The End of IQ (and the Dawn of Working Memory)

If you are proud of your high IQ, stop reading now. Your IQ is an anachronism, and its reign is coming to an end.
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Written by Ross Alloway and Tracy Alloway

If you are proud of your high IQ, stop reading now. Your IQ is an anachronism, and its reign is coming to an end. IQ, a measure of intelligence dependent on one's knowledge of specific information, has lost its relevance in the age of information. There is far too much information to know in our global society for any test to measure it adequately. Moreover, IQ won't help you in the things that really matter: it won't help you find happiness, it won't help you make better decisions, and it won't help you manage your kids' homework and the accounts at the same time. It isn't even that useful at its raison d'être: predicting success.

We know this because we followed school children over a six-year period and found that their IQ score at 5-years-old wasn't very helpful in determining their grades at 11-years-old. On the one hand, schools that rely on IQ to identify the best students may be missing a lot of them, and on the other hand, students that are rather clever, may be missing out on opportunities only available to those with a higher IQ score. Beyond the classroom, employers that rely on IQ scores for hiring or promotion may be hurting the bottom line by overlooking the best candidates.

This begs the question, why do we still use IQ? In our Google Age, where any datum can be had at the tap of a touch-screen, who cares if you know how to assemble blocks in a particular pattern (a key component of IQ testing) or even the answers to the following questions:

  • Velvet Joe appears in advertisements of (a) toothpowder (b) dry goods (c) tobacco (d) soap.

  • What should you do if you lose a friend's ball?
  • Define the word "Police"
  • Each question is from an IQ test: a century ago, 30 years ago, and a current IQ test. Each question draws on very specific cultural knowledge, and that's a problem if your culture doesn't match with the answers in the manual.

    We gave the last question to a child whose answer was "I don't like police, they took my dad away." He was supposed to answer along the lines of "they keep people safe" -- and was marked wrong. But was he wrong? His answer matched his information. He didn't believe that the Police kept him safe by arresting his father.

    A measure of intelligence based on culturally-loaded information will exclude those without that information. That doesn't mean they aren't intelligent, and in the postmodern age, when cultures cross-germinate in rapid fashion, defining intelligence according to one's familiarity with a specific cultural domain is behind the times.

    The Dawn of Working Memory

    So, how should we think about intelligence? There is one thing everyone in the information age has to do: work with information in all its diverse forms. By testing how well someone works with information, rather than how well they know culturally-loaded information, a person from Paris, Texas is on a level playing field with someone from Paris, France, and vice-versa.

    Working memory is our ability to consciously work with information. By conscious, we mean you are thinking about the information, concentrating on it, shining a mental spotlight on it, and ignoring everything else. By work, we mean that you are manipulating the information, making calculations with it, or reformulating it.

    The classic example of a job that requires a strong working memory is that of an air traffic controller, whose responsibility is to maintain the safe and orderly flow of air traffic. With hundreds of planes taking off and landing every hour, an air traffic controller must have the mental agility to process multiple variables -- such as equipment, weather patterns, traffic volume, precise communication with pilots, and quick calculations. In times of emergency, they must be able to make split-second decisions while effectively moderating the stress of knowing that the lives of pilots and passengers are in their hands.

    In a similar manner, your working memory helps you managing the deluge of information that comprises your life: the ringing cell phone, the Twitter update, the presentation that must be rapidly assembled for a client, and the constantly changing schedule.

    Scientists at the cutting-edge are beginning to realize the importance of working memory in daily life. In the last decade there has been an explosion of research showing how a strong working memory is beneficial for a diversity of human experience:

    Stay focused on a task: Researchers at University of North Carolina found that those with a higher working memory were less likely than those with a lower working memory to let their thoughts wander from an appointed task.

    Supertask: Researchers from the University of Utah have discovered that working memory gives some of us an amazing ability to multitask. Most of us can do one thing well, but two things poorly. However, researchers found that those with a high working memory are "supertaskers" that can do two things at the same time just as well as if they are only doing one.

    Sports: Swedish researchers found that the better the athlete was at a sport, the higher their scores on working-memory-type tasks. A higher working memory may help them process the information on the field to help them predict, adapt, and innovate in response a dynamic situation.

    Happiness: Our research of almost 4,000 adults shows that working memory determines how optimistic you are, which, in turn, can protect you from experiencing the symptoms of depression.

    Academic Success: Working memory even beats IQ at its own game. Our research has found that working memory is 3 to 4 times more accurate than IQ in predicting grades in spelling, reading, and math.

    In studies with thousands of children, from gifted children to those with learning needs, working memory plays a key role in learning. It helps children work with information -- with numbers for math, with words for reading and writing, with things they already know so they can answer things they don't. In fact, this skill is so important that if you know a kindergartener's working memory, you will know their grades years later.

    If you have a high IQ, you shouldn't feel threatened by working memory, because your working memory is your greatest cognitive asset, and in the information age how well you work with information, any information, can make the difference between success and failure.

    How good is your working memory?

    Find out right now with a simple and reliable test, known by scientists as backward digit recall.
    1. Look at the following numbers: 3 8 6 4 9 7 8 2 6 2 1
    2. Now cover the number. Try to recall the numbers from the last to the first.

    • If you can recall two of the digits (1, 2) you have the working memory of a five year old
    • Four (1, 2, 6, 2), the working memory of a ten year old
    • Six (1, 2, 6, 2, 8, 7), the working memory of a thirty year old
    • Eight or more: genius

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