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I got asked a very interesting question (I am paraphrasing) –

“What do you think Sherlock’s IQ is? And is Sherlock antisocial because of his intelligence?”

(credit: YuriOokino)

I personally find BBC Sherlock’s portrayal of “genius” inconsistent with real life. What Sherlock is portraying not so much a typical “genius” but a typical example of a man who has failed to emotionally mature (Explaining Sherlock’s Sherlockness). His intelligence might have compounded his maturation but so did a myriad of other factors.

In this meta I attempt to answer the questions and as usual there is not a straight forward answer. I am going to explore:

  • Real life geniuses compared with Sherlock

  • Why IQ tests cannot tell you very much about anyone's intelligence

  • Intelligence is unlikely to be the reason why Sherlock is Sherlock.

The Representation of Genius

Genius has no scientific definition. It is merely used to describe someone who has exceptional ability in one area or multiple areas. What society defines as genius depends very much on the values and norms held in that society and how history chooses to view individuals.
One particular thing I do not like about BBC Sherlock is its portrayal of “genius”.

Florey & Chain (the men who made the drug penicillin), Semmelweis (the doctor who has saved and is still saving millions of lives – I highly recommend you look him up), Einstein, Da Vinci etc. were all modest men with modest lives who were dedicated their intellectual pursuits. They had confidence in their ideas but historical records do not show an overwhelming sense of arrogance a la Sherlock. In the same way the vast majority of leading figures in science, academia, medicine etc. are well adjusted, normal people. They are incredibly good at what they do but the vast majority of them have the emotional maturity to understand that being intelligent does not make you better than everyone else. People like Sherlock are the exceptions and not the rule.

A small minority are maladjusted, socially awkward, arrogant in the extreme but this is part of their personality and not necessarily a consequence of their intelligence.  I would argue that having a high intelligence does not make you more or less likely to become like Sherlock. I do not think we can make assumptions about Sherlock’s life or why he behaves as he does purely from his intelligence.

What is Intelligence? And Does Sherlock Have it?

Intelligence as a concept is very hard to define. I personally have not studied intelligence in any great depth because it is much more within the realms of psychology and not psychiatry.

One of the most widely cited theories on Human Intelligence is the Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory that divides intelligence into many different aspects. Most importantly it puts forwards the theory of fluid intelligence – the broad ability to reason, form concepts and solve unfamiliar problems. Other forms of intelligence include crystallized intelligence – the breadth and depth of acquired knowledge as well as specific intelligences such as reading and writing, short-term memory, long-term memory etc.

Everyone has some degree of fluid intelligence – hence why humans are deemed to be intelligent life forms – regardless of your level of education or life experience.

Because there is no set definition for what intelligence is – it becomes very hard to actually compare people.

The big problem in psychometrics (the study and quantification of human intelligence) is that all the methods we have to measure intelligence are overwhelmingly confounded by education, culture, and society and life experience. When you compare two individuals are you really comparing their intelligence or just their level of education/social status?

Additionally intelligence is so often thought of as pertaining to logic and problem solving, but surely the great artists and musicians were also highly intelligent people even if they would have scored rather poorly on verbal or non-verbal reasoning tests.

Can you compare Mozart’s intelligence to that of Einstein’s? Who is more intelligent? Mozart probably would not have scored spectacularly on any IQ test – they contain vast amounts of non-verbal reasoning, but Einstein probably would have been a certified “genius” had he taken an IQ test because his work uses a great deal of abstract thought and non-verbal reasoning.

In the same way is Sherlock (or the Nobel Prize winner for physics) really that much more intelligent than the rest of the human population? They are both very good in what they do, but does that necessarily translate to an exceptionally high degree of fluid intelligence rather than a result of their dedication and training?

The IQ test says you’re stupid

Currently the most popular way of measuring human intelligence through IQ tests of which there are many types.

IQ tests as a measure of intelligence are fundamentally flawed.

