A follow-up of subjects scoring above 180 IQ in Terman's genetic studies of genius
Feldman, D. H.
Exceptional Children
Council for Exceptional Children
Vol. 50, No. 6, pp. 518-523

This article by David Feldman presents the results of the author's follow-up study of those above 180 IQ in Terman's "Genetic Studies of Genius." The author reviewed the Terman files of all the subjects who scored at this level. He provides a short summary of educational and occupational attainments, then presents a qualitative analysis of the data.

    Although there are numerous studies of gifted students, there have been no studies following up the very high IQ students into adulthood. Using the Terman files, 26 subjects with scores above 180 IQ were compared with 26 randomly selected subjects from Terman's sample. Findings were generally that the extra IQ points made little difference and that extremely high IQ does not seem to indicate "genius" in the commonly understood sense of the word.

The arithmetical distance between "average" and "genius" on an IQ test is about 40-50 points. A score of 100 is usually interpreted as average, while a score of 140 or above is usually regarded as being in the "genius range." Although there have been numerous studies and follow-ups of high-IQ subjects (Goleman, 1980), including those who have scored 140 and above, there have been almost no studies of those who score still higher on IQ tests.

Does the evidence on those who score above 180 IQ support the image of a superbright genius? Unfortunately, there is almost no information on the matter. It is true, of course, that there are relatively few individuals who score this high, something on the order of one in a million according to the hypothetical distribution of scores around the mean, possibly a bit more frequently than this in practice. A number of studies (Gallagher & Moss, 1963; Stott & Ball, 1965) have shown unexpectedly frequent scores at both extremes of the IQ distribution, although no one has systematically studied scores in the 180-200 range.

Other than isolated individual cases, there is only one study (Hollingworth, 1942) in the entire literature on IQ above 180, and this study was published more than 40 years ago, after its author had died. Hollingworth studied 12 children, eight boys and four girls, all of whom scored 180 or above on the Stanford-Binet before they were 12 years of age, and reported on the development and achievements of her subjects up to their early twenties. The achievements of these children were extraordinary by any reckoning:

    Before the age of 22 in all cases, one had prosecuted research in history, one in mathematics, and one in chess, and two had become established in learned professions. One stood high in the national ranking for chess. A long list of medals and prizes had been won by them. All but one of those graduated from college had been selected to Phi Beta Kappa. (pp. 248-249)


    This is, perhaps, the most significant fact to be derived from our data: that the children who test at above 180 IQ constitute the "top" among college graduates. They are the students of whom one may confidently predict that they will win honors and prizes for intellectual work. (p. 249)

Surprisingly, we have almost no information about how well Professor Hollingworth's subjects did during their lifetimes. Two had died by the time Children Above 180 IQ was published, and the files lay fallow and unavailable for many years. However, a group of subjects comparable to Hollingworth's was obtained by using a sample from the well-known Terman study of about 1,500 children who scored more than 140 IQ by the time they had reached their 12th year (Sears, 1977; Sears & Barbee, 1978; Terman, 1925-1959).

Among the subjects in Terman's five-volume study Genetic Studies of Genius (1925-1959), 26 scored 180 IQ or above (7 women and 19 men). Follow-up studies of the Terman group have been carried out over a 50-year period, the most recent being done in the late 1970s by Robert and Pauline Sears (Sears, 1977; Sears & Barbee, 1978). The "Termites," as they were called, are now in their seventies. In none of these follow-ups was the group who scored above 180 singled out for comparison with the rest of the sample. In order to make such a comparison for this study, 26 subjects were selected at random from Terman's original 1,500. The lives of these 15men and 11 women were compared with those of the 26 who had scored 180 or above on the Stanford-Binet. Few formal analyses were made; by and large, impressions are reported from a careful reading of each of the 52 files.

The comparisons made in this article are between two groups of academically talented individuals. It would be a very different thing indeed if we were to compare the above-180 IQ group with a group of average IQ individuals. This is more or less what has been done in the Terman studies for the sample as a whole. The rationale for comparing two groups with high IQ group and an average group. On this basis, the 180 IQ group might reasonably be expected to stand out from the 150 IQ group as dramatically as the comparison of very gifted to average. Is this in fact the case?

