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DUCKWORTH: Oh, that kind of tight. I thought it meant like you had a tight rear end.

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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.

MAUGHAN: I’m Mike Maughan.

DUCKWORTH + MAUGHAN: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.

Today on the show: What’s the point of I.Q. testing?

MAUGHAN: She said, “You know, Michael, some people prepare a lot for this. They take practice tests, because it’s really important to your future.” And I was like, “Well, you could have told me that before I took it!”

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MAUGHAN: Angela, today’s question is one of great brevity. It’s sent to us by a man named Mike Silva. “Mike and Angela,” he writes, “Does I.Q. testing and awareness have any benefit to society at large??” Question mark, question mark.

DUCKWORTH: Hm, that’s it? That’s all Mike says?

MAUGHAN: That’s all he said, but I think the two question marks make it seem like he feels very skeptically about I.Q. tests.

DUCKWORTH: Yes, we need to interpret the two question marks. Do you know your I.Q. Score, Mike?

MAUGHAN: No, in fact, I have — I was thinking about that. I have never taken an I.Q. test.

DUCKWORTH: Really? You didn’t get tested for, like, Gifted and Talented when you were in elementary school?

MAUGHAN: And now I feel so — I was in the Gifted and Talented program. So, clearly there was some —. 

DUCKWORTH: Wait, want to know more. You went to public schools then?

MAUGHAN: I did go to public school, yes.

DUCKWORTH: And, like, were you in it the whole time?

MAUGHAN: I think so, but I don’t know that there was, like, a fully separate class or anything. I don’t remember this very well.

DUCKWORTH: Did they pull you out and, like, walk you down the hallway to the “enrichment room”?

MAUGHAN: I think they would, like, separate us for certain subjects.

DUCKWORTH: Oh right, like, you get the advanced, whatever, English class or something. So, I.Q. is used to select little kids — usually, like, first grade, second grade — into gifted and talented programs.

MAUGHAN: Wait, so, like, the actual quote-unquote “I.Q. test” is given to —.

DUCKWORTH: Really little kids, right? First and second grade, you’re what? Six, I guess, and seven years old? And the idea is that some of these children — you can tell by my derisive tone that I’m not a fan of this practice — but you’re supposed to be able to tell when a kid is six or seven years old whether their I.Q. is really high, meaning they’re “gifted and talented.” And the cutoff has historically been that when you’re around the top two percent — you’re, like, smarter than 98 out of 100 kids — then you need “enrichment,” so you either get pulled out for special classes or, in my elementary school, Mr. Schultz, who was the gifted and talented teacher, he would knock on the door of the classroom, and then the gifted and talented kids would gather up their things, and they would follow Mr. Schultz and walk down the hallway to the enrichment room where they would be doing things that nobody else would be doing, like learning about the stock market or — I say this partly from personal experience, because I wasn’t always in the gifted and talented program. I apparently tested in, I think, certain years. I also moved schools. So, I’ve had both the experience of being called “gifted and talented” and also the experience of being called not “gifted and talented.” But when I was in it, I remember learning about the stock market. I remember learning about world religions. Like, I remember learning about Hinduism.

MAUGHAN: Interesting. I guess I’m less familiar with the I.Q. test. My understanding is that they give you your I.Q. score by taking your, quote, “mental age” and comparing it to your, quote, “chronological age.”

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, and then multiplying by a hundred. 

MAUGHAN: And multiplying by a hundred.

DUCKWORTH: So, if you are, like, thinking like a six-year-old and you’re six, you get a hundred. But if you’re thinking like a nine-year-old, but you’re only six, then you get a really high I.Q. score. But if —.

MAUGHAN: So, does it stop at some point? Like at our age, can we take an I.Q. test?

DUCKWORTH: So, the origin of the term is exactly like you suspect. I.Q. is short for intelligence quotient, and it’s this ratio of mental age divided by chronological age, but, like, that kind of doesn’t really work when you’re like 53, or, honesty, like 23. 

MAUGHAN: Well, that’s why I was like, there has to be a cutoff to when you can take it. 