Binet (the man whose name is one half of the most popular IQ test in the world: Stanford-Binet) devised his intelligence test not for the benefit of societies like Mensa but to identify patients with what he called “subnormal intelligence”. The first IQ test was therefore devised as a tool for psychiatrists to help patients rather than for society to quantify and compare normal individuals.

IQ test are one of the many tools used by psychiatrists identify patients who have learning disabilities and hence provide them with appropriate medical/social aid. It is by no means the only method we use to identify patients with learning difficulties.

The main flaws (and this by no means an exhaustive list) with IQ tests for comparing people within the range of “normal” are:

They overwhelmingly favour people who have a “scientific/logical” world view.
If your brain happens to work in a different way – you are at a distinct disadvantage. For example if you asked a hunter gather what links a wolf and a rabbit – he/she would tell you that the wolf chases the rabbit, but the correct answer on a IQ test would be that they are both mammals.  The hunter gather is not less intelligent – he/she merely has a different world view. They do not care whether the animals are within the same biological classification; it is much more relevant for them to understand the predator-prey relationship.

They test a great deal of factual knowledge (particularly in IQ tests that include verbal reasoning).

IQ tests make many inherent assumptions about the knowledge people should have obtained and make no allowance for people who have different educational trajectories than the norm. For example, verbal reasoning does not so much test your intelligence (as pertains to abstract thought, concept formation, problem solving) as it does your vocabulary. If you’ve never seen this word before how are you going to do the question? Vocabulary is very closely linked to educational status and therefore it can be both socially and educationally biased.

They are exams – and they reward good exam technique as much as any other exam.

If you are good at taking exams – your IQ score would be artificially higher than it technically should be simply because you have good exam technique, time management etc. Intelligence does not come into play in this; it is merely training and experience. It has been shown that with even a short amount of training and practice it is possible to increase one’s IQ score by 10-20 points. Repeated IQ tests have shown that their results can be consistent in the same individual but only if they have not practised for the test in between retakes.  However, the significance attached to these few IQ points can often be larger than the results of any other single exam. Many lay people believe that the IQ score is an indicator of overall functionality in life rather than a very specific test to assess some very specific and not necessarily useful  skills.

IQ test assume that intelligence is normally distributed in a symmetrical manner about the mean (i.e. in a bell curve).

Just because human height appears to have a normal distribution does not mean one can assume human intelligence is normally distributed. IQ tests are devised so that individual raw test scores can be forced into a normal distribution of IQ points with 100 points as the mean. IQ score graph is an artificial construct rather than a true measurement. Actual raw test scores for IQ tests do not show a truly symmetrical graph - the shape of graph depends very much which social group you use as your test subject. This may distort differences by dragging out one end and compression another.

How to be a Certified Genius

Oddly enough on the Stanford-Binet IQ scoring system any score over 145 is considered to be “genius”. If you score >145 you are a certified genius.

I am not going into just how ridiculous this is. If Sherlock doesn’t score >145 does it make him any less brilliant?

Above 2 standard deviations from the mean (100 IQ points) the IQ tests scores lose what little meaning they had in the first place. Scores of over 130 do not mean that you are over 30% more intelligent than the average human – it is not a linear scale.

At the very high levels there may be few real raw marks between say 145 and 180. Thus every mark becomes worth more in terms of IQ score. A few marks on one test should not be able to elevate anyone from being normal to genius! If you are careless/distracted/just bad at taking exams, this could the difference to whether you are genius or just bright.

And yet much significance on these high IQ scores. I have nothing against High IQ societies – their purpose is in the title but in terms of schooling, it is true some children who cause trouble in school are incredibly bright and need more stimulation but so what? Shouldn’t the schools be providing stimulation to suit each child’s need without them being certified a “genius” first? Do teachers need a reason to intellectually challenge their pupils?

All a high IQ score can tell you is that this person is good at the narrow range of skills the IQ test assesses – it is inappropriate to extrapolate beyond that. It is also highly inappropriate to stream people into occupations/pupils into sets based on their IQ.

