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The Sciences

The Myth of The 30 IQ Point "Communication Range"

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Earlier this week I tweeted a link to a Quora post which, I felt, was rather silly. The post was a response to the question “Are people with very high IQs generally happy?” and it answered in the negative:

Let’s say high IQ is a blessing which comes with a terrible price. And each and every person with reading east from 135 has paid that price.

HIgh IQ persons usually have also extremely vivid and wide spectrum of emotions and emotional life, and when they are happy, they are in rapture, and when they are unhappy, it is sheer emotional hell. The IQ is a great enabler, and it unfortunately also enables to experience unhappiness in much deeper and profound way than anyone with mediocre IQ would.

The reason for the frequent misery of the intelligent, according to the Quoran, was something called the ‘communication range’

The concept of communication range was established by Leta Hollingworth. It is +/- 2 standard deviations (roughly 30 points) up or down on one’s own IQ. It denotes the range where meaningful interaction (communication, discussion, conversation and socializing) is possible. If the IQ difference between two persons is more than 30 points, the communication breaks up. The higher IQ person will look like an incomprehensible nerd and the lower IQ as a moronic dullard – and they will not find anything common.

When I read this, the ‘communication range’ struck me as at best an oversimplification. However, many people replied to my tweet, and a fair proportion seemed to take the idea seriously. I also found several references to the concept online. So I decided to look into it. Here’s what I found.

hollingworth
hollingworth

As far as I can tell, the idea of the 2 standard deviation IQ communication range did not start with Leta Hollingworth. Hollingworth (1886 – 1939) was a pioneering psychologist who did conduct research on high IQ individuals and published extensively on the topic, however she never used the term ‘communication range’ nor explicitly discussed such an idea.

The term was I think coined by Grady M. Towers in 1987 in an article called ‘The Outsiders’. Towers there said that Hollingworth implicitly defined the 30 IQ point communication range when she wrote that:

Observation shows that there is a direct ratio between the intelligence of the leader and that of the led. To be a leader of his contemporaries a child must be more intelligent but not too much more intelligent than those to be led… But generally speaking, a leadership pattern will not form–or it will break up–when a discrepancy of more than about 30 points of IQ comes to exist between leader and led.

Towers comments on this passage as follows:

The implication is that there is a limit beyond which genuine communication between different levels of intelligence becomes impossible.

This seems to me a significant logical leap. Hollingworth was writing specifically about leadership, and in childen, but Towers extrapolates the point to claim that any kind of ‘genuine’ communication is impossible across a 30 IQ point gap.

It is worth noting that although Hollingworth was an academic psychologist, her remark about leadership does not seem to have been stated as a scientific conclusion from research, but simply as an ‘observation’. Towers was not a psychologist, but was a member of various high-IQ societies.

prometheus
prometheus

‘The Outsiders’ was published in Gift of Fire, the journal (not a peer-reviewed scientific one) of the Prometheus Society, membership of which is open to anyone scoring above the 99.997th percentile of IQ.

Grady Towers died in 2000 at the age of 55 while working as a security guard.

So as far as I can see the ‘communication range’ is just an idea someone came up with. It’s not based on data. The reference to specific numbers (“+/- 2 standard deviations, 30 points”) gives the illusion of scientific precision, but these numbers were plucked from the air.

Of course, that two people might struggle to communicate because of differences in their mental capacities (or any other personal differences) is hard to doubt, but that this always does happen once a specific difference in IQ points is reached seems doubtful.

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