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, so it’s more like the term that has persisted. I mean, the original, original I.Q. test was developed by Alfred Binet, and he was working for the French Ministry of Education, and it was to identify little kids — who, actually, paradoxically, who would need more support. I mean, that was the whole point. Like, let’s find the kids who don’t score very well on this test, because we will need to support them more. That kind of got changed and distorted into kind of, like, “Well, now let’s select young kids for gifted and talented programs using these tests.” But the whole idea of this “quotient” between your, mental age and your biological, chronological age, it obviously doesn’t make sense when you get into adulthood and it doesn’t matter if you’re 47 or 67, like that shouldn’t have as much of an impact as when you’re really little and there’s a big difference between being, like, 17 years old and seven years old. But the term persists. Like, the term I.Q. is just shorthand for your intellectual ability. And it’s now just sort of like how you score relative to others. But one thing that has lingered from that, Mike, is that the average I.Q. for these tests is always set to 100. So, when somebody says, like, “Oh, I have 120 I.Q. or I have 130 I.Q.,” they’re saying to you that they have an above average I.Q.

MAUGHAN: Right. And again, maybe I took one, but —.

DUCKWORTH: I think you probably did. I think, you know, it varies. Like, sometimes you have to be nominated to be tested. Like, in other words, the teacher has to be like, “Go test Mike Maughan. He seems bright.”

MAUGHAN: Well, and they didn’t say, like, “Hey, we’re going to do your I.Q. test that will determine the rest of your life. Why don’t you come into this room?” Hopefully, they didn’t phrase it that way.

DUCKWORTH: I hope they didn’t, but honestly, I do think kids are old enough that when a psychologist takes you down the hallway and asks you a bunch of questions about words, and shapes, and numbers, you do get a sense that that, like, is not random. And you don’t ever tell the kid their score, but they’ve got to be thinking something about what’s going on. I just, I don’t really think this is a great practice in general. 

MAUGHAN: I mean, it seems like their ability to take these tests is almost entirely shaped by your family situation — how much you’ve learned at home, how much access to social privilege, and learning, and other things. So, it’s, such a — almost discriminatory practice based on your home experience, based on your probably socioeconomic environment, and your exposure.

DUCKWORTH: Exactly. Look, I don’t think my reaction to all of this is that surprising. My Ph.D. dissertation — I’m trying to remember what it was exactly called. I think it was called “Non-I.Q. Determinants of Achievement.” Like, I study everything that’s not I.Q. So, look, I have a very strong perspective on this. But I’ll say that there’s so many problems with this. One is, you just said. You know, I remember when Amanda and Lucy were in kindergarten, and they would come home with their little kindergarten worksheets of the things they were doing. And I happened to see one one day and it was, like, almost verbatim what’s called the Raven’s I.Q. test.

MAUGHAN: So, wait, there are different versions of I.Q. tests and Raven’s is one?

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. So, the Raven’s is, um — I think the inventor was named Raven. That kind of seems right —.

MAUGHAN: That would make sense. People love to name things after themselves.

DUCKWORTH: Could also just be a bird. But yeah, I think Raven was the inventor of this test that — it has no words on it, right. So some I.Q. tests use language. Even if you’re a little kid and you can’t read yet, like the experimenter’s talking to you in your, I hope, native language and like asking you questions. But the Raven’s test has these pictures of shapes, and each item is, like, a grid — usually, like, a three-by-three grid. And there’s nine shapes and they make a pattern, and one of the nine is missing. And the way to get the item right is to guess from a set of choices what is missing in the pattern. The way this works is that you just give people a stack of these pages, and the first items are just so simple. It’s like, oh, obviously this is the missing piece. So you kind of get the hang of it. And then, they progress in difficulty. Honestly, I can’t do the ones in the back even now, like, knowing how the test works, having taught about it. Like, I look at the back and I’m like, “What?!”

MAUGHAN: Well, and how is that a great representation of —.

DUCKWORTH: Of your intelligence?

MAUGHAN: Yeah, it’s just, like, okay, it’s, it’s a great thing to do, like, Sudoku puzzles. Like, I’m super happy for you, but I don’t think it’s a great reflection of your ability. So much bias gets baked into these things. I mean, in the New York public schools, they are testing kids and they’re testing them at four years old. And like you, you said with this one, it has no language, but a lot of them — okay, so if I speak Spanish at home and this test is in English and I’m freaking four years old — like, what?