The Emotional Burden of being Intelligent


I want to take this opportunity to point out that people with high intelligence are no more or less likely to develop emotional problems.

Correlation does not equate to causation. Just because Sherlock might be highly intelligent and have poor social skills does not mean we can assume intelligence is the cause. If this was the case, it is equally valid to say that poor social skills makes you more intelligent, which frankly it does not.

In terms of social skills: social status, educational environment and home life are all much more important.

High IQ in childhood correlates very well with both life expectancy and mental wellbeing in later life, which for people who believe in the IQ shows that intelligence may even protect you from emotional problems. However we need to remember the IQ is also a reflection of the child’s social-economic status. Children born into richer families are more likely to stay rich – particularly in country like the UK in 2012.

So I don’t think Sherlock is Sherlock because he is far more intelligent than the rest of the human population.

I think he was viciously bullied at school because he was utterly tactless and had no social skills. He was going to be a target for bullying even if he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the box. Being smart is just one of the myriad of excuses that children use to bully each other. Spots, weight, rich, poor, skin colour, accent etc are just some of the others. Being bullied for your intelligence is no more or less hurtful than being ostracized because of your appearance or family circumstances. I do not agree that being hated for your intelligence is worse because there is nothing you can do about it. Most of the things that bullies pick on are things you cannot change about yourself – and even if you could, they would find something else in time.

Sherlock still has limited social skills, and very little motivation to improve them. He frankly doesn’t care very much that his remarks upset, offend or hurt people. Mycroft on the other hand is on par with Sherlock and seems to have a perfectly good set of social graces. For more information please read Explaining Sherlock’s Sherlockness.

And what about John – he might not be brilliant at detecting but is he less intelligent than Sherlock? After all detection is Sherlock’s comfort zone and not John’s. Should Sherlock ever decide to spend a few days attempting to do John’s job do you think he would actually be any better at being a doctor than John is at being a detective? Personally I think Sherlock would make an awful doctor – he has the emotional sensitivity of a tabloid newpaper.

Why is being able to handle your own and other people’s emotions not seem as an integral part of human intelligence? It is very important in real life, much more so than being able to logically predict the next picture in a sequence. In terms of emotions John is so much more adept than Sherlock has ever shown himself to be.

I really feel that John doesn’t get the intellectual credit he deserves in the series – I really want to see him in his comfort zone, doing what he does best when he is awake (without having to cope with Sherlock’s shenanigans at the same time).

Sherlock vs People in General


To answer the question posed in the beginning I think Sherlock would do very well on any IQ test. Firstly he’s evidently had a good education, which will give him a distinct advantage. He also has a very logical approach to everything in life and the IQ test doesn’t examine his emotional maturity so he really can’t lose, it plays right to his strengths.

Like I said before, whether Sherlock scores 100, 130, 145 or 180 hardly matters. He’s smart – do we need to know how much smarter he is in comparison to the rest of the population? Even if we wanted to we couldn’t possibly quantify it anyway with an IQ test.

My problem with Sherlock is that he thinks he is so much better than the rest of humanity just become he’s good at a narrow range of things. Yes, he is brilliantly perceptive, amazing at deduction, awesome at solving logical conundrums but does that make him superior to the rest of us mere mortals?

