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What do fellow rationalists think about Mensa?

2 Post author: taw 06 April 2009 10:08PM

It's not a typical OB/LW subject, but Robin correctly pointed out that most rationalists are outside OB/LW, and so I'm asking about one of the organizations that might hold many of them.

A couple of weeks ago I took a supervised IQ test by Mensa due to curiosity and for some CV padding (cheap signaling is a perfectly rational thing to do). Now I got a letter back from them that I'm in top whatever %, and they'd like me to join. I wasn't really planning joining Mensa, or anything else, so I'm wondering - does any of fellow rationalists have any experience with them? Is it worth bothering?

As a bonus here's a quick description of their supervised IQ testing process:

  • First you get Catell scale B test, which is a mix of English word puzzles, picture puzzles, and logic puzzles. It obviously discriminates against non-native speakers. It has somewhat tight per-page timing. It seems to have stddev 24.
  • Then after a break you get Catell Culture Fair test, which is pure pictures, on extremely tight and stressful per-page timing. It seems to have stddev 16.

They compute percentile based on both tests separately, and higher of two counts as the result. So you can has 0 points on one (if at all possible), and respectively 148 / 132 on the other, and you're in (2 stddev above mean, or top 2%). The tests obviously check knowledge of obscure English words and meanings and ability to deal with pressure in addition to intelligence as such. Well, I guess no test is perfect.

So Mensa - good or bad?

Comments (32)

Comment author: AlexU 06 April 2009 11:13:21PM *  6 points [-]

Mensa has a fairly low cutoff. If you attended a prestigious college or grad school, work in a profession or in the sciences, or even hang out with scientifically or philosophically minded people, chances are you've already been a part of groups with higher aggregate IQ's. I wouldn't bother.

Comment author: abigailgem 07 April 2009 01:39:21PM 5 points [-]

I enjoyed Mensa. I went to weekends away, and evenings in the pub. I met some nice people, and some crushing bores. I took the test initially to try and boost my social life. I do not think I had more intellectual discussions than I do with work colleagues.

Sir Clive Sinclair for a time hosted weekends in moderate hotels, with dinner parties. So I have enjoyed a couple of long general discussions in a group of about a dozen including him and Madsen Pirie of the Adam Smith Institute, and he is still one of my best name-drops.

When I foolishly disclosed to an employer that I was in Mensa, every time after when I made a mistake he would say, "Mensa strikes again!", mockingly. I think being in Mensa does not give a useful signal.

I have kind of lost interest. I have other social groups to join with. The magazine in Britain is not interesting.

Comment author: erosophe 06 April 2009 11:12:15PM *  5 points [-]

In my experience, putting Mensa on your CV doesn't really signal what you think it signals. It's not a terribly high bar (relative to a lot of other signaling mechanisms), so to me, adding Mensa to the CV signals that (1) you're insecure enough in your other accomplishments that you think you need the Mensa membership or that it adds something useful to the signal you're sending, and (2) you're un-smart enough to think the credentials required for admittance are in fact impressive. Neither of these is a signal you want to send.

In other words, all the truly smart people are too smart for Mensa, so it's probably a waste of your time. You don't want to signal that you are smart enough for Mensa; you want to signal that you are too smart to care about it.

Comment author: loqi 07 April 2009 12:46:38AM 5 points [-]

you want to signal that you are too smart to care about it

That's a difficult signal to send. And, in my experience, attempts to signal that one is too smart to care about Mensa end up saying pretty much the same thing as the membership signals.

Comment author: Pablo_Stafforini 07 April 2009 10:34:07PM 3 points [-]

In other words, all the truly smart people are too smart for Mensa, so it's probably a waste of your time. You don't want to signal that you are smart enough for Mensa; you want to signal that you are too smart to care about it.

I am reminded of Kieran Healy's description of Mensa, "the organization for highly intelligent people who are nevertheless not quite intelligent enough not to belong to it."

