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August 9, 2015 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Mensa, Cultural Bias, and Immeasurable Invalidity

Want slightly cheaper cakes or discounted Resene wallpaper? Well, you’re in luck! All you need to do is overcome any motor skill limitations on “colouring in tiny circles at high speed” and join Mensa, the “genius club”, to enjoy these member benefits.

What even is Mensa?

Mensa is the oldest and largest “high IQ society” in the world. In 1946, Australian barrister Roland Berrill and British scientist and lawyer Dr Lancelot Ware decided that their unintelligent peasant friends weren’t good enough. So they founded Mensa, finally filling the hole in their lives formed by never making it into the “cool kids’ club”. (Disclaimer: this may not be 100 per cent true.)

The name Mensa comes from the Latin word for table, chosen in conjunction with the logo, to demonstrate the “round-table” nature of the society. Ironically, the logo represents a table that isn’t round, but is either a square or triangle. To qualify for Mensa, one must score at or above the 98th percentile on an approved intelligence test.

As a society, Mensa apparently has three main purposes:

  1. To identify and to foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity.
  2. To encourage research into the nature, characteristics, and uses of intelligence.
  3. To provide a stimulating intellectual and social environment for its members.

This roughly translates in layman’s terms as “to find smartarses, to encourage research for only those proficient in smartarsery, and put all the smartarses in a room for a whole new take on Battle Royale”. On the online forum exclusive to Mensans, a myriad of keyboard warriors go at it as though their well-protected virginity were at stake. Wonderfully intellectual arguments abound, with knockout backtalk, such as “There’s no point getting mad at me questioning you. I have no ideological grounds to question these assertions, I question everything on a point of principle” and “Yeah, well IMO the Pursuit of happiness seems like a pretty petite-bourgeois idea. Still searching, Mr Consumerism?”

Compelling arguments, folks.

In addition to providing a playground for the opinionated, Mensa tries to work toward its goals by providing a platform for the “like-minded” Mensa members to meet and chat, supporting a range of charities, and funding a bunch of scholarships that I had never heard of before. This is in part through the online forums, but also through regular newsletters and journals, and vague “meet-ups” around the globe. Oh, and I can’t resist mentioning the existence of Mensan-only dating sites.

Why did I become a member? (Other than bragging rights, duh.)

I’ve long been vocal in my angst over the concept of intelligence. Intelligence isn’t quantifiable. In fact, the actual meaning of “intelligence” itself is widely debated. For example, while Einstein has said that “the true sign of intelligence is not knowledge, but imagination”, Socrates chimed in with “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing” (note: don’t try to make sense of that while high. Hypothetically), and Stephen Hawking’s take is that “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”.

Ultimately, what you consider to be intelligence differs between people, between cultures, between environments, between upbringings. It differs both subjectively, in terms of how one perceives intelligence personally, and arguably objectively depending on a specific “variety” of intelligence. One may be intelligent in terms of capacity to memorise, but not be able to understand the memorised content. One may be able to utilise logic, yet not possess common sense. One may be able to understand complex concepts, yet not have the verbal ability to explain them.

So why join Mensa? Often, after going on this tirade, I’ve been met by the agitating, raised-eyebrow response of “or perhaps you’re just insecure about your own intelligence, and you only hate Mensa because you’re not a member”. Pish posh. I’m well aware that I am the smartest person in the world. After a particular arsehole I know peer made this argument, I decided to shut him up and just take the damn test myself. Fortunately for my ego, I was eventually alerted by email that I apparently scored at the 99th percentile. The email went on to explain to my pathetic 99th-percentile brain what a percentile is. In addition, the “formal” induction to what touts itself as a prestigious society was rife with grammatical errors. It even began with “hi Bronte”, as all formal emails do.

Why I think Mensa is bullshit (not just IQ tests)

Mensa NZ holds supervised tests a few times a month, each in a different city. On the Saturday of the test, things got off to an unprofessional start. The room that had been booked for the test was not big enough for everybody to sit it at once, so we were split into two groups. The test itself was not even a full structured IQ test; it was two sections out of an eight-section test. It was approximately twenty minutes long, and the supervisor forgot to bring a timer, so borrowed a phone from somebody taking the test.

