There is a long list of news headlines about children in various countries who reportedly have higher IQs than Albert Einstein, the theoretical physicist whose ideas altered humanity’s conception of reality and led to numerous inventions, from television to lasers.
There wasn't a proper test to measure Einstein's IQ
The problem is, nobody really can say for sure what Einstein’s IQ was. There’s no indication that he ever was tested. Indeed, IQ testing was still in its beginning stages in the early 1900s, when Einstein first emerged as a scientific luminary. Since then, the tests have evolved significantly. The maximum IQ score assigned by the WAIS-IV, a commonly-used test today, is 160. A score of 135 or above puts a person in the 99th percentile of the population. News articles often put Einstein’s IQ at 160, though it’s unclear what that estimate is based upon.
“If you google ‘Einstein's IQ’ you get plenty of results, but nothing that I would consider credible,” says Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California, Davis and author of The Genius Checklist: Nine Paradoxical Tips on How You Can Become a Creative Genius.
“One fundamental problem with the estimates I've seen is that they tend to conflate intellectual ability with domain-specific achievement,” explains Simonton, who in 2006 published a study in the journal Political Psychology in which he estimated the IQs of 42 U.S. Presidents. "Of course Einstein was the greatest theoretical physicist of the 20th century, so he must have had a superlative IQ."
But Simonton adds, “If you closely examined Einstein's early intellectual development, his IQ seems far less striking.”
Einstein's thought experiment when he was a teenager helped scientists determine his IQ
Jonathan Wai, an assistant professor of education policy and psychology at the University of Arkansas who writes about the study of intelligence for Psychology Today, argues that Einstein might have scored high, given the abilities he demonstrated in his work. Wai points to Einstein’s famous teenage thought experiment, in which he visually imagined chasing after a light beam. That, coupled with scientists’ finding in the 1990s that the part of Einstein’s brain that processes three-dimensional visualization was significantly larger than typical, “suggests that Einstein was highly spatially talented,” Wai explains.
Wai also says that Einstein’s choice of scientific specialty, in itself, also indicates that he would have had a high score. “People who obtain PhDs in areas such as physics tend to have extremely high IQs…a combination of mathematical, verbal and spatial reasoning ability,” Wai says. “This has been shown in a stratified random sample of the population as well as within a sample of gifted individuals deliberately selected to be in the top one percent of ability or IQ. What this suggests is that if someone is a physicist, they are very likely to be well above average in IQ relative to the general population.”
Steve Jobs' IQ was on par with Einstein's
That might have put Einstein at least on a par with the late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Wai has estimated that Jobs had a high IQ of 160, based upon Jobs having once said that as a fourth grader, he tested at a level equivalent to a high school sophomore.
The idea of attempting to estimate the IQs of long-dead intellectual giants isn’t a new one. Back in 1926, researcher Catharine M. Cox published estimates of the IQs of 301 historical figures, including Charles Dickens, Galileo Galilei and Ludwig van Beethoven based upon accounts of their youthful traits and achievements.
Some question whether there’s a need to calculate Einstein’s IQ at all. “I don’t see the value in this kind of exercise,” says Robert B. McCall, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Famous people are famous for their actions, and we should celebrate those actions for the most part. Further, many of their contributions may only be modestly related to tested IQ. You can be ‘smart’ or accomplished in many ways that are only slightly related to IQ.”