Why people who boast about their IQ are (generally) losers

- What is your IQ?

– I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers – Stephen Hawking

A quick and dirty signalling explanation as to why Hawking is right:

If we accept that IQ is a fairly good measure of how good you’ll be at your job, how intelligent you are, and things like that, having a high IQ is something worth bragging about, as you can use it to tell others how clever you are. 1

However, this signalling has a sell-by date. IQ is only a proxy measure or predictor of intellectual achievement, and not achievement itself – no one has made the world a better place by acing a standardized test. When one is young, one might only have proxy measures to go on: we would expect the child with an IQ of 150 to have a better chance of winning a Nobel prize than one with an IQ of 90. Once one is an adult we can stop looking at the proxy measures and instead look at whatever record of achievement there is.

If Stephen Hawking wanted to brag about how clever he is, his IQ (however high it may be) would come a long way down the list of braggables like “I held the Lucasian chair in mathematics at Cambridge” or “I discovered Hawking radiation”. If his IQ was much lower than we would expect him to have, sensible people wouldn’t go: “Oh that Hawking only has an IQ of 102, he’s not that bright after all”, but more likely to go “His intelligence must be one of the exceptions that isn’t captured by IQ tests”, or something like that.

In contrast, it might still be worth bragging about your IQ if you haven’t achieved much (or at least much less than your IQ score would lead us to expect). If you are a loser by conventional measures of intellectual achievement, then telling us you have a really high IQ may encourage us to think you’re really clever but underachieving, or that you have (or had!) lots of potential, which is a bit better than us thinking you are a garden-variety loser.

If so, we should expect people to be more likely to boast about their IQ the more their IQ over-predicts their actual achievements (about right, from my own experience). So people who boast about their IQ are (generally) losers.

  1. There are a number of ways of doing this besides going “my IQ is X” – high-IQ societies might be a slightly more subtle (and superior) way of signalling: “My IQ is (at least) X”.


5 responses to Why people who boast about their IQ are (generally) losers

  1. Bill said:

    This makes a lot of sense to me. Every Mensa member I’ve ever met has seemed otherwise unexceptional. They have seemed to me to be proof that a high IQ score will not necessarily translate into achievement. And by boasting about their score (with a Mensa bumper sticker, for example) they seem to be saying something like, “I may be a loser in life, but I have a high IQ score.”

  2. Jason Gann said:

    I think this article is wrong. Who cares if someone boasts about their IQ as long as it makes them happy and their not hurting anyone. I’m slightly autistic and post my Wisc results to show off my uncanny autistic like cognitive profile on my social networking site. This article is based of social prejudice. No one is a loser, we are all just biological process acting of our environments. Stephen Hawking was just acting off of normal human bias that all humans have (e.g. I like butterfingers, but now that I’ve seen this ugly fat kid like them I no longer like them as much).

    • Thrasymachus said:

      Hello Jason,

      There are all sorts of occasions when talking about your own cognitive ability is fine. In my experience though, the most common occasion people mention IQ is boasting: “I’m really clever, and I’ve got the standardized tests to prove it!” Generally these sorts of interactions are negative sum – you feel a bit worse if someone elses’ IQ is higher than yours, leading to everyone inflating their scores. So I’m generally against it.

      The point of the post was slightly more sly than condemning people who brag about their IQ scores: rather, it was to say IQ alone isn’t that impressive, especially in the absence of anything else. So folks irritated by people bragging about their IQ can take heart that these people are in fact signalling a lack of (IQ-adjusted) impressiveness.

      (There probably is some counter-signalling issues too – if there’s an impression people who talk about their high IQ are generally underachieving and a bit obnoxious, you want to distinguish yourself from them: even if I could get into Mensa, and even if I would enjoy whatever Mensa do, I’d probably avoid the association).

  3. Will said:

    Interesting comments. I would tend to agree with Mr. Hawking–as Thrasymachus pointed out there were subtle implications in the statement. First, that IQ alone is not impressive in and of itself, but rather how it is used. Margaret Mead said, “I must admit that I personally measure success in terms of the contributions an individual makes to her or his fellow human beings.” This is not how most measure success in our materialistic society, thus if a genius doesn’t have a string of achievements he/she would be branded a loser if they bragged about it.
    Second, people that have very high IQ’s, i.e. genius level or above, don’t brag about it because their intelligence tends to alienate them anyway, and we ARE social creatures. Generally speaking, it is those who are only above average intelligence or those who have high standardized test scores (which are not true measures of intelligence but rather of knowledge) that brag about it because it makes them feel superior, and it is that which makes them a loser. As for Bills’ comment about the bumper sticker–that might be your perception, but it was more likely self-identification. If someone has an NRA bumper sticker are they bragging about owning guns? Or are they identifying themselves as part of an organization of like-minded people? We humans are social creatures. Geniuses are no different in that respect, and the only social organization we have is MENSA.

  4. Peter said:

    If his IQ was much lower than we would expect him to have, sensible people wouldn’t go: “Oh that Hawking only has an IQ of 102, he’s not that bright after all”

    That’s probably what I would have thought

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