Are Intelligence Tests Biased?

In our present-day society, both the economic and cultural value of intellect is incredibly high. From the earliest age, we learn that intelligence can be expressed in numbers; that is, grades, and that those numbers are very significant for our progress. 

Smart people enroll in the best schools, get the best jobs, have the highest salaries, and represent an ideal everyone should strive to become. However, even though the intelligence is vital for success, could it be that the way we measure it is fallible? 

The fundamental tool used for measuring intellectual capacity is an IQ test. It is considered scientifically and mathematically precise, but is this true? Or do we purposely turn a blind eye to cultural contexts that fuel the potential biases of IQ tests and the very concept of intelligence?

The Polemic behind IQ Tests

The debate over intelligence and IQ tests continues to excite strong and often contradicting reactions. Several researchers suggest that the concept of intelligence is culturally bound. They claim that, much like customs, behaviors, and traditions, intelligence also depends on its cultural context. 

In some cultures, burping is highly inappropriate, while in others, it’s an expression of satisfaction with the meal. Thus, what is considered “intelligent” in one culture does not necessarily align with the same concept in another. In certain African communities, for example, knowing medicinal herbs is a valued form of intelligence. The same knowledge, however, is not recognized by Western IQ tests. 

Cultural Bias

This is the basis for some researchers’ claim toward the cultural bias of IQ tests that neglects the cultural particularity of the concept of intelligence. Namely, they suggest that IQ tests are biased toward cultures that developed them; that is, white, Western society. 

Hence, it’s clear why they might be problematic, especially when used in culturally diverse contexts. Using the same test across different communities would omit cultural values that underlie the concept of intelligence in each community. Moreover, if you take the long history of, often, racially-motivated misuse, it’s not surprising that many doubt their reliability and objectiveness.

Arguments against Cultural Bias

Other researchers, however, suggest that if minority groups score lower on IQ tests, the differences might be real. They claim that these discrepancies could be indicative of other factors, such as a weaker educational system, poverty, differences in educational opportunities, etc., which would imply that tests are not, in fact, biased.  

Socioeconomic Status

When differences between average scores of different groups are analyzed, some suggest that cultural bias is not necessarily the culprit; rather, it could be that SES (Socioeconomic Status) makes the data more complex. In other words, being rich or poor might have a more significant influence on IQ than ethnicity.

Predictive Validity

Others stress the importance of predictive validity. Generally, an IQ test is a reliable predictor of performance on the achievement tests. However, many suggest that achievement tests are biased for the same reasons as IQ tests

Nonetheless, if a culture values certain skills over others, researchers suggest, the IQ test is still a precise predictor of an individual’s ability to succeed in that culture. Even though achievement and IQ tests are probably heavily culturally biased, some argue that such bias is not necessarily negative because it reflects the values of the dominant culture.

Essentially, the concept of intelligence, as well as IQ tests, is still rather controversial in scholarly spheres. Some argue that IQ tests are unreliable, culturally biased, and even unethical, while some see that bias as valuable data suggestive of specific cultural conditions.

[1] “The IQ Test Wars: Why Screening for Intelligence Is Still so Controversial.” The Conversation [Online] Available at: [Accessed on: 26 June 2020]