We should admire Sherlock for his dedication and pursuit of perfection in his chosen field, his brilliance at detection and observation but there is no reason to believe the delusion that he feeds himself – being intelligent does not make you better than everyone else and it certainly doesn’t give you any excuse to treat the people around you badly.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 25th, 2013 05:38 pm (UTC)
Interesting that he is contrasted with John, who is certainly very intelligent, but also well socialized and very nice.
Feb. 25th, 2013 07:53 pm (UTC)
Firstly, I apologise/beg permisson in advance for "he has the emotional sensitivity of a tabloid newpaper" suddenly appears in one of my fan fics - it is a truly brilliant line.
I completely agree with you on this meta. Hitting a high score on a standard IQ test doesn't mean you're Sherlock-like; the last time I had my IQ tested I hit 174 and certainly have never behaved the way he does. That is, mainly because I didn't put any stock in the high score. My reaction was, pretty much, so what? I'm good in timed exams (always have been), I love logic puzzles, I've always read and enjoyed finding new words - the test was practically made for me to have fun with. I don't think I'm a genius and I don't think it's made a difference to what I do, who I am and how I live. I suspect, though, that if the only way I defined myself was by how "clever" I could be then the score would have been hugely important. And that, I think, is what Sherlock has done - he's chosen to define his self-worth and the value of his existance purely on how much of a genius he can be, how many times he can prove himself cleverer than the person standing next to him. And that - I suspect - is the root cause of his unhappy relationship with his brother, because he can't outfox Mycroft on a regular basis and he can see exactly how much of a failure he is at other areas of his life when he makes the comparison.
Feb. 25th, 2013 10:49 pm (UTC)
I would be honoured if you incorporated that line into a fanfic. It would make my day. I also agree that Sherlock puts far too much stock in his intelligence, using it almost as an excuse for behaving badly and given how Mycroft is just as clever if not more clever than he is, that would erk him.
Mar. 6th, 2013 12:28 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I have the line on a post it note on my desk and I'm just waiting for the right moment to slip it in. I think it will be Mycroft saying it :)
Feb. 26th, 2013 12:37 pm (UTC)
While I read and enjoyed your essay, unlike others of yours I've read, I disagree very strongly about a certain point: that is your belief that a genius- however you'd care to classify and identify such an animal- has the same likelihood of being emotionally well-adjusted as an individual of normal intelligence. I do not have the weight of psychology or statistics behind me but as I work in the sciences, I've had constant contact with Mensa candidates. And in my experience, the smarter an individual is, the less connected to planet earth they are.

I've not meet one or two or three; my prior position was with a prominent research company. Doctorates were running around everywhere. They infested the place like cockroaches, and it got to the point that as they crossed from one section from another, word would go out that xxx was on the move and would most likely attempt to either kill himself and/or others in a certain way. Us lowly operators and techs had a fair idea of which individual was likely to do what and what we needed to do to stop them from doing it. My absolute favourite was the time where two of them tried to put out a fire- using compressed air. They were lucky. They were standing far away enough so that they only lost their eyebrows.

In my current position, I've only got two to deal with. Between them they're controlling the product output to the tune of millions of tonnes a year. And because everyone else finds them so impossible to communicate with, I'm the one who gets to be the translator. Lucky me! It's getting better as I gain experience, but there are still days where I want to bash my head up against the wall.

To reiterate: I have no statistics or studies to back me up, but my overwhelming experience with genuine geniuses is that they're insane and very rarely connected to reality. I've met one- one- individual that I'd trust to cross the road without getting themselves killed. It might be that the sciences encourages a particular type of thinking, but regardless, much of Sherlock's behaviour is well known to me.

Edited at 2013-02-26 12:39 pm (UTC)
Feb. 26th, 2013 07:56 pm (UTC)
I've dealt with athletes like this and known friends in the music business who deal with musicians who behaved similarly so I wouldn't necessarily say it was their overwhelming intellect that was to blame.

I do think that there's something detrimental about specialization, when all of one's talent or intellect becomes focused in a single direction you lose perspective.
Feb. 26th, 2013 07:57 pm (UTC)
Having spent almost a decade in academia I would agree that there is a high percentage of people with less than stellar social skills, but I actually think that it is the other way around. I think that having bad social skills, a single-mindedness, or lacking a number of other social/real world skills makes you more likely to be able to go through a PhD and higher up the academic hierarchy. In other words, I think geniuses that has normal social skills are less likely to end up being successful in or choosing that type of career.
Feb. 27th, 2013 01:26 pm (UTC)
I also spent my research project surrounded by some very brilliant scientists. I agree that there are some who do have less than stellar social skills but the vast majority are perfectly normal.

