than normal rate.

Increasing Intelligence… and IQ

In my team's research we have been trying to identify those building blocks that underlie all of those skills we need and respect so much in our culture, and which are measured on IQ tests. This includes abstract logical reasoning, verbal and mathematical ability. Our research, in the field of Relational Frame Theory, has shown that understanding relations, such as more than, less than, opposite, same, before, after, here-there, amongst others, is crucial for our intellectual development in just about every sphere. In fact, they are so crucial that researchers have reported in published scientific research papers that we can measure intelligence simply in terms of one’s ability to understand these relations (or what we call “relational ability”). Our own research shows that we can also raise IQ scores considerably, by training people in relational skills tasks over a period of months.

As an example of an abstract relational skill that we must acquire as children, consider the example of how monetary currency works. With physical currency, the value of a coin is unrelated to its physical size. So while coins have varying magnitudes in terms of size, the magnitude of interest in the context of value, is the buying power of the coin, not the length of its circumference. The latter is easily discernible by any animal, human or otherwise. But the abstract purchasing power magnitude is arbitrary and abstract and not discernible from looking at the coin alone. Coin value is an abstract relational property. Using money, therefore, requires a basic grasp of some algebraic concepts, which is precisely why children cannot usually use money. Their relational skills are not far enough advanced to allow them to deal with abstract and arbitrary relations between symbols.

Parents and teachers already teach children relational skills routinely without even knowing it. For example, parents inadvertently teach young children the concept of “sameness” in normal language interaction. To be more specific, a parent will not just teach a child one word for a television set, they may in fact use two. On one occasion they may refer to it as the “tv” and on another as “the box”. The child will have to be explicitly told in the early years that given this information, “tv” and “box” refer to the same thing. Any confusion shown by the child is met with assurance from the parent that whenever two words are used for the same thing – those two words have the same meaning as each other. This is just one way in which a child learns to understand what “same” means and how “same” relations can be derived across multiple words and objects in logical ways. This in essence is a skill required for vocabulary expansion. If it were not for this skill, each and every word in the child’s vocabulary would have to be taught individually and related to each other word individually (i.e., billions of individual learning tasks).

Other relational concepts, such as opposite, and comparison, have unique properties, and it is surprising how inefficient many children and even adults are in their basic grasp of the truly abstract nature of these relations. Our research (e.g., Cassidy, Roche & Hayes, 2011) shows that it is possible we teach the foundational reasoning skills that underlie vocabulary acquisition and mathematical reasoning.  In effect, we can provide the cognitive skill needed to learn and think more effectively.  Moreover enhancing relational skills remediates deficits in these skills bases that not only cannot be taught at school efficiently without extensive one-to-one assistance, but can even help children to catch up to and even surpass the population average in intellectual ability. 

One published research paper Cassidy, Roche & Hayes (2011) described how a range of different children (four normally developing and eight educationally challenged) were provided with a fully automated relational skills training method on a computer in once to twice weekly sessions lasting approximately 90 minutes across several months.  IQ tests (WISC III) were administered before the relational training and several weeks following the completion of training.  At the outset of the study, the four normal children had an average IQ of 105 (ranging from 96-119).  This is typical of normally developing children.  Nevertheless, this average IQ to over 130, which is referred to as high functioning or exceptional.  Children in this intellectual range are often referred to as gifted.  The lowest IQ among the normally developing students following the intervention was 128 and the highest was 137.  This means that these children’s intellectual ability was moved from average range to within the top 2% of the population.  Four further typically developing children who had average range IQs were also tracked across the period of the study but they did not receive the relational skills training.  Their IQs showed no change over the intervention period, as expected. 

Eight further educationally challenged children started the program with an average IQ of 82 (using the WISC IV), well below the average score of around 100. Following the intervention, these IQs were moved on average to 96, well within the average IQ range.  While all IQs improved, three remained below average.  A further three children had their IQ moved into the average range, while two had their IQ raised to high average ranges.  These raised IQs have been maintained four years since the trial (see Roche, Cassidy and Stewart, 2013).

More recently the public has become aware of some methods known collectively as “brain training”; a loosely used and often abused term that has come to mean very little.  Brain training has got a fairly hard time because despite the shrouded promises, no popular brain training product has been shown to increase our intelligence as measured by standard IQ tests.  But that is not to say the brain trainers are all crazy to think that IQ can be increased.  There is mounting evidence that, however you like to define intelligence, it involves skills that can be taught and improved.  Neuroscientists in particular have been excited by a better understanding of the process by which are brains actually grow and change circuitry based on our learning experiences – so that we may not so much be enslaved by the quality of our grey matter as we are free to determine it by our learning experiences.  In particular, our own research is the first to point the way towards educational courses that can raise IQ by a considerable degree and for the long term.  The tide is turning and the politics of IQ testing is evolving under the weight of mounting evidence.

Being true caring professionals

Affordable and easily accessible courses delivered online or in app formats, to hone the intellectual skills of any person have the potential to democratize education.  For example, it can be quite impractical for a school to try to bring up to speed a child who is years behind in educational attainment due to a lack of investment in that child in their earlier years, by parents or otherwise.  The identification of relational skills as the basic building blocks of intelligence, however, offers the possibility of remediating these deficits in a very efficient way so that educational efforts will be more effective, so that disadvantaged children can reach their educational potential and adults can reach beyond their assumed intellectual limits.  Providing children with remediating intellectual skills training can foster inclusion by increasing the skill sets of those with learning needs, who may require more assistance than many educational settings can cater fully for, and it can raise the performance expectations of adults in education and in the workplace.

The optimistic vision we have outlined here may seem too good to be true.  As pioneers of this new educational intervention, however, we are mindful that all great leaps forward, in every discipline were once too good to be true.  Remember, it was once thought that the IQ of a Down Syndrome child could not increase above 60 or so.  Thanks, however, to concerted efforts to address the specific educational needs of children with Down Syndrome we have left that supposed limit in the rear view mirror many years ago and have seen such children go on to reach borderline to low average IQs and even to attend University!  We have every reason to believe that we are on the cusp of just such a leap forward in our expectations, not just of children, but of every citizen. As the evidence mounts that intelligence itself is subject to influence by educational efforts, we are beginning to see the crumbling of an old paradigm, and what can surely be called a revolution in the way we think about intelligence.

About the Author

Bryan Roche, Ph.D.
Bryan Roche, Ph.D. is a behavioral psychologist at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

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