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Does IQ Matter?

By Nirmalya Kumar

This weekend blog started as a weekend email to the top leadership of the Tata Group. Once, I included an abbreviated intelligence (IQ) test available on the internet.  Some of my Tata colleagues sent their individual scores to me and the distribution was:

156 – 4
145 – 7
134 – 7
100 – 1

Given that the IQ test has a mean of 100 with a standard deviation of 15, this was impressive. No one came close to beating my low score of 78. Admittedly this is not a representative sample, but it was adequate to raise the question: does IQ matter?

The problem with IQ tests are that they confuse being smart with one type of intelligence; they assume that intelligence is a fixed trait; and ignore other factors that determine success. There is a lot of research on, and intuitively we understand, that intelligent people may not be successful as they may not put in the effort or lack emotional intelligence. We also understand that people scoring low on these tests can still be successful as intelligence is not the only determinant of success.

My score is more unusual because despite the low score, I have performed well in academic examinations. Robert Sternberg is perhaps the leading psychologist in this area. He had a low IQ score but demonstrated, with practice, he could increase his score. I suspect this may be true for me.

The more important issue is that we often see people perform on a single task or test, and ascribe general levels of intelligence or smarts to them. All performance on a task tells us, is that person’s skill to do that task at that particular moment. Yes, general intelligence matters, as does aptitude, but how well one does on a particular task is determined largely by the strategy adopted (clear goals, smart strategy, learning orientation) and the effort (persistence) expended. We tend to overlook these last two factors.


Carol Dweck demonstrated that people either hold the belief that intelligence is a fixed trait or that it is a malleable trait.

Those believing intelligence is “fixed” agree:

  • A person has a certain finite amount which is resistant to change
  • Some people are lucky and have it, whilst others are not fortunate
  • Most people with this belief also believe that they have it and rank amongst the intelligent

In contrast, those believing intelligence is “malleable” trait report:

  • Intelligence is a potential that can be developed over time
  • It is not that everybody is the same, but emphasize the idea that everyone can become smarter by developing their potential
  • It is not about whether you are ranked among the intellectual elite but about working hard, taking challenges, striving to learn and grow intellectually.

My favorite study is Mueller & Dweck (1998), where, from what I recall, she:

  • Randomly assigned children to two groups and gave them all a puzzle that was age appropriate. Most of them solved it, and the average performance in the two groups was equal.
  • One of the groups was praised for their “intelligence”, while the other group was praised for the “effort” that they had put into solving the puzzle.
  • Then both groups were asked if they would like a similar puzzle or a harder one. In the “intelligence” feedback group, most chose the safer task (easier puzzle) while 90% chose the more challenging puzzle in the “effort” group. In other words, the “intelligent” group had become so invested in looking smart that they gave up the opportunity to learn and become smarter.
  • She gave everyone the harder puzzle to solve.
  • The intelligence group quickly gave up and demonstrated a decline in enjoyment of task. When the allotted time was over, they immediately returned the puzzle. They now held beliefs that they were not smart and not good at the task.
  • The “effort” group, persisted and when time was up asked for more time – because if success told them that they had put in the effort, then failure told them more effort was required. They did not doubt their intelligence, simply that the task called for more effort. Interestingly, some of these students requested for the name of the puzzle so they could ask their parents to buy it and continue trying it at home.
  • Both groups were then assigned a third task, equal in difficulty to the first. The intelligence group demonstrated a decline in performance – perhaps they gave up. While the effort group increased performance as inspired by the setback. In other words, the simple manipulation of feedback led to a difference in their subsequent performance. A difference appeared between the two groups where none existed at the start.
  • When asked to report their performance to a friend who was not in the room, in the “intelligence” group 40% lied about their performance, compared to few in the “effort” group.
  • Her conclusion: we are making people dumb by telling them they are smart.

It is a significant study that implies by telling our children/employees they are intelligent when they succeed on a task, we are consigning them to mediocrity. Much more useful to tell them when they succeed, it is because of the strategy or effort adopted. This allows them to attribute failure on a task to the strategy employed or their effort, both of which can be adapted.


Dweck’s research has been significant in my life. Nobody ever thought I was particularly intelligent (excluding my mother) until 1997/98, when I started noticing that executives after a classroom session or consulting assignment would tell me that I was the most intelligent person they had met. But what they had just seen was a demonstration of a skill I had honed over a decade by that time. The results simply reflected the performance on the task at that moment. More broadly, this performance:

  • Probably reflects my actual skill at that time
  • Has less to do with my broader intelligence
  • Even less to do with intellectual potential or ability to expand skills
  • Little to do with my self-worth as a person

To compensate for my low IQ, I would reach work at 6:00 am. This meant leaving home at 5:45 in Switzerland and 5:15 in UK/USA. As the average colleague appeared around 8:30, I had 2+ hour advantage. To compensate for that much additional effort is difficult, provided I was following the right strategy (otherwise the effort is just wasted). This is why my advice to my daughter – give them intelligence, you take effort and strategy. Only on my 50th birthday, having achieved all my career goals, I decided enough is enough, and to finally enjoy breakfast at home.


Unfortunately, people deny the power of effort. Popular culture holds the myth that effort is only for the incompetent. This leads to:

  • Beliefs that things come easily to geniuses. But, even geniuses work extraordinarily hard to make great discoveries.
  • While it is true that two people doing the exact same task, one will require less effort. All it implies is the person is more skilled to do that task at that point of time.
  • When confronted with difficult task requiring a lot of effort, those who hold intelligence as fixed worry about their intelligence and get distracted by concerns of inadequacy.
  • Self-handicapping occurs by those who hold intelligence as fixed by trying to act like you do not need to put in a lot of effort, when effort is most needed.

Nirmalya Kumar is Visiting Professor of Marketing at London Business School & Distinguished Fellow, Emerging Markets Institute at INSEAD. As an author, Nirmalya has written six books, the latest being Brand Breakout: How Emerging Market Brands Will Go Global. Having ranked on the Thinkers50 every 2 years since 2011, he was also awarded the Global Village Award for contributing the most to the business community’s understanding of globalisation and the new frontiers established by emerging markets.


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