Do we need Mensa?

As the club for clever-clogs reaches 50, William Hartston explains why its members are no more than a bunch of useless eggheads with chips on their shoulders
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I once met a very pleasant chap with two-tone shiny shoes who ran a local branch of a Mensa puzzlers society. Once, he told me, he had to leave one of their meetings early for a dinner appointment, so he left the merry puzzlers with something to think about while he was away. "What," he asked them, "is the odd one out among the following numbers: 8, 17, 19, 26, 31, 32, 35, 41, 46?"

When he returned from dinner a couple of hours later, they were all still puzzling over the numbers and ready to give up. He told them the answer: 41. They stared again at the list for a little while then asked: Why? "It's because," he said, having ensured that he was near enough to the door to make a quick getaway, "all the others come with fried rice."

That, in a nutshell, is what Mensa is all about: a group of people bright enough to solve difficult puzzles, even bright enough to think of puzzles that the others can't solve, but not bright enough to think of anything more worthwhile to do. On the anorak scale, they come somewhere between trainspotters and chess players, more versatile than the former, less obsessive than the latter, they are the very models of self-obsessed, high-grade intellectual futility.

The exclusive club for people of high IQ is 50 years old this year, yet it still struggles to find a role for itself in society as a whole. Its struggle for a real identity all comes down to one question: why do people join Mensa? Well, it's to meet like-minded people, of course. You don't need an IQ of 148 to see that. And that's about the gist of it. People want to join Mensa so that they can meet other people who wanted to join Mensa.

I wonder what happens when one Mensan meets another. "Hello, I'm clever."

"So am I."

"Ooh, that's nice. What shall we do now?"

That's where it all goes wrong. It all sounded such a good idea - a club in which clever people could meet and exchange ideas with other clever people. In real life, however, most clever people are clever enough not to need such a club. Everything in their normal life does the job for them. Clever people are educated with clever people, work with clever people and marry clever people without needing to join a club. And if they do need a club, there are plenty of leisure interest groups catering for the brighter than average, from the Conan Doyle Society, to the Sundial Society, from the Queen's English Society to the Society for Psychical Research - all packed with bright chaps and chapesses eager to discuss matters of mutual interest with similar with a view to forming a lasting relationship.

Unless you're not really interested in anything except being clever. And Dungeons and Dragons, of course. Mensa have their own Special Interest Groups for things like that. And Star Trek.

In the 1960s, there was a heated debate about the measurement of intelligence. The essential question was whether intelligence tests measured anything more than the ability to do intelligence tests. Since generally bright people tended to perform better at them, there seemed good reason to value whatever it was they measured, but the underlying theory was more complex. Supporters of IQ testing argue that there is a thing called "crystalline intelligence" which is the basic capacity underlying the ability to perform well at anything involving mental skill. Good crystalline intelligence plus linguistic ability makes you good at languages. Good crystalline intelligence plus mathematical insight makes you good at sums. And so on.

Even supporters of the theory, however, rarely dared to utter its possible horrifying consequence: that pure crystalline intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, may be no use on its own at all. That is one reason that most psychometricians have moved away from old-style IQ-tests into more taxing measures of mental ability that attempt to measure applied intelligence rather than any supposed crystalline version. The other reason is that traditional IQ-tests, of the type Mensa use to decide whether you're fit to join them, have been around long enough for punters to learn how to do them. Intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, has become an acquired skill rather than a measure of natural ability.

Mensa has been described as a singles club for nerds, but it is worse than that. It is a singles club for nerds with chips on their shoulders. Eggheads with chips, you might say. They know they are bright, but need to belong to a society to confirm, both to themselves and others, just how bright they are. Now I like solving puzzles as much as the next nerd. But I don't want to talk to him about it, nor sit next to him while we're doing it. Indeed, my only professional dealing with Mensans confirmed that they may well be the sort of people who are best avoided.

It happened about 20 years ago when I was working on the development of personality tests. We had been working on a concept called "Need for Achievement" - believed to be a basic motivating force in managerial roles - and had developed something that we had good hopes might provide a reliable measure of it. We needed a group of under-achievers to test it and when Mensa crossed our paths, we jumped at them.

They are not all under-achievers, of course, as a preliminary questionnaire revealed. There were some very bright, very successful, very contented people in the sample we selected for the survey. But they were outnumbered by the highly anxious, frustrated under-achieving group. And they were the ones who made my research one of the most frustrating projects I have ever conducted. Everything was done by post and you would not believe how many very bright people can be flummoxed by the task of filling in a simple form and sending it back. Some put the wrong stamp on the envelope. Some left off the stamp entirely. Some transcribed our address wrongly. Others forgot to fill in their names at the top of the form. Many did not read the instructions properly and barged into the questions without having understood what they were meant to do. Some of them did not turn the paper over to see that the questions were continued on the other side. Of all the replies that reached us - and I hate to think of all the others languishing in some lost mail department these past 20 years - about one in four was rendered unusable by these follies. And a remarkably high proportion of these people - too incompetent to write their own names at the top of a sheet of paper, too rushed to read instructions, too distracted to know the price of a stamp - could still not resist the urge to scribble long sentences in the margins of the paper criticising our test construction and telling us how we should have done it. And these are the people who, in America at least, were reported to have proposed the formation of a "Repository for Germinal Choice" - a Mensa sperm bank to help ensure the propogation of their hyper-intelligent genes.

My own project with Mensa had stemmed from an idea of theirs of setting up a sort of employment agency for Mensans. They knew that British industry was crying out for intelligent people, and they were not only overflowing with intelligence, but a large number of their members were unemployed. If only somebody could make the necessary introductions. (The flaw in their argument, of course, was that industry was looking for high practical intelligence, not just high IQ-test intelligence.)

OK, so I harbour a grudge. But that experience confirmed all my prejudices about Mensa. It is a sad place, designed for people with good minds who do not know how to use them. The worst thing is that by bringing such people together, it provides a structure that confirms their inadequacies.

Societies of over-eaters do not go on a binge together. Depressives groups do not gather for a communal moan. Alcoholics Anonymous do not go off down the pub after their meetings. The Mensa inmates, however, need encouraging to climb out of the high-IQ ghetto of social inadequates. The trouble is that they do not acknowledge that they have a problem at all. A few years ago, someone founded a society called Densa, for the mentally challenged. I bet they're a lot more fun and probably, dare I say it, blessed with rather more practical intelligence than the group they parody.

We, the non-members of Mensa, certainly do not need Mensa. We are either too thick to join it, or too bright to want to. The real sadness, however, is that its members do not need it either.

What do you think?

Do you need Mensa? Every Monday you can give the Do We Need...? subject of the week the come-on-down or the thumbs-down. Send your verdict on Mensa, in no more than 100 words, to Do We Need...?, Section Two, the Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL or fax 0171- 293 2182 no later than Friday morning, and we will print the best comments on a need-to-know basis.