Also I do not think that many of the people working my lab at least were any more intelligent than the general population. They were just good at what they did. I wanted to point out in the meta above that the people we think of as "geniuses" may be no more intelligent than us mere mortals. They have just found a niche and become very good at their chosen subject.

I do not think that scientists who do end up with poor social skills did so because of their intelligence. It is much more to do with their environment, whether they were accepted or not by their peers, how supportive their family were. Also work environment is also important. Some labs foster great social bonds, others do not. In some labs you almost have to behave ridiculously arrogantly and unsociably just to get to the electron microscope.

Intelligence and poor social skills are not correlated and even if they were - correlation does not equate to causation.
Feb. 27th, 2013 08:30 pm (UTC)
I think there is a big difference between someone with a high IQ and a genius- a genius seems to move up onto another level, often in one area alone and become obsessive in that area, in the way that Sherlock in this incarnation, does. John might even score almost, probably as high an IQ, but he is not an obsessive, so is able to function better, in society. Scoring is the problem, isn't it, as you pointed out. I have used the SB system and it stinks, for a start it makes no concession to language- I was asked (no, told) to score an immigrant child as ESN because she did not answer any questions- could have been because she did not speak English, perhaps? Yes, she was a bit vague, but she had just been uprooted from a place that had no running water, no sewerage and no electricity and put in a brick house in Southall ( West ...VERY West, London Ghetto town of the Bangladeshi/Pakistani) if that had happened to me I would be vague if I were six- actually I should have been terrified!
I am also reminded of the testing of KoKo the Gorilla- using SB- she scored just below 70 but only because she said a tree was a good place to live!!
I am BRILLIANT at taking tests, and at answering test questions, I swear I could bluff my way through most things with just a little speed reading on the subject (maybe not so much now I am older) and I had/have and IQ according to the Mensa site of 180+ (but I think they just wanted me to join!)
One thing I do have in common with SH is that I do obsess about things- oh, two things- I am very anti social, but, again, that has increased with age.
I do not think IQ tests of any kind have any place in modern schooling in any form, and I would never use them or allow my kids to participate- the anti social attitude came in useful sometimes, people tended to leave me alone!- and no, I did not label the kid ESN, even though it was my first job ever, but I did fail utterly to get her any English language help.....Aruna her name was, I shall never forget her.
Mar. 1st, 2013 12:22 am (UTC)
Haah, reading previous commentors' IQ levels, it seems I'm apparently the odd bird since I'm at the other end of the spectrum: the one time I tried to do an online IQ test (the existence of one is not common knowledge in Finland and I only found about it from our high school's elective cognitive psychology course), I decided to quit in the middle because I already began to slow down and have difficulties in the early questions and it was highly likely that I couldn't even finish the test and would only end up discouraged. Everyone wants to feel worthy and be loved, don't they? And a test of this kind, that indirectly claims to determine one's worth (that you supposedly cannot do anything about) in society's eyes, to be held over young and insecure children...It can function as a (it could be used like placebo, actually) positive reinforcement but in most cases, I think it does the opposite. Its learning value (seeing which things one should improve himself in, and getting constructive critique), I find, is very small too.

As for Sherlock...I'm not sure if I think of what he does in terms of intelligence, per se. The problem of the intelligence's vague definition, as you wrote, is here too. Augh, how to express this. It might be because I come from a family of classical music teachers/musicians and have taken a hobbily interest in social/humanist sciences (psychology, philosophy, languages, the lot) that I'm fundamentally biased in examining human behaviour and brain through fixed constants. As an example, I'm throughoughly allergic to the words "talented" or "gifted" that disregard the complicated process of learning/thinking and make it into some kind of spiritual magic or fixed constant that a human being is fundamentally only born with. Be it intelligence or creative potential. There's this outrageous need for simplifying and making archetypes out of everything (yes, I know this is considered the basic requirement for human thinking and logic in itself, but maturity means noticing the errors and weaknesses of your own simplified constructions) and when adults or parents tack children's _individual and unique in their many variables_ brains under these boxes without taking the time to look, it just, makes me so angry. And oh, the teeth grinding when you try to explain the concept of affinity and its progress to these people.