It is second-order statements such as erosophe's and Healy's that signal real intelligence. ;-)

Comment author: taw 06 April 2009 11:43:59PM 3 points [-]

Well, these are two issues - CV padding, and Mensa as such.

As far as I can tell people reading CVs just scan for keywords and other stupid signals, and completely fail the Turing Test of understanding their content. They believe that things like "years of experience using technology X" are the awesomest signal, and as far as I can tell they're slightly negatively correlated with job performance in software development (the smart people switch technologies every couple of years as a rule), unlike IQ which is known to be highly positively correlated with job performance.

CV readers are just an obstacle you need to get past. So putting something like that might very well work as far as I can tell.

And I intended to give an actual percentile as extrapolated from stddev, which seems to be quite considerably higher than Mensa low threshold. This is slightly dishonest, as the test is not calibrated to this range, but naively speaking 152 on mean 100 stddev 16 means top 0.06%, which is the number I intended to stick on my CV, saying it's British Mensa-supervised test to make it sound more valid.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 07 April 2009 05:29:09AM 3 points [-]

If you send out a lot of CVs, you should experiment: mention Mensa on half of the CVs. Please report results.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 07 April 2009 06:58:35AM *  1 point [-]

Mensa themselves say they aim to take the top 2% of the population. This strikes me as too many to be useful. There are other high-IQ societies which are far more selective (Wikipedia's Mensa page has a list), but none of them are household names.

Comment author: Lawliet 07 April 2009 08:05:37AM 4 points [-]

Mensa themselves say they aim to take the top 2% of the population. This strikes me as too many to be useful.

Useful for what?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 07 April 2009 10:16:22AM 2 points [-]

Useful as evidence of smarts; useful as a community of smart people. I was a member many years ago, just to see what it was like. Finding insufficient reason to stay, I left.

A community has to have some sort of focus, a reason for its members to be there, or it doesn't work as one. Being a bit brighter than the mass, and "enjoying each other's company and participating in a wide range of social and cultural activities" (from their web site) strikes me as rather diffuse. The company was, like Eliezer described, like a small SF convention -- but without the SF to provide the focus. I've been going to cons for a long time, but I only went to a few Mensa meetings.

When I was a member, I also went to a couple of AGMs, where intelligence was conspicuously not in evidence.

Comment author: NeedleFactory 07 April 2009 12:49:03AM 4 points [-]

I was in Mensa years ago -- most members I met were under-achieving smart people.

Comment author: taw 07 April 2009 01:55:30AM 8 points [-]

I don't know how to measure that, but almost all smart people I know seem to be under-achieving, including myself.

Comment author: komponisto 07 April 2009 03:05:29AM 9 points [-]

As per AlexU's comment, if they were achieving at the level of their intelligence, chances are they'd be surrounded by high-quality people in their professional and/or social lives already.

If you're not, and you need special groups like Mensa to find smart people, you're probably underachieving.

Comment author: ciphergoth 07 April 2009 08:09:29AM 3 points [-]

Hmm, I think I am surrounded by smart people in my professional and social life, but there's only a very few of them prepared to discuss the Big Things in depth; if joining would find people prepared to have proper discussions about the world, it would be a real temptation.

Comment author: ciphergoth 08 April 2009 07:57:07AM 2 points [-]

A friend who is generally the smartest person in the room wherever she goes went to a Mensa meeting once. However, she was there as the girlfriend of a member; she hadn't passed their test. As a result, the members just talked right over her, which was very much their loss.

Comment author: austhinker 14 March 2011 06:34:53AM *  2 points [-]

ciphergoth's friend's experience is not typical of my experiences in Australian Mensa, where anyone who attended a Mensa meeting was welcome and treated as an equal, although some members did mention that they had encountered some snobbishness at some overseas meetings.

In Australia when I was a member there were about 400 eligible non-members for every member, so most members recognized that a non-member might well have a higher IQ than many members. Also, a fair proportion recognized that whilst what is imperfectly measured by IQ tests is a useful trait and a differentiating factor, it is NOT the measure of a person's worth or even of their conversational potential.

