The Intelligencer

Inside the hypercompetitive world of high-IQ societies

Ronald Hoeflin talks about IQ tests the way some people talk about cars. With perfect recall, he reels off stats and special features, the advantages of one model over another. He speaks softly and rapidly, pointing out the "beautiful, elegant" shape of a bell curve. Hoeflin is part of a small community of uncommonly intelligent people obsessed with their own IQ scores. Since the early '80s, he's founded four societies for the "severely gifted": the Top One Percent Society, One-in-a-Thousand Society, Prometheus Society (top .003 percent), and Mega Society (top .0001 percent). The goal is to build a community of the smartest people in the world.

Hoeflin is fascinated by the idea of a "maximum human potential." Every afternoon, he goes to Wendy's in Hell's Kitchen and reads for several hours with a magnifying glass—he's legally blind—as preparation for his three-volume treatise, The Encyclopedia of Categories: A Theory of Categories and Unifying Paradigm for Philosophy With Over 1,000 Examples. He is kind, awkward, and modest, and tends to explain things with charts. When talking about his childhood, he goes to his bookshelf unprompted and offers the results of a personality test. "I should probably just show this to you," he says. "As you can see, I have this extreme sensitivity factor. So some things are really hard."

In college, Hoeflin joined Mensa, the largest IQ society, originally created after World War II as a forum for brilliant people to come up with political solutions. As more members joined, people became less preoccupied with world peace than with finding mates and doing puzzles. Hoeflin felt too shy for the group—on one occasion, he drove 50 miles for a meeting and then got nervous and turned around—and began associating with newer, more selective organizations. These societies presented themselves collectively as an "alternative to academia," a place where geniuses could discuss their ideas. "We don't need to bother with all those damn credentials," says Kevin Langdon, a California software developer and writer who, like Hoeflin, began founding societies as a way of finding intellectual peers. "Cognitive ability alone is not valued enough. Our culture doesn't have a place for us." He sees giftedness as a wasted resource. Several years ago, he proposed that members move to the same location to live, work, and think together, but such plans never took off. "Most high-IQ types don't want to plant potatoes into the ground," Hoeflin says.

Hoeflin: "Most high-IQ types don't want to plant potatoes in the ground."
Hoeflin: "Most high-IQ types don't want to plant potatoes in the ground."

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    Hoeflin, who has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the New School, lives in a dark, rent-controlled studio ($150 a month) in Hell's Kitchen and makes a small living putting together his society's journals, comprising poems, proofs, manifestos, restaurant reviews, and emotional confessions. ("After so many years of striving," reads one, "I finally became a blind rodent, incessantly gnawing its way through a limitless garbage heap, contemplating its own sublimity.") Hoeflin welcomes all submissions. He is open, affable, and well versed in Freud. In an autobiographical section in his Encyclopedia of Categories, he interprets the cover design he did for one journal as an unconscious manifestation of the stages of psychosexual development ("There's the bell-shaped curve. It looks like a breast. The Y-axis is phallic. 99.9 is sperm") and reproduces the results of his aptitude and intelligence tests: He includes meticulous notes on how he compares mathematically to other segments of the population. His IQ is around 190.

    The trend in intelligence research is to downplay or qualify the significance of IQ, and some people in the societies see this as a kind of denial of who they are. Their scores define them. Because standardized tests are not designed to go much higher than 150, Hoeflin, Langdon, and a handful of others have created their own homemade exams. Hoeflin's Mega Test was published in Omni magazine in 1985 as the "World's Most Difficult IQ Test." It's composed of counter- intuitive analogies— "Pain is to Rue, as Bread is to ?"—and math problems that tell stories about floating barges and "cubicle chunks of cheese." Thousands of people have taken it. (John Sununu, the former chief of staff under George H.W. Bush, found it "a superbly stimulating diversion.")

    Although IQ tests fail to really define what intelligence is in the first place (often knowledge gets blurred with ability), most psychologists can agree that they measure something valuable— whatever that is. In the 1920s and '30s, Leta Hollingsworth, a professor at Columbia's Teachers College, followed a group of gifted students and found that they had trouble effectively communicating with those more than 30 IQ points below them. Since then, similar studies with adults have reaffirmed her conclusions. "It can be very lonely," says Linda Gottfredson, a professor at the University of Delaware who studies intelligence. "If you think about the fact that the average is 100, and mentally retarded is about 70, someone at 160 is as far away from the average as someone at 130 is from mentally retarded. You can't say the scale works like this, but it gives you a sense."

    "There's a difference in the thought process—a way of making connections," says Etienne Forsström, a 22-year-old design engineering student in Sweden who creates his own psychometric tests and belongs to the ePiq society, World Intelligence Network, and Glia Society. "It's not as if I actively search for patterns and symmetries," he wrote in an e-mail, titled "How i see the world . . . " "But I just simply can't avoid extending lines to see where they intersect. I'll be walking and I'll think, well, if I move two steps to the left, the top of that tree, the top of that rooftop, and I will form a perfect triangle."

    Although some members join societies purely for the thrill of bragging, many see the organizations as a form of intellectual self-help. "In a perverse way, some in the group view intelligence as a real problem they face," says Fred Britton, the president of the Prometheus Society. "The companionship makes it easier." This is not to say that communication within the groups always goes smoothly. In 1997, a former One-in-a-Thousand member published online "A Short (and Bloody) History of the High IQ societies," which he called a "soap-opera-ish" tale. The document details admissions battles, lawsuits among feuding members, and sudden and unexplainable expulsions by secret "ethics committees." Nathan Haselbauer, a 31-year-old New Yorker who runs the rapidly expanding International High IQ Society, says he watches the events with great interest. "This is, you know—it's our Brangelina."

    Hoeflin, who has no capacity for drama according to his personality test, has been slightly disappointed by all the conflicts. When he was 20, his father gave him a card with the inscription "Don't start vast projects with half-vast ideas," and he admits that from his dad's point of view, the societies have probably not fulfilled their potential. None of Hoeflin's groups have more than a thousand members. Growth is slow. "It's an ongoing experiment," he says. "It has a certain science fiction quality—what is the maximum boundary of the human brain? The process of evolution may go on for who knows how long. In theory, intelligence could go to infinity. But even if all of the universe could be collected together and turned into a giant brain, that brain would have limits."

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