What Is Mensa And How Do You Qualify For It?

Attention, smarty-pants everywhere! You too could join a special IQ club where you and others of superlative intellectual prowess get to bask in each others' brain glow far away from all the unwashed dumb-dumbs littering the streets below. Too harsh? Not according to former member Sophie Gilbert, comedian Jamie Loftus, Eve Peyser, and ... but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Is that really all that Mensa is? A club for smart folks with a reputation for unrepentant elitism? The short answer is "yes." The long answer is complicated.

According to Mensa International, Mensa is a "high IQ society." It's a place where the intellectually gifted can gain access to "diverse and exciting opportunities for social, cultural, and intellectual interaction." There's a "lively exchange of ideas," "stimulating discussions and debates," "thought-provoking surveys and investigations," and other such passable adjective-noun combinations. The Mensa International About Us page describes Mensa as a "round-table society where ethnicity, colour, creed, national origin, age, politics, educational and social background are all completely irrelevant." 

That all sounds great, but it doesn't explain what Mensans — people in Mensa — actually do. Before you go getting any ideas, no, Mensa is neither a Bohemian Grove cult nor your neighborhood "Dungeons & Dragons" meetup. It is, however, often criticized and poorly understood by the public. From dated measurements of intelligence to the ins and outs of meetings, Mensa in reality often differs from Mensa on paper.

A sticky origin story

Mensa has some sticky origins that, while not defining its present, do muddy its credibility. The Mensa International About Us page tells us that Mensa started with two people in 1946: barrister Roland Berrill and "scientist and lawyer" Dr. Lancelot Ware. The site says that Mensa was designed around pluralism and a lack of barriers. Religion, political slant, cultural background, country of origin: none of those things mattered — only intelligence. Prospective members had to pass an approved IQ test with a score equal to or higher than the 98th percentile, and that's that. 

There's another layer to the tale. Mensa co-founder Roland Berrill was a proponent of the whackadoodle pseudoscience phrenology, which claims that the shape of a person's skull defines personality traits like "combativeness," "conjugality," "amativeness," "secretiveness," and the like, as Smithsonian Magazine explains. Phrenology rose in popularity in the mid-1800s and was debunked by the end of the century. Berrill also believed in astrology, palmistry, and was a follower of the 1950 mystical self-help book, "Dianetics." "Dianetics" was written by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, the guy who invented Scientology.   

Dr. Ware is the one who suggested using intelligence tests as a method of entry into his and Berrill's club. Ware, unfortunately, was influenced by psychologist Cyril Burt, who was posthumously accused of fabricating data showing that intelligence derived from genetics. Per The Irish Times, Burt also believed that intelligence "might have a racial basis."

Admission into the club

So how does one go about gaining entry to Earth's most (purportedly) elite society of intellectuals? The Mensa International FAQ page tells that you've got to take either one of several approved intelligence tests, or take Mensa's own "Mensa test." The page deliberately doesn't say which tests are approved, but redirects individuals toward national chapters of Mensa for further questions. The full list of countries with Mensa chapters is available on a National Mensas page. The FAQ page does, however, say that one approved IQ test has a score cutoff of 132, and another 148. This at least means that the former test is probably the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale, a long-standing IQ test first published in 1916.

For folks who'd like a little practice run, Mensa has its own informal Mensa IQ Challenge developed by Mensa Norway. It uses typical visual pattern questions to measure intelligence on a scale from 85 to 145, with 100 being average. Beyond tests, though, there are a couple other requirements for joining Mensa. Members have to be at least 16 years old, and there are also annual dues. Mensa U.S. has a colossal breakdown of dues, starting with individual memberships of $79 per year and including add-on fees for family members, lifetime lump fees separated into five-year age brackets, three- and five-year membership fees separated by month, and more. 

Come play with us

So what in the world actually goes on at a Mensa meetup? Are members fusing their collective numerical IQs to craft some of the world's most profound literature and art? Are they acting as governmental advisors regarding matters of environmental, economical, or judicial policies? Well, no. They're partying.

On a Quora discussion group composed of Mensa members, former members, guest speakers, and more, one speaker at an engagement described getting asked some "intelligent" questions, some "ignorant or poorly conceived" questions, and some questions "which are designed to show how clever the questioner is." One Mensa attendee describes a Mensa meetup game consisting of matching numbers to memorized jokes. Sophie Gilbert in the Washingtonian describes Mensa as a hideout for "insufferable jerk[s]" and club for the socially awkward. Amongst other things, she was invited to (and avoided) a hot-tub party and "chocolate orgy" and chatted up people wearing medieval armor. 

Eve Peyser in the Intelligencer describes Mensans as board-game lovers who are replete with Disney trivia. There are subgroups and sub-subgroups for any area of interest, including an under-40 Detroit-based group where one member once combined a drill and a dildo to make a "drilldo." Comedian Jamie Loftus in The New Yorker describes U.S.-based Mensa Facebook group Firehouse as a place for "misfits in their everyday lives" who "want to belong somewhere." It also, not unimportantly, has a penchant for "far-right politics." Mensa, on a whole, she said, espouses a "toxic belief in a fixed intellectual hierarchy."

Riddled with holes

So what is Mensa, again? At this point it should be obvious that Mensa's stated goals — like those on its website — are disconnected from their actual activities. Its history is also separate from its present, but intermingles to an extent. The group's entire standard for entry — 98th percentile on particular IQ tests — is also an arbitrary benchmark that itself depends on testing standards that change over time and are, at this point, dated. 

Verywell Mind describes psychologist Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, for instance — first presented in his 1983 book "Frames of Mind" — describing eight modalities of intelligence related to different types of human skills and activities. Kinesthetic intelligence, for instance, is awareness of the body and relates to excellence at physical activities. Linguistic-verbal intelligence lends itself toward making someone a superb writer or speaker. Interpersonal intelligence connects to skills associated with counseling, nurturing, and understanding other people. When placed against reduced, single, numerical intelligence values of tests like the Stanford-Binet intelligence scale, the entirety of Mensa's admission standards is cast in a far less relevant light.    

Of course, there will be those who speak up for Mensa and the sense of acceptance it has provided, regardless of all the bizarre stuff that goes on at some Mensa meetings. The bottom of the Mensa International Home Page contains testimonials from members proclaiming Mensa's social and emotional benefits. In the end, that might be the smartest thing Mensa could do.