After going over the basics of the test, we were set to begin. We were told that the test was no longer composed of written questions but instead based on images. Written questions had been removed to prevent language barriers—the irony being that the test was now rife with new forms of cultural bias. The test was composed of little successions of cartoons, and a multiple-choice fill-in-the-blank sort of answer system. Many of the cartoons involved scenes of people in uniforms and other culturally influenced clothing. Others involved culturally relative activities, such as sports. A particular question that stood out to me was “[Rugby Ball image] is to [Rugby Goal] as [Basketball image] is to [blank]”.

Having never actually played basketball, my initial reflex was actually to think “soccer goal”. Fortunately, this wasn’t actually one of the offered answers—but there was a lacrosse goal, which looked identical to a soccer goal but for some obscure lacrosse apparatus in the vicinity.

The cultural bias of the various cartoons was clear cut. Not only this, the supposedly “logic-based” test was far more of a race against your natural motor skills. The test is timed, and the idea is to answer as many questions as you can within a set time limit. The first section offered roughly 40 questions to be answered in seven minutes. Apparently, logic is defined by being able to colour in circles to depict your multi choice answer as fast as possible, and being able to speed-think rather than use a methodical system to work through problems.

What’s this about benefits?

Because Mensa NZ isn’t enough of a joke yet, membership comes with discounts. A 10 per cent discount from the LoveCake Company online orders and 15 per cent off normal retail price of Resene wallpaper and premium paint are just two of the six staggering deals.

In addition, Mensa offers you Service for Information, Guidance, and Hospitality to Travellers (SIGHT), which roughly translates to couch surfing for wankers. This is an exclusive tourist-aid club for members worldwide, to show travellers around and help them find a pleb-free place to stay.


Mensa may have genuine intentions at heart, but at the end of the day, it’s attempting to create a completely purposeless class hierarchy based on a flimsy distinguishing factor (intelligence). Long term benefits of being in Mensa, especially in a country with membership as small as in New Zealand, are essentially null. I gain nothing as a member, and the only thing I’ve so far observed people “benefit” from Mensa membership is an unjustified sense of pride and entitlement.

The Mensa Forum

I’ll now leave you with a peek into the Mensa forum, to show you how society’s most intellectually gifted use their badge of honour. Note: an SIG is a Special Interest Group, little groups formed by Mensans with common interests.

From the forum thread “Dating SIG for singles”
“My opinion as a biologist on the issue of dating: Why should i, as a intelligent person, wish to disadvantage my children in the reproduction game (e.g. by breeding very clever ones)? … As a biologist, i would recommend everyone at the edge of character distribution to interbreed with regular – average characters.”

From the forum thread “Underachieving Mensans”

“Welcome to underachieving mensans! We are an SIG for Mensans constantly being told ‘you’re not living up to your potential!’”

From the forum thread “Highly Intelligent Conservatives”

“There was a recent study indicating that higher IQ correlates with liberalism while slightly below average IQ correlates with strong conservatism. There is also a general stereotype of conservatives as rednecks, idiots, etc. and this is an idea I see consistently repeated on web pages that allow political commentary. Obviously, if you are a conservative reading this thread, you are near or at genius level, and you aren’t alone. So, what do we do about these ignorant stereotypes? How do we respond to smug elitism, (especially when we are pretty certain it is coming from someone less intelligent)?”

And my personal favourite, the forum thread “Any Satanist Mensans?”

“Although it may appear to be a Satan-worshipping cult, it’s more of an elitist clique of misanthropes, a predominantly atheistic ‘nexion’ dominated by unsavoury types where libertarians and radical fascists become unholy bedfellows, socialists and Christians are mercilessly flamed, egos get big, eugenics is glorified, the possible virtues of ‘culling’ the weak are debated, and the right of the strong to screw over the weak is brashly asserted.”


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