Richard Feynman’s “Low” IQ

Monday, January 9th, 2012

Polymath physicist Steve Hsu answers a question about his hero, Richard Feynman.  Is it true Feynman’s IQ score was only 125?

Feynman was universally regarded as one of the fastest thinking and most creative theorists in his generation. Yet it has been reported-including by Feynman himself-that he only obtained a score of 125 on a school IQ test. I suspect that this test emphasized verbal, as opposed to mathematical, ability.

Feynman received the highest score in the country by a large margin on the notoriously difficult Putnam mathematics competition exam, although he joined the MIT team on short notice and did not prepare for the test. He also reportedly had the highest scores on record on the math/physics graduate admission exams at Princeton.

It seems quite possible to me that Feynman’s cognitive abilities might have been a bit lopsided — his vocabulary and verbal ability were well above average, but perhaps not as great as his mathematical abilities. I recall looking at excerpts from a notebook Feynman kept while an undergraduate. While the notes covered very advanced topics for an undergraduate — including general relativity and the Dirac equation — it also contained a number of misspellings and grammatical errors. I doubt Feynman cared very much about such things.

Razib Khan adds this:

One thing I have always wondered about is the fact that Richard Feynman had substantive accomplishments which marked him as definitively brilliant by the time he was talking about his 125 I.Q. score (which is smart, but not exceedingly smart). Intelligence scores are supposed to be predictors of accomplishments, but Feynman already had those accomplishments.

Bright people take many psychometric tests, so there will be a range of score about a mean. My personal experience is that there’s a bias in reporting the highest scores. But it may be that Feynman gloried in reporting his lowest scores because that made his accomplishments even more impressive. Unlike most he had nothing to prove to anyone.


  1. Bruce Charlton says:

    I have never found it at all hard to understand why people get low scores in specific exams. Surely there are 101 reasons why an individual on a specific day will under-perform (illness — e.g. headache, hay fever, sleepiness — being the most obvious).

    The longer and more fatiguing the exam, the greater the under-performance.

    But — while random factors could make a significant difference to a short test with few items — it would be very unusual to over-perform on a long and multi-item test (like a WISC or WAIS), so the situation is not symmetrical.

    This also means that it is not valid to average IQ test scores.

    The most valid way to deal with variation in tests would be to accept the highest score achieved in the longest and most rigorous valuation — but to use only these scores in developing population norms.

    (I.e. a random population sample would do repeated long, multi-item IQ tests — and the highest value each individual attained would be used to set the population norms.)

    The big problem of IQ testing is the population norms. It is extraordinarily difficult to get these precisely correct. So, while testing can be used to rank a group very effectively — but not at the individual and specific level, for reasons above — hair-splitting about specific IQ scores (especially distant from the mean) in terms of population percentages is nonsense.

    In sum, differential IQ measurements are valid but intrinsically not precise.

  2. Romeo says:

    Feynman sucked at humanities. He admitted it himself. He was a one-sided scientist.

  3. Dr. Bilbo says:

    Actually, the Putnam exam was far from “notoriously difficult” in 1939 (the year that Feynman won); it was a straightforward computational exam which can be proved by obtaining the actual exam (link). By the way, this was only the 2nd Putnam exam held and the team results were as follows:

    1. Brooklyn College
    2. MIT
    3. Mississippi Women’s College

    Pretty heady company, eh?

    By the way, where did you get the info that Feynman won this exam by a large margin?

  4. William Newman says:

    Dr. Bilbo, could you give some more detail on how to proceed from your link to the 1939 exam? I see a hyperlink on your linked page which leads to “problems, solutions, winners, and scores from 1985-present” but it’s not obvious to me how to get to older exams.

  5. Jordan says:

    He was an Empiricist. Empiricists rely on heuristics, not upfront type problem solving. Some people suggest that the iq test he took had a low ceiling (though even back then a ceiling of at least 140 was likely), and thus could not reflect his true score, but from listening to him talk, I can’t see his “IQ” being more than 120-130. The relationship between Heuristics and ‘intelligence’ (note, not iq), is something that are only recently exploring.

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