DUCKWORTH: Right. So, sometimes the Raven’s is called a “culture-free” I.Q. test because it has no words. But remember, Amanda had a worksheet that was effectively a Raven’s problem. I was like, “Oh, my daughter in kindergarten is getting practice on a Raven’s matrix.” I mean, it wasn’t an actual Raven’s matrix problem, but it was, like, quite literally, you know, “Here’s a pattern of shapes. Figure out the one that’s missing.” So, even though it’s quote-unquote “culture-free” because it doesn’t have a language and doesn’t have writing, oh my gosh, some kids have the advantage of practice and experience, and other kids don’t. So, I don’t think it’s culture free! And I think that is one of the concerns among many. There’s actually this paper that came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, really great scientific journal, and it’s called “Universal Screening Increases the Representation of Low Income and Minority Students in Gifted Education.” And what the study focuses on is that when you have to get referred for testing, you are going to get this kind of biased sample. Like, who do teachers think are smart? And actually, parents can nominate their own children. Like, you can, as a parent in most school districts demand that your child be I.Q. tested to see if they’re “gifted and talented.” But the parents who make that demand and also the views of teachers about, like, which kids seem smart to them, are not without some bias. And disadvantaged and minority students are less likely to be referred. But then, even once you are referred, like we were just saying, the playing ground — it ain’t equal, right? Like, if you are Amanda Duckworth, you not only had a kindergarten teacher who decided to give you a pretty sophisticated puzzle, but also, you are being marinated in a kind of conversation at home. So, yeah, I have so many problems with I.Q. testing.

MAUGHAN: But so long as we are using testing, it sounds like there are some ways to mitigate. I mean, the tests are, I think we would agree, a problem, but at least doing mandatory testing on everybody eliminates the first-stage bias of —.

DUCKWORTH: Being referred, yeah. If you were going to test people, I would say you should test everyone. But then, I would say you should probably test no one, but that would be me. So, I agree, in the rank ordering, I’m like: selectively testing the kids who are referred to Gifted and Talented by parents or teachers, like, oh my gosh, I think that’s a disaster. So, if you’re going to test anyone, I think you should test everyone. But here’s why I think that’s dumb. People that I know who are full-grown adults, remember their SAT score like it’s tattooed on their forearm, particularly if they don’t have a good one. Mike, do you know your SAT score?

MAUGHAN: Of course I do. And no, I’m not going to say it on this show.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, come on. Are you happy with your SAT score?

MAUGHAN: I was fine with it. Here’s what I think is interesting. So, I played football in high school, and football games were Friday night, and then —.

DUCKWORTH: I didn’t know you played football. Wait, wait. What position did you play?

MAUGHAN: I played outside linebacker. 

DUCKWORTH: Okay, I don’t know what that is, but okay, go. 

MAUGHAN: And on offense I would occasionally play tight end, but only to block, because I can’t catch to save my life.

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know what that is either, so okay, good. I only know “quarterback” and “wide receiver.” I just thought you might be one of those.

DUCKWORTH: Why is it called “tight end”? It makes me think of, like, buttocks. 

MAUGHAN: Because you’re not one of the linemen per se, but you’re tight, you’re next to the lineman on the end. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh, that kind of “tight.” I thought it meant like you had a tight rear end. That’s not at all what it means.

MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh, this is such an interesting. 

DUCKWORTH: If that were an I.Q. test question, they’d be like, “Keep that girl out of the gifted and talented program. She’ll make everyone dumb!” 

MAUGHAN: “Tight rear end.” That is the best explanation. Travis Kelce — actually you would know Travis Kelce.

DUCKWORTH: Is he the one who’s dating Taylor Swift? Yes, that’s how I know him.

MAUGHAN: He’s a tight end.

DUCKWORTH: And he probably has a tight end.

MAUGHAN: So, there, there you go.

DUCKWORTH: There you go.

MAUGHAN: What — I have no idea what we were talking about. Oh, we were talking about my ACT score.

DUCKWORTH: Oh, you took the ACT? And how happy are you with your standardized ACT score?

MAUGHAN: Fine, it was fine. But I didn’t know that people, like, studied for it. I didn’t know people prepared for it.

DUCKWORTH: You just took it.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, my point was we had a football game Friday night. You stay out late, you wake up Saturday morning, you walk into this test. And my mother had me retake it a second time, and then expressed some level of frustration with me. She said, “You know, Michael, some people prepare a lot for this. They take practice tests, because it’s really important to your future.” And I was like, “Well, you could have told me that before I took it!” Like, I didn’t study either time. I didn’t know. I just literally walked in and took the test following a football game on a Saturday morning. But I’m the fifth of six kids. I think she just thought by that point I’d seen my siblings do it, I should know what I’m supposed to do.

DUCKWORTH: She was like, “Duh.”