Briefly, the answer is yes and no, perhaps more no than yes. As a group, the above-180 IQ sample is distinguishable in certain respects from its somewhat less gifted peers, but the differences are not as pronounced as one might have imagined. Let us consider some of the ways that the two groups of individuals appear to be similar and dissimilar.

First, there are more men than women in both groups, but even more men in the 180 IQ group (15 vs. 11 and 19 vs. 7). The former proportion is about the same as the overall proportions in the sample (857 boys, 671 girls), while the latter is larger although not statistically significant from the 150 IQ group (x2 +2. 10, df + 1, ns.).

In terms of educational attainments and scholastic honors, the two groups are both remarkable. In the 150 IQ group, 18 of 26 (12 men, 6 women) received at least a B.A. Degree, 9 received advanced degrees of one sort or another, and 5 received M.D.'s or Ph.D.'s. Of those who graduated from college, three of the six women and three of the 12 men received honors such as Phi Beta Kappa or Sigma Xi. Most of the subjects attended prestigious colleges and universities, with Stanford (11) and Berkeley (3) being the most frequent choices.

For the above-180 IQ group, five of seven women and 17 of 19 men received at least a B.A. degree; one of the women and 14 of the men received advanced degrees, including five Ph.D.'s (all men), but no M.D.'s. Again, the colleges attended were generally distinguished with Berkeley (6) and Stanford (4) the most frequent choices. Others attended Cal Tech, Columbia, Princeton, George Washington, Oregon Occidental, Fresno, Texas, Oberlin, and Colorado. The above-180 IQ group attended a greater variety of colleges in different areas of the country. Three of the five women and nine of the 17 men who received college degrees also received honors such as Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Beta Phi, or Sigma Xi. On the whole, both groups were highly successful through their college years and often went on to further study. All of this occurred, of course, when higher education was much less common than it is today, especially for women. Thus it is remarkable that so many of the subjects in both groups received degrees, although the frequency is not strikingly greater among the 180 IQ group than the 150 IQ group.

Next we turn to an examination of the jobs or professions chosen by the members of our two samples. Let us consider the women first. For the above 180-IQ women, five of the seven subjects pursued some kind of professional career, although two were primarily homemakers and writers on a freelance basis. Another woman who was an accountant said she would have preferred to be a housewife. One woman was a sculptor and one a newspaper reporter. Among the 150 IQ group, eight of 11 women were primarily homemakers, one died young in 1922, one had been frequently institutionalized for emotional disturbance, and one pursued a fulltime career as a psychology professor and college administrator. There is, then, a striking difference between the above-180 IQ women and those with 150-IQs; only one of the 11 women in the lower IQ group had a full time career, and none of the others even pursued part time jobs in a sustained fashion. The higher IQ group showed greater evidence of professional involvement, including the now common effort to combine career, marriage, and family.

For the men we have a substantially different story. For both groups there is a consistently high degree of professional achievement, although not without exception. There is a small number of distinguished men in the above-180 IQ group and a larger number of successful, but not outstanding, individuals. For the above-180 IQ group, we find an internationally known academic psychologist, a highly honored landscape architect, a judge, and a promising pollster who took his own life at age 28. For the 150-IQ group there are no exceptional achievers, but most of the subjects have been productive and successful. Two professors, two engineers, two accountants, a physician, a lawyer, an army colonel, several executives, an electronics teacher, a winery owner, and a lemon grower complete the list.

In terms of professional achievement, then, the men as well as the women seemed to gain some margin of benefit from the extra IQ points, although neither group has produced a record of uniformly outstanding achievement. Indeed, the overall impression is one of lower achievement than the traditional view of IQ would have predicted for both groups.

Marriage and Family
Remarkably, all but one member of the 150-IQ group had been married at least once. The exception was a woman who pursued a career as a psychology professor, dean, and provost at a woman's college. None of the women, but five of the men, were separated or divorced (one of the men remarried). Only five of the 11 women produced children, the number of children for each being four, three, two, and two with one. The 15 men produced 24 children, divided among 10 fathers (four men each had four children, two had two, and four had one each). Overall, the average number of children seems fewer than one would expect from a group of this size (36 children for 26 subjects or an average of 1.4). As with all the findings, those having to do with marriage and family must be seen in the context of U.S. society between 1925 and 1975.

