How does your psyche measure up?

Renewed interest in IQ tests is part of a mania for magical solutions to human complexity
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Few who took it will have forgotten the exam. It tested the ability to write a cliche for every occasion: "As white as ..." and "snow" was the only right answer. "As black as ..." and it had to be "coal". There were analogies: "Stag is to roe as boar is to ..." There were contradictory proverbs: "Too many cooks ..." and "Many hands make ..." There were synonyms and odd- ones-out: "train, car, boat, plane, banana".

Day after day we were crammed for the 11-plus. Bored rigid, we would send each other notes with surreal explanations for why banana might not be the odd one out. Intelligent? No. I, my two best friends and my sister failed, late developers all. Bad at spelling and maths, bored by school, foxed by number sequences, the cramming was to no avail.

Even now I find that hard to admit in print. The stigma of low intelligence sticks like napalm to the 80 per cent of the population who were marked down as dim. There are of course many distinguished people who failed the 11-plus (though colleagues could only dredge up the names of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Sir Bernard Ingham, which is not entirely reassuring). I went on to get a scholarship to Oxford but even so I have a sneaking suspicion that the scholarship was a fluke and the magic 11-plus IQ test was the real thing. It had an aura of power, reaching deep into the psyche with all those little masonic symbols to be matched and sorted, a voodoo mystique no one dared ignore. Would I make it into Mensa now? I would rather not know.

The Journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs this week published a paper by an educationist, Dr James Tooley, suggesting that children should again be IQ-tested at the age of 10. Thereafter no further exams would be needed. Everything you need to know about a person's ability is fixed at 10 years old, when people can be divided into sheep and goats and the poor dim ones warned that they may not be suitable for certain jobs.

Along the green benches of the Commons are many grammar school boys who hanker after a return of the 11-plus, which was gradually abandoned from the late Sixties but still exists in a few areas. Clinging to old certainties, they believe that it could offer excellence, discipline and better opportunities for bright working-class children like themselves.

The old exam was an unjust beast, as any new one would be for the same practical reasons. It was supposed to be an objective test of intelligence and ability. But there was that "annual miracle" by which the number of children who passed exactly fitted the number of grammar school places available. Wales had grammar places for 40 per cent of children, so 40 per cent passed. Some areas only had places for 8 per cent.

Then there was the girls problem. More girls passed than boys, but there were more boys' grammar school places, so girls were given a minus factor in the final scores.

Discredited though the old 11-plus may be, IQ tests are not hokum. Over a large number of people they will predict academic success better than any other single test. But they are not perfect predictors: 49 per cent of those who pass maths IQ tests will go on to be successful in their maths GCSE; in verbal reasoning the IQ tests correlate 65 per cent with English GCSE passes; and IQ correlates about 50 per cent with job success. But IQ does not measure determination, charm, creativity or other crucial skills needed for success.

And then there is the chicken-and-egg class problem: twice as many middle- class children will go on to higher education as working-class children of the same IQ. Children of the professional classes score 113 while children of the unskilled average 96. These kinds of figures allow Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, authors of the controversial US book The Bell Curve, to indulge in lurid predictions of a genetically self-perpetuating underclass. They accept IQ tests unquestioningly as absolute determinants. But the more you engage with the IQ testing problem the more circular the arguments become, because of the difficulty of providing independent, non-socially-biased validation. By the time you test, the social bias has already been at work.

There is a deep atavistic need to select people, to create little elites in the name of excellence. But what the labour market needs now is a diversity of talent. One third of jobs are now professional or managerial. The need for skill grows yearly and so does the need for an ideological model that encourages planting as many children and adults into education as possible, not weeding them out.

But the mania for perfect human selection is everywhere, and selling tests is big business - 85 per cent of personnel directors in the top 500 companies use psychometric testing for recruitment. Its success rate is low because of "functional fluctuation" (we answer differently according to mood, or maybe ingenuity in guessing "right" answers). Off-the-peg, mainly American, tests are regarded by many as worse than useless. Top- of-the-range testing, which costs up to pounds 80,000 from the Institute of Psychiatry's commercial arm, still claims only modest improvements on interviewing, so slight that it is profitable only when recruiting large numbers. But we shall all be increasingly haunted throughout our lives by Alice in Wonderland psychometric questions like: "Would you rather be a lumberjack or a ballet dancer?" "Would you like to witness an execution?" and "Do you prefer ordinary sex?"

In the past 20 years the average IQ scores of Japanese children have gone up by a remarkable 10 points. Their gene pool hasn't changed, but their schools have got better. Steve Jones, the geneticist, points constantly to the myriad ways in which environment mitigates genes. The fact that there are measurable differences in intelligence between children should not predetermine our treatment of them because it is only one of a number of factors.

But we are transfixed by magic-bullet solutions to the mysterious complexity of human nature. Tick the box, look at your palm, read my tea leaves, tell me the secret and tell me quick. Usually such attempts are doomed to be made a mockery by human perversity.

Scientists are searching for the intelligence gene and expect to find it soon. But that will no more solve the problem than IQ tests. Clutching at promises of certainty, science tempts us with what all those questionnaires in magazines offer too - nice neat caricatures to tell you not just "Are You a Good Lover?" or "How Popular Are You?" but "Who Are You?" and "How Did You Get This Way?" Genetic determinism is the craze in this uncertain world because it deludes us into imagining there is an "answer" to the problem of self. A computer print-out of your genes will soon tell you. Of course it won't. Predisposition does not predetermine.