MAUGHAN: But I didn’t. Anyway, I did fine. But yes, I still remember.

DUCKWORTH: By the way, some people would argue that the ACT or the SAT — that they’re not I.Q. tests. Some would say that the SAT and the ACT are more like achievement tests — like, what you have practiced and learned. But other scientists who study this would say they’re so highly-correlated that they’re practically interchangeable. And the reason I bring up the SAT and the ACT, it’s not because I think, you know — it’s a complex question, honestly, like, should we have standardized testing of any kind? I think it has a certain apples-to-apples function, right? Like, you kind of want to know how this kid who grows up in Utah is compared to this other kid who grew up in New Jersey in a totally different school system, with a totally different grading system, and different teachers, and there is a function of that. But the worry I have is that — especially when you think of something as your I.Q. — I don’t think people think that their I.Q. can change. So whatever that number is, whatever they have in their head as how smart they are — whether it’s from your SAT score or something else. Like, it just is there, like, tattooed on your identity.

MAUGHAN: Right, so people think, “I am this smart —”

DUCKWORTH: “This is who I am.”

MAUGHAN: “And I will never be any smarter, and I can’t improve.” And it almost destroys, like, a growth mindset, maybe?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. And, like, I took the SAT also, like, totally — I mean, I was a ridiculous cheerleader, unserious student in my high-school days — I mean, I was both. I both was, like, trying to be a good student, but also partying way too hard on the weekends. And I remember taking the SAT totally cold. Like, literally walking to the SAT and —.

MAUGHAN: This is actually really encouraging to me to know that when you were a dumb teenager, you did the same thing. 

DUCKWORTH: Oh my gosh, right? Reading the example like, “Oh, that’s how it go—” Right? You do the first two practice ones, you’re like, “Okay, got it.” In retrospect, it’s like what? So, I remember my first score was, like, in the 1200s, but like, 1600 is the max.

MAUGHAN: I would have pegged you as a 1580.

DUCKWORTH: Well, apparently not, right? So, I took it once, and then I was like, “Oh, that’s not that good.” I mean, it is above average — for anybody who’s thinking, like, “Wait, I’m in the 1200s,” you know, it means that you’re, I think something like the 71st percentile or so. It may be even a little higher than that. So, you know, that means you’re scoring above 71 out of 100 people. But I will also say that for the schools that I wanted to attend, that was not going to work. And I remember back then you had to sign up well in advance. This is all, like, the old, old days. You had to, like, mail in your form with a check or something completely ancient. So, I signed up for two more times, because I don’t even think I would have enough time to sign up for a third. But for the second time I took it, honestly, I didn’t study for it. I didn’t sign up for a course, but I at least knew what the first one was. So, I kind of had a sense of the timing. So, my score went up to like 1400 — or something like that. And I was going to call it a day. I was like, great, I’m smarter than I thought I was. 

MAUGHAN: That’s a big increase, yeah.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it was a big increase — which, by the way, for anybody who’s trying to get higher standardized test scores, one of the most rock-solid findings in this literature is: just taking it again, your scores are likely to go up.

MAUGHAN: Just because you have the practice, you have the experience, you’re in a mindset.

DUCKWORTH: It’s your second tennis game. Guess what? You’re playing tennis better than the very first time, right? So, that’s what happened to me. I was like, “Well, I’m kind of done, but I already paid for my third testing. I don’t want to waste it.” So, I was just like, “I’ll just roll in and take this a third time.” And my scores went up again. So, it’s a little bit accidental that I took it three times and I saw my score go up, but I think it left me with a lesson, which is that we do think of these numbers as being fixed. Like, we think about how smart we are as being fixed. And yeah, you’re right to say that, like, “Gee, Angela, I wonder if you’re worried about growth mindset.” I mean, there was a lesson there about how things aren’t as fixed as you think. And honestly, Mike, I think about my teenage self, who is, like, having keg parties when their parents weren’t home and just being a bit of a ditz, honestly, and now I think about myself today. You know, I read, and write, and think, and converse with really smart people all day long. You know, it’s a little bit like, if you work out two hours a day, you’re going to be in pretty good shape. I feel like that’s what’s happened to my intelligence. I’m, like, working out my brain all the time, and I think relative to my teenage self, I’m, like, smarter.

Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Are you smarter than you’ve been told you are?

DUCKWORTH: One thing that makes you dumb is boredom.

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Now, back to Mike and Angela’s conversation about I.Q. testing.

