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Intelligence is NOT fixed for life

  • 02-Feb-2023

You’ve probably heard that your IQ cannot be changed.  But that is not strictly true.

By Professor Bryan Roche

You have probably heard in various places that your IQ is fixed for life.  That is somewhat true - but for surprising reasons is also misleading.   In truth the apparent stability of your intelligence is somewhat of  a trick conjured up by intelligence test developers, psychologists and statisticians who have already started their work from the position that intelligence is fixed for life. This idea is based on little more than the intuition of Sir Francis Galton, and the ponderings of some early IQ researchers such as Catell, Spearman and Sir Cyril Burt.  Some of these researchers had political motivations for this position, and indeed Sir Cyril Burt was posthumously disciplined for by the British Psychological Society for faking his IQ research data to fit with the idea that IQ is fixed for life and is determined biologically.  

No psychological research has ever FOUND that intelligence is fixed for life.  Instead, tests for general and specific intellectual ability are developed in such a way that your score from one test take to another (say a year apart) will not change much.  The simplest way in which this is achieved, is by masking the gain in your improvement over time by NOT calculating your real raw score on the test, but instead calculating your score in terms of how it compares relatively to people of your age.  Because everyone of your age is improving intellectually at the same rate, more or less, this way of scoring the IQ test creates the false impression that you are not getting any smarter.  Indeed the whole population is getting smarter (an effect known as the Flynn effect), but tests are regularly revised to make sure that this is disguised.  The tests are designed in advance so that someone in the bottom 20 percent of the population, for example, will continue to score well below the average score.  As the population becomes smarter, the gap closes between the raw score of someone on the 20th percentile and the average score of someone on the 50th percentile (always defined as a score of 100).  The newer tests open up the gap again to keep the low scorers scores down and away from the average score.  This is intended to disguise the fact that the lowest scorers in the population are in fact doing much better than people just one generation ago.  

The Data Proves it!

Aside from errors in the logical argument that IQ must be fixed for life, it is simply NOT true that people do not develop and improve intellectually. Admittedly, the evidence is weak that you can achieve large IQ gains from simply playing with a brain training app. 

Across many scientific papers published over the past decade, however, it has been shown repeatedly that scores on a wide variety of standardized measures of intelligence and cognitive abilities, can be raised significantly using a Relational Frame Theory-based intervention known as SMART (Strengthening Mental Abilities with Relational Training) that does not involve training of skills directly relevant to IQ tests.   

Calling the SMART method “brain training” may be a bit of an over-simplification.  It is targeted fundamental intellectual skills training done in a digital format.   We have argued for many years that this is clear evidence for “far transfer”.  That is, we consistently get very large gains in IQ for most or all users of SMART training, that we have made available at RaiseYourIQ.com, on every and all measures employed to asses intelligence (e.g., arithmetic, vocabulary, reading), despite the fact that our intervention is in no way “training to the test”. That is, there are no IQ test items in our training (see May et al., 2022 for a review and meta-analysis).

Our classic online training uses nonsense words only (no recognisable or nameable words or shapes of any kind).  Our training for younger kids does use images and real words as a work up to the classic training so widely cited in the scientific research literature. We train only a very small number of syllogistic-style reasoning tasks that we have discovered are relevant to almost every aspect of intellectual functioning.  But we do it across thousands of tasks over many months of training in an online game-like environment.

Despite the admittedly almost unbelievable results obtained for the effects of SMART training at RaiseYourIQ.com, across several studies from several labs using several different measures across several different populations, the public is still not convinced that IQ tests of all kinds measure a flexible skill set rather than a fixed trait and that you can in fact Raise Your IQ.  The data is out there. The data is published in peer reviewed scientific journals of all kinds.  The discussions of this data happen at conferences all over the world. But it takes time for these ideas to replace well-worn tropes about the fixedness of intelligence.  That old idea is stuck firmly in the public psyche, despite the fact that the evidence for this outdated position is questionable in terms of theory and incorrect in terms of empirical data.

WHAT underlies my IQ score then?

What our research programme at Maynooth University, Ireland, has found, is that there is indeed an underlying factor that determines our IQ score, but it is not something we are born with – it is a skill set that is in fact quite easy to teach and improve.  That skill set is known as Arbitrarily Applicable Relational Responding (AARR), which is a technical way of referring to a very particular type of logical reasoning that underlies all higher levels of day-to-day intellectual activity (reading, problem solving, language acquisition).  Dozens of published studies in the field of Relational Frame Theory have shown that this skill is easily improved, and others, mostly using SMART training, have shown that when we do this, large IQ gains follow. 

Here is an example of the type of AARR training task that we might use in SMART training.  This example uses what we call nonsense words, and requires the user to solve a logical puzzle of a very particular type.

CUH is opposite to DEJ

ARU is the same as GEY

ARU is opposite to DEJ.

Are CUH and GEY the same?


It is NOT important for the user to know the answer at the outset (the answer is yes!). This is not a test.  It is training.  What is important is that across thousands of such examples (many easier than this example) we teach users the correct answers, and so they learn the very large pattern of possible ways in which such logical statements lead to logical conclusions involving relationships among words or things in the world.  We increase the speed and accuracy of user responses to such puzzles in well worked out  sequence involving increasing complexity.   When we do this people get smarter. 


It’s time to change our view of Intelligence

It is said that science is a self-correcting process.  The data will always correct the theory and lead us forward in developing more effective ways to help people.  At the moment, old fashioned and outdated intelligence theory is moving further and further away from the empirical facts. The political reasons for holding on to those old ideas is hampering, rather than helping us in developing better interventions to raise the intellectual ability of the world’s entire population.  It’s time to move on and get with the data.