Comment author: ciphergoth 14 March 2011 11:14:06PM 0 points [-]

Good to hear - thanks!

Comment author: knb 07 April 2009 06:07:18AM 2 points [-]

IQ is well correlated with job performance, so if you think the potential employer cares mainly about future performance (and knows what he or she is doing) include your IQ and that it qualifies you for Mensa. However, I suppose that most people who review applications would see a reference to IQ/Mensa membership as a downside. Mensans manage to be seen as both elitist and low status at the same time. They are usually smart people (mostly smart men actually) who have lower status jobs, so I doubt they would be very useful professional connections.

As to whether joining Mensa might have intrinsic value to you, I don't know. I think they mainly trade puzzles with each other.

Comment author: MichaelBishop 07 April 2009 05:20:34AM 2 points [-]

Has anyone heard of putting IQ test scores on a CV? I haven't, but I'm young and don't know a lot about other labor markets.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 07 April 2009 10:14:53PM 1 point [-]

You put your GPA on a CV. When I was just getting out of school, I think I put my GRE scores on my resume.

Comment author: CronoDAS 07 April 2009 08:40:50PM *  1 point [-]

In the US, giving IQ tests to applicants is illegal discrimination against minorities. (Or so I heard.)

Comment author: ciphergoth 07 April 2009 09:48:25PM 2 points [-]

That seems like the sort of thing that would be said whether or not it were true; we're going to need a cite I'm afraid!

Comment author: SoullessAutomaton 07 April 2009 10:24:17PM 3 points [-]

Griggs v. Duke Power Co. established the prohibition of tests in hiring decisions where the test is not directly relevant to the work and has a disparate impact on protected groups. IQ not generally being directly relevant to any line of employment (despite being highly predictive of success), and skewing notably on racial lines, is typically considered off-limits. See also this article on Wikipedia.

Employers that strongly value intelligence in hiring decisions may make a deliberate effort to identify work-relevant or non-discriminatory tests that are highly g-loaded to circumvent these issues.

Comment author: ciphergoth 07 April 2009 08:20:41AM 1 point [-]

I would say that membership of Mensa is something you can put under the hobbies section, because people are interested in what you join, but scores would seem a little odd to me.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 06 April 2009 10:59:07PM 3 points [-]

Mensans were around as smart as a small regional science fiction convention, say. That didn't really do it for me, and after a couple of meetings I gave up. Your mileage might vary.

The place I tried did seem like it might be able to provide community, FWIW.

Comment author: taw 07 April 2009 12:10:26AM 1 point [-]

That's the kind of information I wanted to get out of you guys, thanks. Anybody else with experiences?

Comment author: outlawpoet 08 April 2009 01:38:44AM 1 point [-]

One of my previous co-workers ran a San Diego chapter. He enjoyed it a great deal, but that may have been because he was in charge, and shaping the meetings and context towards what he was interested in.

Lots and lots of fairly loose speculation on topics outside their specialties, lots of puzzles and mind-games. It wasn't really very fun for me, although the gender ratio was better than I expected.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 07 April 2009 04:45:06AM 1 point [-]

Do these people who say they wouldn't join Mensa because the people aren't smart enough, not join any groups of people less smart than Mensans? No hiking club or soccer team?

If you enjoy what they do, then go for it. I don't know what they do.

Comment author: gjm 08 April 2009 01:33:01AM 4 points [-]

Key difference: if you're joining Mensa, you're doing it for the smart people. (Well, that and the signalling, but I think we've established now that the signalling is unlikely to be useful in this case. Or perhaps in any other.)

I would usually avoid going to a restaurant if the food weren't distinctly better than I could make. That wouldn't stop me visiting a friend for dinner just because s/he doesn't cook much better than I do.

Comment author: Asthana 26 April 2009 05:40:12AM 2 points [-]
  1. The value of mentioning mensa on your CV depends on which country you are in. In India, China and Japan, employers usually consider it a sign of good potential and tend to rate a mensa member higher than a non-mensa member, if other things are similar. In the U.S., I have been told it is not considered that much of a plus and, sometimes even a minus, as a sign of boasting.