MAUGHAN: I’m sort of remembering something I read years ago — and I have no reference for this — but I feel like there was this time where they were putting “random” kids in gifted and talented programs as well. And they rose to the occasion. And it reminds me of the great Goethe quote: “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”

DUCKWORTH: So, here’s what you’re thinking of. It’s a very famous study, and sometimes it’s called the Pygmalion effect. It’s like the Greek myth of — I think it’s Prometheus creating a sculpture and then bringing it to life. Be that as it may, the Pygmalion effect was this study run by Bob Rosenthal, who I think was at Harvard at the time. And he absolutely had the same idea that you just said. If people think you’re smart, maybe you will become smart, because they’re going to treat you that way, and they’re going to walk you down the hallway to learn about the stock market, and they’re going to, like, give you more challenging problems. If they don’t think you’re smart, they’re going to treat you like you’re not smart, and that will become its own self-fulfilling prophecy. So, it’s not only your expectations, it’s other people’s expectations of you that will determine your life. So, he randomly assigned these children to be just, like, “normal” or, in the treatment, he told their teachers that they were late bloomers. He said, “You know, we’ve given these kids I.Q. tests, and we have determined based on their testing that they are going to blossom intellectually this year. But you can’t tell now. It’s going to happen sometime during the year, because they scored such-and-such on this test.”

MAUGHAN: So — sorry, the teachers don’t know?

DUCKWORTH: The teachers do not know that this a ruse. Truly, actually, these kids were picked at random, but the teachers are kind of led to believe they’re gifted and talented. And what Rosenthal found in this now extremely famous study is that there is evidence that the teachers who believe that a child is gifted and talented starts treating the child like they are gifted and talented, and lo and behold, the child actually ends up performing better. So, it’s just like the Goethe quote. I will say that not all scientists believe that this effect is as large as it was originally thought to be. And then, many other scientists are, like, skeptical that in many circumstances this would hold. But I do think what stands up is the idea of other people’s expectations of us and how influential they are. And that is yet another reason — I mean, honestly, when people want to have these, like, wide-scale testing programs to identify, like, gifted first graders, gifted four year olds, I think to myself, how do you know what’s going to happen to this person? Why do you think that, at a moment in time, you can give somebody a test and get a score and have this definitive forecast for what this person is going to do? You don’t know that they’re going to, like, stay a ditzy person who’s unserious, having keg parties. Maybe they’ll, like, end up at a job where they think all day long and they’ll get really good at thinking. I don’t know. I just think the whole endeavor is dumb.

MAUGHAN: Can I give you an example from the professional sports world of something that is, I think, so stupid along these lines?

DUCKWORTH: Yes. Does it involve tight ends?

MAUGHAN: Oh my gosh.

DUCKWORTH: You will never be able to think of your own high-school football career in the same way.

MAUGHAN: Well, I’ll just think that you think about the naming conventions of positions in football in a very high-schoolesque way.

DUCKWORTH: That is fair. Yes. By the way, I was a football cheerleader, but we were always facing the other way, so I never saw the game. Maybe that’s the reason. Okay. Give me an example from professional sports that is as dumb as universal or even selective I.Q. testing for little kids.

MAUGHAN: Well, it’s even dumber when you hear the story. So, there was a person named E. F. Wonderlic, who, you guessed it, named a test called the Wonderlic Test.

DUCKWORTH: I know the Wonderlic. Yeah, the Wonderlic I.Q. test used in the N.F.L. Combine.

MAUGHAN: Yes. So, do you know the history of it?

DUCKWORTH: I don’t know. Tell me. I don’t know what I know.

MAUGHAN: So, Wonderlic was a graduate student at Northwestern University in 1936. That’s when he invented this Wonderlic test. And this is from an article written by Robert O’Connell in The New York Times. O’Connell writes about how, in 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that the Wonderlic test — used by this company, Duke Power Company — was violating the Civil Rights Act because it was so bad and basically created race-based discrimination in employment. That’s in 1971. God bless the N.F.L., who’s like, “Seems like a great test, let’s use it.”

DUCKWORTH: They hear about this, they’re like, “What? What test? Let’s get it.”

