Summary: Chapter Three: The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 1
Chris Langan appeared on the television trivia show 1 vs. 100 after being the subject of interviews and at least one documentary, due to his extremely high IQ. He had little difficulty in high school, got a perfect score on his SAT, and read through Principia Mathematica as a teenager. On 1 vs. 100, Langan cashed out with winnings of $250,000.
Shortly after World War I, Lewis Terman, creator of the widely used Stanford-Binet IQ test, became fascinated with child prodigies. In 1921, he identified exceptionally gifted 1,470 students who came to be known as the “Termites.” Terman kept track of them over the years, carefully cataloging their educational achievement, marriages, psychological health, and employment. Terman was sure that the Termites would be the future elite of the United States. The same confidence underlies the use of IQ-like tests, such as the SAT, to assess applicants at Ivy League schools and corporations such as Microsoft and Google. Gladwell states that Terman was wrong about the Termites, and if he had met Chris Langan as a teenager, he would have been wrong about him, too.
Gladwell gives two examples—one easy and one much harder—of questions that use visual puzzles to test IQ, without requiring any language abilities or specific factual knowledge. The average human will score 100. Those scoring below 70 are considered mentally disabled, and those who are successful in graduate programs likely have an IQ of 115 or higher. According to Gladwell, however, above 120 IQ makes little or no difference to success. A similar point applies to basketball: height is certainly an advantage, but there is, at best, modest value in being six foot seven instead of six foot six. A basketball player just needs to be tall enough.
A list of the last twenty-five Americans to win a Nobel Prize in Medicine includes graduates of prestigious schools, such as Columbia, Harvard, and MIT, but also graduates of DePauw, Holy Cross, and Gettysburg College. Similarly, there have been American Nobel laureates in Chemistry from Harvard and MIT, but also from Notre Dame and the University of Illinois. Harvard might have more intelligent students, but many other colleges have students smart enough to win a Nobel.
At the University of Michigan law school, around 10 percent of students are racial minorities. Without affirmative action, there would be less than 3 percent. Looking at career performance after graduation, Michigan found no difference between white and minority graduates. Minority students come into law school with weaker academic credentials than their white counterparts, but they are above the threshold required to be just as successful.
Not all questions that test for intelligence have a single correct answer. A different sort of question might ask for a list of different uses for a brick, or a blanket. A question like this measures imagination and creativity. At a top British high school, one student lists more than ten uses, many of which are comical. Another student, a prodigy with one of the school’s highest IQs, lists just a few uses, all of which are practical. Compared to an IQ test, asking about different uses for a brick might be a better way to identify future Nobel Prize winners.
Terman’s error was using intelligence alone to choose his Termites. While some of the Termites had successful careers, an unexpectedly high went on to careers that even Terman didn’t consider to be successful. The two students tested by Terman’s team who actually did go on to win Nobels were not selected as Termites: their IQs were too low. Terman eventually concluded that “intellect and achievement are far from perfectly correlated.”
Gladwell states that to understand Chris Langan’s prospects of becoming a “true outlier,” one must learn more about him.
Analysis: Chapter Three: The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 1
Intelligence, Gladwell argues, does not equal success. He dedicates this chapter to the examination of geniuses. Comparing the young subjects of Lewis Terman to Chris Langan, Gladwell argues against Terman’s idea that genius is a key to societal advancement. Gladwell lists Langan’s early accomplishments as a shining example of Terman's idea, then swiftly undercuts expectations. Gladwell argues again that individuals do not succeed or fail solely on their own, but rather due to a constellation of factors, many of which are uncontrollable. Langan's early achievements would suggest great things and a continued path toward accomplishment, but Gladwell includes the anecdote of his game show appearance to undermine the notion that genius equals success. Using two questions from an IQ test, Gladwell introduces the idea of an IQ threshold to examine the the larger notion of intelligence and its limitations. Arguing that the measure of someone’s intelligence is only helpful up to a point, Gladwell uses examples of schools that Nobel laureates attended for undergraduate studies. Some, he points out, are elite institutions; others are not. Additionally, he points to success among graduates of the law school at the University of Michigan. There was no quantifiable difference in success post-graduation between white and POC students, some of whom were admitted under affirmative action with slightly lower undergraduate grades and standardized test scores. Reasonably, then, the level of intelligence beyond a certain point is moot. All of the students were intelligent enough to graduate, and beyond that, he argues, their intelligence predicted nothing.
Elements other than intelligence must contribute to success. Gladwell expands on his notion of an intelligence threshold and examines these other factors through an example of a question on a divergence test. Using examples of two students at an elite British school, Gladwell shows that the divergence test has no right answers, but instead looks for answers that demonstrate uniqueness and creativity. Intelligence matters, but so does imagination, creativity, and outside-the-box thinking. Gladwell circles back to Terman, reinforcing that the error when choosing his Termites was a focus on intelligence alone. He once again turns his attention to Chris Langan, foreshadowing that Langan’s story did not follow a direct line to achievement. Intelligence alone does not offer a certain path to success.