The seven women in the above-180 IQ group bore 14 children, but it should be emphasized that one woman had eight, one had two, and four had one each. All the women had married, two were divorced, and one married for a second time after being widowed at the age of 59. As with the lower-IQ subjects, all of the above-180 IQ men married, except for the young man who committed suicide. Five men had remarried; one of these was married three times. These 19 men fathered 43 children; two had five each, two had four, two had three, eight had two, and three had one; one subject had no children. Twenty-six subjects producing 57 children is about 2.2 children per person, somewhat less than average for the period in questions, but closer to the average than the 150-IQ group.

The overall impression is of a group of people who had traditional family lives, but who bore fewer children than their lesser-IQ peers. This tendency toward small families was more true of the 150-IQ group than the 180-IQ group, but not strikingly so. In all, there seems to be relatively little to distinguish these high-IQ people from the general population in terms of marriage, family and stability of domestic relations. The Sears have reported that, in general, Terman's subjects had happier family lives, but the data of the present study shed little additional light on the matter.

Life Satisfaction
Informally, it appears as if more of the 180-IQ women were employed, and among those who were employed, their level of overall life satisfaction was higher than those in the group who were housewives. So few women were employed in the 150-IQ group that it was not possible to find even an informal association between work and life satisfaction. Most of the lower IQ group (7 of 11) rated their lives satisfying, while the others gave equivocal or negative ratings unrelated to work.

Taking the question of life satisfaction further, we find that four of seven of the above-180 IQ women reported that they were dissatisfied with their lives; only those who worked indicated overall life satisfaction. Among the men, the higher IQ group showed 14 of 19 with positive ratings of life satisfaction, four with equivocal ratings, and one who rated his life unsatisfying (the only subject who did not earn a college degree). For the 150-IQ, eight of 15 individuals rated their lives positively, five equivocally, and two negatively.

The pattern of these results seems to suggest that, within each of the two groups the above 180-IQ men and the 150-average IQ women rated their lives more satisfying. For the women, the difference seems related to having some sort of job or career (This is consistent with the Sears and Barbee (1978) findings for the sample overall.) For the men, although the above-180 IQ group achieved somewhat greater distinction in their work, there was no evidence that their career success led to greater life satisfaction. It remains to be determined what the sources of life satisfaction were for those talented men. R. Sears (1977) reported that family was slightly more valued than job as a source of joy in living for the entire sample of men, but these data were unavailable for the above-180 IQ subsample.

Reflecting on these data, we are left with more questions than answers. The initial question (Are those with IQ scores greater than those with IQs in the 150 range?) was not unequivocally answered. It does seem that, at least among the men, the level of distinction in careers was somewhat greater in the higher IQ group. Yet, this was true for only three or four of the subjects, not the group overall. More of the women attended college, received honors, and worked outside the home than their lower IQ peers, but the only woman who remained single and pursued a fulltime career, and the only woman to receive a Ph.D., M.D., or the like, was a member of the 150-IQ group. That these results for women were influenced by societal constraints and restrictions seems clear, but there is no way to identify with certainty these constraints and their specific effects on the samples. This must await a study of another cohort of subjects growing up in mid-century or later. Presumably, the findings would show less contrast with those of men, but the data are simply unavailable to address the issue of the influence of one historical period vs. another.

Other discussions of the Terman data (e.g., Sears, 1977; Sears & Barbee, 1978) have emphasized the remarkable achievements and unusual wholesomeness of the sample as compared with the U.S. population as a whole. Indeed, one cannot help but be impressed with the advantages in income, marital happiness and stability, health, and professional and personal achievements of these high-IQ subjects. It is fair to say that having the ability to score well on a broad-based academic aptitude test such as the Stanford-Binet has been a distinct advantage to these individuals. It must also be noted (as it has been in the reports from the Terman researchers themselves) that the sample is overwhelmingly White and middle-class. Again, it is impossible to reckon the discrete influence of these correlated variables within the Terman groups. It is probably fair to say that an IQ score of 140-160 confers a distinct advantage on the one who achieves it, and not simply because it opens doors. The ability to master diverse kinds of information quickly and effectively, the option of choosing among many careers and jobs, and the effects of successful experience in academic settings presumably contribute to well-being, optimism, and confidence in this society.