MAUGHAN: Yeah, so it catches on in the N.F.L. in the mid-1970s — after this Supreme Court ruling — when Tom Landry, he was the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys, he started using it to measure sort of on-field intelligence. And it’s this 50 question I.Q. exam that, like you said, they administer to players at the Combine. The Combine is when they’re basically trying out in preparation for the N.F.L. draft. So, the Wonderlic Test obviously starts out terribly. It’s long criticized for this racial and socioeconomic bias. And here’s the biggest thing that O’Connell writes in his article. He says, and I quote, “No statistically-significant correlation between a player’s Wonderlic score and his on-field performance has ever been documented.” So, we’re testing the wrong things.

DUCKWORTH: I think that one of the problems with I.Q. tests is they they give you these, like, really novel brain-teaser kind of questions. And they’re supposed to not be the normal thing that you encounter in life. I think that’s silly. Like, why give people these novel puzzles that they never really encounter? You know, if we occasionally need to see how somebody is skilled in calculus, or French, or coding in Java, sure, there will be times where you want a standardized test of that skill or achievement. But the idea of I.Q. — like, your inherent ability, your potential, just how smart you are as a person abstracted from anything that you’ve practiced, or experienced, or been given the opportunity to learn — I’m like, why do we need to do that at all? It just seems like not only a waste of time and energy; you are leaving people with this tattoo on their identity that I think, in many cases, is harmful and wrong. It’s, like, almost catastrophic that that happens.

MAUGHAN: Well, speaking of the catastrophic impacts, just going back to the history and the dark side of I.Q. tests — there’s a psychology professor at Rider University, Stefan Dombrowski, who gave a TED-Ed talk. And he talked about two examples that I thought were pretty interesting. One was in officer training. So, the first time that the I.Q. test was used kind of at a large-scale implementation in the U.S. military was during World War I, when the military used it to sort recruits and screen them for officer training. The challenge is, at that time, as you know, some people believed in eugenics, which is this idea that there are undesirable genetic traits that we should selectively breed out of humanity. 

DUCKWORTH: Right, that certain races, for example, are dumber than other races.

MAUGHAN: Right, and so that’s kind of the outcome of this, is that people view some racial groups as intellectually superior or inferior, and that they never took into account the fact that so many of these recruits who were being tested are new immigrants to the U.S., they lack formal education, they lacked English language exposure. And so, it created this weird hierarchy of ethnic groups. The even darker side of that: in 1924, the state of Virginia created a policy allowing for the forced sterilization of people with low I.Q. scores. And the Supreme Court later upheld that decision, which is mindblowing to me.

DUCKWORTH: Which is just like, what? I mean, at the policy level, at the identity level, like — here’s an example of somebody who overcame their low SAT score, but it just kind of underscores the inanity of all this. Do you know the author Amy Tan, like, The Joy Luck Club? Have you ever read anything of hers?

MAUGHAN: I have, absolutely. My book club, we read, The Hundred Secret Senses. Have you read that one?

DUCKWORTH: Oh wait, is that a novel? Oh my gosh. No, but I’m going to. So, you know who Amy Tan is, right? And you have an appreciation of her writing.

MAUGHAN: Yeah, phenomenal author, incredible.

DUCKWORTH: And just such a, like, creative person. So, she’s giving this commencement speech at — I think it’s, like, Grinnell College, and I’ll read you what she said. “My SAT scores revealed I had limitations. In English, I scored in the 400s.” Now, Mike, you don’t know the S.A.T., so I’m just going to tell you: the scale is 1600 total score, but it’s 800 verbal, 800 math. So, in the 400s would be below average, because I think the average score for each section is, like, about 500. And this is what she says: while not dismal, “it certainly was not an indication I would be standing before you today as your author.” And then, she goes on, “Oddly enough, I scored in the 700s in Spanish. Go figure. I also did better in math. So, perhaps the well-dressed lady with the test was right. I could be a doctor.” And then, she talks about going on and being pre-med, right? She gets these scores. She’s like, “Oh, I guess I should be a math person. I guess, I’m definitely not going to be a writer.” But then, she realizes that the problem with becoming a doctor is she really has no interest in it. She goes on to say in this commencement address, “Despite my mediocre SAT scores in English, I decided to become an English major, in part because my freshman English professor told me that he was impressed with my essays, but more so because I had always loved to read novels.” And so, young people are developing in ways that nobody can forecast. And maybe more important than how they do on a two-hour test at a single point in their life is where their interests are taking them, you know, what gets them excited? And one thing that makes all of us smarter — and by the way, there is neuroscience research backing this up — is interest. One thing that makes you dumb is boredom. So, if we want our kids to be smart, maybe rather than investing a gajillion dollars in testing them when they are really young, maybe we should build a system where young people can discover and develop their interests. And I would like to remove tattoos from people’s identities.