  2. Mensa tests, though professionally moderated and standardised, also differ from country to country. In India, for example, they are independent of language and in our tribal mensa programme we have found that the same percentage of tribal children qualify as educated urban children.

  3. Mensa only measures a very small spectrum of giftedness. You can be a genius at performing and visual arts or at sports and not qualify for mensa. Mensa tests also do not measure emotional giftedness.

  4. Mensa is neither good nor bad. It is just a club for people of similar IQ to get together. As this does not mean similar interests or similar social smartness, mensa meetings can sometimes be a let-down for some. The individual chapter's programs also matter and if these match your preferences, you would love to belong. I have always found a spark in the conversation in these meetings which can sometimes be very stimulating for the brain-cells. Sometimes it is a revelation to hear a truly brilliant person, even if you do not agree with his or her views.

  5. Unless you join mensa and judge the experience for yourself, you are merely looking at maps made by other people. If you have qualified, do join. You may or may not like the territory but, at least you would have your own experience to decide.

Kishore Asthana, Mensa India - Delhi

Comment author: corndog 16 March 2010 02:27:44PM *  0 points [-]

This thread is a bit old, but I just found it. Please bear with me and my late reply.

My opinion is that Mensa should have nothing to do with your CV. The concern about boasting or trying to appear superior is a valid one, so I'd recommend just keeping it quiet when applying for work.

However, there is a lot more to life than your CV. One of the keys to success in life is to learn that the most important asset anyone can have (more important than intelligence, creativity, leadership ability, aptitudes, people skills, or good looks, while some or all of those may very well be important, however less) is their connections to other people. Never burn a bridge behind you without knowing for sure that there's no other option. And if ever a chance to meet and network with a new group of people comes up, jump on it!

That's the true value of Mensa - it's a networking opportunity. If you really are "too intelligent to care about Mensa" then you've missed out on a group of people that might provide you with interesting connections and conversation, mix of ideas, and the opportunity to rub shoulders with people who just may change your life. OR you may just change theirs. It works both ways. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. We're social creatures. Why not make use of that when an opportunity presents?

Comment author: austhinker 14 March 2011 06:29:19AM *  0 points [-]

Yeah, I know this thread is even older than when corndog found it, but I only just found it.

Re membership for CV purposes - I tend to agree with Asthana on this, although situations alter cases. If the prospective employer wants a quality that they may associate with relatively high IQ and you have no other evidence, then membership of or eligibility for Mensa may be useful. The trick is not to be seen to be boasting so much as giving evidence of having sufficient smarts for the job.

As for social membership, if you qualify and are a bit of a social misfit then membership can be really helpful. A combination of relatively high IQ and other socially isolating factors during childhood made it difficult for me to connect socially as an adult, and membership of Mensa helped, both by providing a social environment in which there was one less difference between myself and my peers, and by helping me put high IQ in perspective (there are some pretty dumb people in Mensa).

Not all Mensans are social misfits however. My experience (in Australian Mensa) was that it was a very heterogeneous group, with a high level of mostly rational non-conformity and open-mindedness.

Unfortunately, Australian Mensa had too low a population density to maintain a vibrant social environment at the time I was a member, and eventually was not worth my while due to financial reasons (yeah, I'm an underachiever).

I'd definitely recommend anyone who might be eligible to at least experience Mensa, and to bear in mind that the local chapter may not be representative. Try going along as a guest a few times, and if you don't fit in then probably a) Mensa is not for you, or b) the local chapter of Mensa is not for you. Of course, you may fit in and still decide that there are other groups where you fit in at least as well and would rather put your energies.

And yes, the bar is relatively low - because you only need to be in the top 2% in ANY recognized IQ test, probably as much as 5% of the population could qualify, although those who only just scraped in through this loophole would be likely to find membership less satisfying, and would be more likely to drop out - especially the ego trippers who could then claim that Mensa wasn't good enough for them.