Soapbox Science

Playing Dumb – Does being in a group setting affect your IQ?

Marcia Malory began her academic career as a chemistry student but ended up receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Since then, she has worked in various industries in the United States and the United Kingdom. She is interested in how science, culture and politics interact.  Visit her website or follow her on Twitter @sciencefindout.  

Do you ever downplay your intelligence when you are around others? Recently, an experiment was performed to determine how being in a group setting affects IQ test results. University students took pencil and paper IQ tests to determine their baseline IQ scores. They were not told their results.

Afterwards, the subjects had to take another IQ test – a multiple-choice exam given on a computer. Subjects were divided into groups of five. After answering a question, each was told how she or he ranked compared with the other four members of the group and the relative rank of one other group member. The researchers focused on subjects who had scored about the same on the baseline IQ test; they had a mean IQ of 126.

Although all of the subjects had similar baseline IQs, the results on the computer test varied widely. The IQs of some subjects stayed about the same, but the IQs of other subjects dropped dramatically. The researchers divided the test takers into two groups – “high performers”, who scored above the new median, and “low performers”, who scored below that median. The IQs of the low performers dropped by an average of 17.4 points.

During the computer exam, some subjects were given fMRI scans. At the beginning of the exam, all of these subjects experienced increased activity in the amygdala – a region of the brain associated with fear and anxiety. However, as the test progressed, something interesting happened. With the high performers, activity in the amygdala slowly decreased and, towards the end of the test, activity in the prefrontal cortex, which is associated with problem solving, increased. With the low performers, however, there was no such decrease in amygdala activity or increase in prefrontal cortex activity. It appears that the low performers were in a constant state of anxiety throughout the exam, and this prevented them from employing their reasoning skills as they normally would.

Why did being in a group make these low performers appear to be, temporarily, less intelligent?

The researchers believe that this could be related to a need to maintain social status hierarchies. The low performers had been conditioned to make themselves seem less intelligent than other group members were – and they experienced anxiety when they had the opportunity to prove that they were equally, or even more, intelligent.

There was also a large gender divide in the results. Most of the low performers were women, and most of the high performers were men. This gender divide could have been caused by societal pressure for women to appear less intelligent when among men – a cultural phenomenon that has led some people to support gender-segregated education.

Although ethnicity had no effect on these results, in a 1995 study, Black students being tested along with White students performed significantly worse when they were told they were taking an intelligence test, compared to when they were told they were told they were taking part in a problem-solving activity. This could reflect racial stereotypes that were more common in the mid-1990s than they are today.

A Rhesus macaques

Einar Fredriksen

The relationship between social status and expressed intelligence can also be seen in non-human primates. In a 1998 study, rhesus monkeys were divided into high status and low status groups and then taught to perform a task. Monkeys in both groups performed equally well when the groups were segregated. However, when the two groups were mixed, low status monkeys “forgot” what they had learned.

It seems that some people (and other primates) become anxious when they have the opportunity to make intelligent decisions around those society deems socially or intellectually superior. Is this a way of preventing the “wrong” members of society from making decisions?

Perhaps the apparent dumbing down of the media today is a way of taking advantage of this anxiety. Some people might feel uncomfortable analysing information alongside people who they consider smarter than they are (“Alongside” can be metaphorical.  You could be reading a news article “alongside” millions of people if you are reading it on, and especially aware of that if other readers have the opportunity to comment).

Media producers might realise intuitively that some adults prefer material that can be understood by fourteen-year-olds because fourteen-year-olds aren’t intimidating. The discomfort that some people feel when their intelligence is tested in front of others could explain the anti-intellectualism and the anti-science attitudes that are becoming increasingly prevalent in American politics. Politicians might sense that being around people who seem to be of superior intelligence can make some voters anxious. It is said that when he was president, Bill Clinton assumed his average southerner “bubba” personality to make voters forget that he was a Yale Law School graduate. George W. Bush bragged about being a C student.

The anti-science attitude of a number of members of the Republican Party has been a concern during this year’s US election campaign. Republican congressman, Paul Broun, says that the big bang theory and evolution are lies. Fellow Republican, Todd Akin also denies evolution. Both Broun and Akin are members of the House Science Committee. While it is appalling that these politicians can make important decisions about scientific research, their anti-science attitudes might, in fact encourage people to vote for them. Some voters might consider scientists and people who understand science, to be too smart and too threatening. They feel better around people who tell them that science is all lies.

It is dangerous for a country with so much power to have leaders who do not understand science, and it is dangerous for such a country to have citizens who support such leaders and share their beliefs. How do we encourage more people to make full use of their intellectual abilities? We can start by examining more closely those who do did not crack under social pressure – the high performers who became less emotional and more rational as their test progressed.  What makes them different from the low performers? Perhaps once we understand this, we can learn how to ensure that no one is afraid to think.


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