MAUGHAN: I love that phrase so much, and I will say the N.F.L. has stopped — as of 2022, they stopped using the Wonderlic test. We’ve seen a bunch of schools saying, “Hey, we’re not sure about standardized testing anymore. We’re not sure how we’re going to use it.” So, I think there is a societal introspection about testing and are there biases inherent in it? I think Angela and I would love to hear your thoughts on I.Q. testing. And in spite of its issues, do you think it’s ultimately beneficial? Or what’s your experience with it? Record a voice memo in a quiet place with your mouth close to the phone, and email it to us at NSQ@freakonomics dot com, and maybe we’ll play it on a future episode of the show. Also, if you like the show and want to support it, the best thing you can do is tell a friend about it. You can also spread the word on social media or leave a review in your podcast app. So Angela, let’s come back to Mike’s question. I feel like we have rather emphatically answered it, but what is your advice, knowing kind of how we feel about I.Q. testing and its benefit — or lack thereof — to society at large, and what do we do with that information?

DUCKWORTH: I think my practical advice to Mike, now that he knows how I really feel about I.Q. testing, is that if you want to get smarter, first of all, I think you should accept that that’s possible. I mean, that’s really what a growth mindset is. Just believe the neuroscience that suggests that the brain is plastic and that ability is not fixed, but, in fact, is malleable. And I am 10 times smarter when I’m curious. I am 10 times dumber when I don’t care. Do you know how many times people have tried to explain to me the difference between private equity and hedge funds? Like, countless. I teach at Wharton. Like, I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t care. So, if you want to be smarter, find things that pique your curiosity. Your attention will gravitate to those topics. And I think that matters every bit as much, perchance more, than how you do on an I.Q. test that lasts a couple hours.

MAUGHAN: That seems like a smarter way to think about our potential.

This episode was produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. And now here’s a fact-check of today’s conversation:

In the first half of the show, Mike notes that New York City public schools test students for gifted and talented programs at four years old. That used to be the case, but the application process changed in 2022. Prekindergarteners are now recommended for the programs by teachers. If their families choose to apply for a spot, they’re entered into a lottery. Later, Angela struggles to recall the title of her Ph.D. thesis. This 2006 paper, which inspired her book Grit, is called: “Intelligence Is Not Enough: Non-IQ Predictors of Achievement.”

Finally, Angela says that the psychologist Robert Rosenthal’s idea of the “Pygmalion effect” is inspired by a Greek myth in which Prometheus brings a sculpture to life. That is incorrect. In Greek mythology, Prometheus is known for stealing fire from Mount Olympus and bringing it to humanity, whereas Pygmalion is a sculptor whose creation comes to life. “Pygmalion” is also the name of the 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw that inspired the musical “My Fair Lady.” That’s it for the fact-check.

Before we wrap today’s show, let’s hear some thoughts about last week’s episode on word choice.

Ashley PHILLIPS:  Hi, this is Ashley Phillips from Atlanta, Georgia, and as a high-school teacher and coach, I find word choice to be very, very impactful. For example, if I am asking my students whether or not they want to ask questions about a concept we’ve learned, I find it’s much more effective in eliciting questions if I say, “What questions do you have?” Rather than, “Do you have any questions?” Another example would be, in coaching basketball, I learned over time that rather than telling my players to “run,” I told them to “sprint.” And they would find no ambiguity in what the word “sprint” means. 

That was listener Ashley Phillips. Thanks to him and to everyone who shared their stories with us. And remember, we’d love to hear your thoughts on IQ tests. Send a voice memo to, and you might hear your voice on the show!

Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: What’s going on with the rising interest in astrology?

MAUGHAN: More Americans know their zodiac sign than their blood type.

DUCKWORTH: I want to say that’s ridiculous, but I also want to say that I contribute to that astonishing statistic. 

That’s next week on No Stupid Questions.

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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, and The Economics of Everyday Things. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Lyric Bowditch is our production associate. This episode was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. We had research assistance from Daniel Moritz-Rabson. Our theme song was composed by Luis Guerra. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Thanks for listening!

DUCKWORTH: So, we were recently evaluating whether this “Travis Kelce” fellow was good enough for our Taylor Swift, and Jason determined, yes, he’s got integrity and character.

MAUGHAN: I love the personal ownership you have.

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