An often-asked question is what effect, if any, did the Terman study itself have on the lives of its subjects? To this we can give both a quantitative and qualitative answer. Quantitatively, 31 of 52 subjects reported that the study had no effect on them at all (14 of 26 of the over-180 IQ subjects, and 17 of 26 of the 150-IQ subjects). Six of those over 180 IQ and two of those in the 150-IQ group reported a positive effect; five of the over-180 IQ subjects reported equivocal or unclear effects. There was in general a less positive response in this group as a whole, and fewer subjects reported no effect.

From reading the actual files one gets a very different impression. Lewis Terman was certainly a careful scientist and a fine empirical researcher, but throughout the files there are copies of letters, notes, memoranda, and phone messages attesting to his deep involvement in the lives of his subjects. He often wrote recommendations, counseled families on decisions concerning their children, made important contacts, and followed the careers of his subjects closely. It is amazing that he was able to maintain such close and personal involvement with virtually every subject in our sample of 52; presumably, this was no less true of the entire 1,500.

Science aside, it is a testament to the deep human commitment Terman felt toward his subjects that he worked so hard on their behalf. Much of what he did was probably unknown to the individuals in his study; their parents would likely have been a better source of information about the effects of the study on the lives of the children themselves. The fact that so many (16) of the subjects attended Stanford University is perhaps the best evidence currently available that Terman's influence was significant in the life decisions of his subjects. Although difficult to measure precisely, it seems reasonable to conclude that the impact of selection into the Terman study was greater than the subjects judged it to be.

On the whole, one is left with the feelings that the above-180 IQ subjects were not as remarkable as might have been expected. Without question they have done better than the general population in most major categories and there is some evidence (although not a great deal) that they were more successful in their careers than the 150 IQ group. But, when we recall Terman's early optimism about his subjects' potential, and the words of Hollingworth (1942) that "the children who test at above 180 IQ constitute the "top" among colleges graduates," there is the disappointing sense that they might have done more with their lives.

Put into the context of the psychometric movement as a whole, it is clear that the positive extreme of the IQ distribution is not as different from other IQ levels as might have been expected. Certainly when the comparison is with IQ 20, the equivalent low end of the scale, the point is clear. While 180 IQ suggests the ability to do academic work with relative ease, it does not signify a qualitatively different organization of mind. It also does not suggest the presence of "genius" in its common sense meaning, i.e., transcendent achievement in some field. For these kinds of phenomena, IQ seems at best a crude predictor. For anything more, we will probably have to look to traditions other than the psychometric and to variables other than the point that Paul Witty, a contemporary and critic of Terman's, insistently made more than 40 years ago (Witty, 1940):

    About 1920, the concept was advanced that an extraordinarily high IQ was associated with genius. L.M. Terman designated his volume, which described 643 children having IQ's of 140-plus. "Genetic Studies of Genius." Moreover, he stated that "from the ranks of the gifted children and from nowhere else our geniuses in every line are recruited."…It is now possible to appraise the validity of these optimistic claims. Investigations by Terman, Hollingworth, and Witty have shown the gifted to be healthy, well-rounded, socially adequate and generally successful as children, youth and young adults. Yet, no investigation discloses any justification for the synonymous use of the terms "IQ 140 plus" and "genius."…Hollingworth (1927) displays greater caution writing now; however, she advances a new hypothesis concerning IQ and "genius": "At and above 180 IQ, performance begins to appear that corresponds to the lexicographer's idea of genius." (pp. 123, 124)

The results of the present study would give little support even to Hollingworth's hypothesis.


Gallagher, J., & Moss, J. New Concepts of intelligence and their effect on exceptional children. Exceptional Children, 1963, 30(1), 1-5

Goleman, D. 1,528 little geniuses and how they grew. Psychology Today, February 1980.

Hollingworth, L. Children above 180 IQ. New York: World Book Company, 1942.

Sears, R.R. Sources of life satisfaction of the Terman gifted men. American Psychologist, 1977, 32, 119-128.

Sears, P.S., & Barbee, A. H. Career and life satisfaction among Terman's gifted women. In Stanley, George, & Solano (Eds.), The gifted and the creative: A fifty year perspective. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1978.

Stott, L., & Ball, R. Infant and preschool mental tests: Review and evaluation. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 1965, 30, 4-42.

Terman, L. (Ed.). Genetic studies of genius (Vols. 1-5). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1925-1959.

Witty, P. Contributions to the IQ controversy from the study of superior deviates. School and Society, 1940, 51, 503-508. (Reprinted in Barbe (Ed.), Psychology and education of the gifted. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965).

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