Measuring Political Intelligence

Gina Loudon
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Posted: Mar 27, 2012 12:01 AM

A raging debate in recent years about the intelligence—or lack thereof—of certain political figures reflects an impression that IQ scores are doled out like Social Security numbers and with greater transparency.

It certainly isn’t the case that IQ is irrelevant. Because IQ highly correlates to academic achievement and academic achievement correlates to financial success, IQ is positively correlated with both financial success and overall wealth. A political candidate who owns a strong intelligence could be predicted to use that intelligence to solve problems in both the political and academic arenas.

However, the correlation is not perfect. Our current Genius-in-Chief illustrates the imperfect connection between presumed IQ and real world or political intelligence. Consider the praise President Obama’s mind garners; listening to his supporters, one would think that he could easily turn a deficit into a surplus, discontent into ecstasy, incivility into civility, a recession into a boom, or, excuse our cheekiness, algae into sufficient energy.

Historian Michael Beschloss claimed about Obama: “this is a guy whose IQ is off the charts…he’s probably the smartest guy ever to become President.”

Our nation’s foremost authority on intelligence, George Clooney, recently stated, “look, there’s a guy in office right now who is smarter than almost anyone you know.”

One online blogger reasoned, “Since Mensa accepts various IQ tests as well as other cognitive tests to qualify for Mensa membership…Obama's IQ Score could range anywhere from a low IQ score of 130…to a high IQ score of 148.”

Another less fawning author correlated SAT scores and the supposed IQ scores of several public figures: “Thus, giving Obama the benefit of the doubt drops his score to 1104, which is equivalent to an IQ of 116. That's not bad, but it is significantly less intelligent than Hillary's 140 IQ, as well as being lower than George W. Bush's 125 IQ (1206 SAT).”

Rick Perry has been another recipient of amateur cognitive assessment. Liberal gadfly Paul Begala opined,

Even among state representatives, even among Texas Aggies (graduates of this cute remedial school we have in Texas), Perry stood out for his modest intellectual gifts…but lack of brains has never been a hindrance in politics.

Of course, Sarah Palin has been the whipping girl of elites since September of 2008, from Tina Fey’s portrayal of her as a bumbling fool who can’t find Russia on a map to U.S. News and World Report’s contributing Editor Bonnie Erbe quoting a woman who had been an acquaintance of Palin (she was two years Palin’s junior at the same high school):

She doesn't know a lot about politics, it's more important to the American public that she looks like she does than what she has to say. We're not holding her accountable the way we hold male politicians accountable. She's unable to articulate much about her policy on oil or name a Supreme Court decision she disagrees with besides Roe. vs. Wade.

Blogs are full of amateur psychologists, estimating the IQ of every candidate. All of them sound foolish.

Administering, scoring, and interpreting IQ tests makes up a healthy portion of Dr. Paterno’s practice. Having given hundreds of these tests every year, he can say with authority that most of the media’s prattling about IQ scores of political candidates is unadulterated nonsense.

First of all, very few people take reliable, valid, intelligence tests. It is doubtful that Palin, Obama, Romney, or Santorum have taken a standardized IQ test in the past 20 years. Common reasons for taking IQ tests are entrance into a gifted academic program, evaluating for learning disabilities, and admission to Mensa.

Second, even if these scores existed, it would be illegal for a psychologist to publish them. I certainly would get sued if I published confidential patient information. If someone wants to claim they know Mitt Romney’s IQ score, that person had better have a good defense attorney. The only people who would likely make their own scores public are Mensa members, and these could easily be conflated (the ego seems to do powerful things to IQ scores).

Third, intelligence is a construct, heavily debated over the decades since formalized intelligence testing began. Popular intelligence measures readily admit that the tests do not evaluate a person’s broader, overall intelligence. Rather, the tests are designed primarily to predict academic achievement. David Wechsler, the developer of one of the most commonly administered IQ tests, chose the four most critical cognitive skills that he believes lead to academic success: verbal comprehension, visual-spatial processing, working memory, and overall processing speed. While these certainly comprise the foundation for academic success, a single IQ score cannot do justice to the multidimensional nature of overall or practical intelligence, especially those skills that are required in politics.

Social skills, synthesizing concrete and abstract realities, deductive reasoning, emotional intelligence, flexibility of thought, and creativity are just a few examples of cognitive abilities that are surely part of practical intelligence not evaluated on most intelligence tests. Consider Obama. He is clearly a reasonably intelligent man. But is he simply book-smart, while lacking in several other critical skills necessary for political success or solving our nation’s economic woes? Are his potential opponents less intelligent in a classical sense, but more intelligent in other ways that would make them more likely to tackle our soaring debt, cure our deficit cancer, and other national problems?

We suggest that it is not altogether meaningless to suggest that a particular person is brilliant, dim-witted, or moronic. However, given the limited scope of IQ and the profound ethical risks inherent in assessing another person’s intelligence—which inevitably speaks volumes about that person’s overall value as a human being—we think that formal, standardized tests cannot possibly assess a public figure’s practical or political intelligence.

We have developed a list of real world traits by which politicians can and should be judged regarding their intelligence. We call it simply Political Intelligence, or PI for short. In Part II, we will describe the traits of Political Intelligence, giving examples of public figures who exhibit these traits, some to a greater degree than others.

Dr. Dathan Paterno of Park Ridge Psychological Services contributed to this column