But yes. Sherlock.

What is impressive in what Sherlock does, is the amount of variables and information he has to take into consideration and process when he uses deductive and inductive reasoning. Storing (_mainting_ information, because the synapses' memory prints and the traces that lead to them disappear if they're not visited often enough) and linking information from all the five senses (not to mention social sense etc.) and making some whacked and unholy probability mathematics on the side demand something of an inhuman short-term (or working) memory and very vivid methods of ingraining long-term memories (like automatically "hiding" things in familiar surroundings and remembering them by walking in that mental space, this can actually be a way of thinking and not a conscious mnemonic technique - his mind palace is a pretty good indicator of this method). Sherlock must have created, consciously or unconsciously, brilliant methods for encoding, linking and recalling information. And from such a broad spectrum, too, which makes his narrow area wider in practice than many specialised researcher's. He might not be a polymath but gives a chameleon impression of one, nonetheless.

...But does this make him a genius? A genius, to me, is a title that's acquired when you're creating something _truly new_, not a spin-off of an existing principle (what is _truly new_ is highly subjective, though, I'd rank it into the same group with inventing the wheel but that is rather awful of me).

Still only a title, though.
Mar. 1st, 2013 12:23 am (UTC)
...Not that I think that these people - smart, intelligent, knowledgable, hard-working people - aren't completely and ridiculously beautiful. With education and intellectual pursuits often comes self-awareness, which I find is one of the most respectable and desirable traits to acquire. The ability to relate yourself to your surroundings brings forth empathy and a less ignorant, less black-and-white attidute. And the will to _learn_, can we all please take a good example of these people who make education their passion?

...But yes, again to Sherlock.

His arrogance! I find it amusing - because it is a sign of stupidity and bad self-awareness, not to mention a completely unnecessary handicap in navigating among or influencing people in his line of work (Kitty Riley, anyone?)...But he wouldn't be the Sherlock we so very much love without all his many weaknesses and misconceptions (and delusions of self-grandieur). Characters of conflict appeal to many, maybe something to do with our tendency to think in dichotomies. Sherlock has a long way to go before he upgrades himself from intelligent to wise. But as an absent-minded, off-tangent thought, a nice person does not equal a good person. Still, until Sherlock grows up, I'd keep him away from people who don't have a healthy self-confidence or emotional maturity to disregard his tantrums.

...I'm going so off-tangent that I better stop here.

Thank you for writing these meta essays/studies, they're hugely interesting! And I echo the others by admiring the genius of "He has the emotional sensitivity of a tabloid newpaper". Absolutely beautiful.
Apr. 26th, 2013 12:25 am (UTC)
Hey, I just found this meta.

I agree that Sherlock is very intelligent and even Mycroft says that he is a genius - "scientist or philosopher' - traditional fields of genius. I think he could score at the top of any IQ test if he wanted to but it would depend on how bored he was. >.<

Jan. 25th, 2014 11:33 pm (UTC)
I don't put much stock in IQ tests. They are not used in my country and the first time I had heard of them I think I was already in uni ... definitely already an adult. I also don't understand any of the ranking or score values (just like daylight savings^^)

Of course, I think Sherlock will ace any IQ test because he would want everyone to be certain that he is the smartest person in the room. He does appreciate intelligence though and it's the reason that he admires Irene Adler, Jim Moriarty and Mycroft.

I don't quite agree with you that Sherlock's manner represents a very small % of real geniuses. Most people who qualify as genius seem to sit on 2 extremes to me - the quiet and sensitive genius and the mal-adjusted 'know-it-all' I think it might be closer to 50/50.

I think that given that Sherlock's intelligence is a given what makes him immensely popular is that despite his intelligence he is inherently flawed and thus the reachable genius... there are things we can do better than him. Sherlock uses narcotics, has no social skills and is obsessed with trying to compete with his brother. Those factors make him a genius and human. ^^
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )