Saturday, 13 May 2017

What was Robert M Pirsig's IQ?

Since his death a few weeks ago, I have been thinking about Robert Pirsig and his book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM):

I have started listening to the audiotape version of ZAMM as my 'kitchen chores' book; and re-reading Mark Richardson's valuable roadtrip/ Pirsig biography 'Zen and Now'.

I also remembered an earlier blog post about Robert Pirsig's oft-mentioned IQ being 170 - and the case for suggesting it could equally well have been described as an IQ of 127-135 (about two standard deviations above average, rather than about five).

This chart gives the IQ percentages and rarities, for a test average 100 and a standard deviation of 15 - however, I think the Stanford Binet would have had an SD of 16 at that time:

The piece seems worth re-posting:


IQ is not a precise measurement - especially not at the individual level, and especially not at the highest levels of intelligence when the whole concept of general intelligence breaks-down and there are increasing divergences between specific types of cognitive ability.
There is a tendency to focus upon a person's highest-ever IQ measure - for example in the (excellent!) philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the author Robert Pirsig notes the startling fact (and it is a fact) that his (Stanford-Binet) IQ was measured at 170 at the age of nine - which is a level supposedly attained by one in fifty thousand (although such ratios are a result of extrapolation, not measurement).

But an IQ measure in childhood - even on a comprehensive test such as Stanford Binet, is not a measure of adult IQ - except approximately (presumably due to inter-individual differences in the rate of maturation towards mature adulthood). 
A document on Pirsig's Wikipedia pages (Talk section) purports to be an official testimonial of Pirsig's IQ measurements from 1961 (when he was about 33 years old) and it reads:



   June 14,1961
   To Whom it May Concern:
   Subject: Indices of the Intellectual Capacity of Robert M. Pirsig

Mr. Pirsig was a subject in one of the institute’s longitudinal research projects and was extensively evaluated as a preschool, elementary, secondary, college and adult on various measures of intellectual ability. A summary of these measures is presented below.

Childhood tests: Mr. Pirsig was administered seven individual intelligence tests between the ages of two and ten. He performed consistently at the 99 plus percentile during this period.

His IQ on the Stanford Binet Form M administered in 1938 when he was nine and a half years old was 170, a level reached by about 2 chilldren in 100,000 at that age level.

In 1949 he took the Miller's Analogy at the Univer. of Minn.. His raw score was 83 and his percentile standing for entering graduate students at the University of Minnesota was 96%tile.

In 1961 he was administered a series of adult tests as part of e follow up study of intelligence. The General Aptitude Test Battery of the United States Employment Service was administered with the following results:
   General Intelligence .......99 % ile
   Verbal Ability .............98 % ile
   Numerical Ability ..........96 % ile
   Spacial Ability ............99 % ile
   John G. Hurst, PhD   Assistant Professor


So, as well as the stratospheric IQ 170, there are other measures at more modest levels around 130 plus a bit (top 2 percent).

Of course there may be ceiling effects - some IQ measures don't try to go higher than the top centile.

But still, lacking that age nine test - and most nine year old's don't have a detailed  IQ personal evaluation - Pirsig's measured IQ would be quoted at about around one in fifty or one in a hundred - rather than 1: 50,000.

Ultra-high IQ measures must be taken with a pinch of salt; because 1. at the individual level IQ measures are not terribly reliable; 2. high levels of IQ do not reflect general intelligence, but more specialized cognitive ability; and 3. even when honest, the number we hear about may be a one-off, and the highest ever recorded from perhaps multiple attempts at many lengths and types of IQ test.

Note: I find it rather annoying when people describe those with a very high IQ as being a 'genius' for that reason, and without taking into account creativity. Most very high IQ people are not especially  creative - and very few of them are geniuses. 

In Terman's prospective study of  1,444 very high IQ Californian children there was many high achievers but no geniuses.  By contrast Terman's Stanford Binet IQ test failed to detect two Geniuses - William Shockley and Luiz Alvarez - very probably because they just had a bad test day, but maybe because the Stanford Binet was mostly a word based test, and Shcokley and Alvarez were both physicists. All IQ tests are, in the end, just tests - and only an indirect measure of 'g'.

However, Pirsig did have a creative personality, as well as high intelligence; and the achievement of writing ZAMM - a first-rate book of its genre - was enough for me to call him a genius; albeit the fact that it was his only achievement at that level (his other philosophical novel Lila being much inferior) would make him a somewhat minor genius by world-historical standards.


  1. Interesting. Thanks for this Bruce. I had that testimonial from Pirsig when I was doing my own biographical timeline research and shared with Mark Richardson writing Zen and Now. I didn't know it was, or had become, publicly available on Wikipedia. Like you I find the overplaying of "genius" to be an annoying side issue - a red herring. I simply found it interesting that he discovered he was the subject of that "longitudinal" study. Guessing his parent must have set him up for it seeing he was a bright kid?

  2. Hello Ian - good to hear from you again. And I am pleased to discover the provenance of that document.

    Given the experience of bening identified and followed-up as a gifted child from age 9, it is understandable that Pirsig would have mentioned the original intelligence estimaate of 170 in ZAMM - and apparently when courting his first wife.

    I should make clear I am not quibbling with that estimate - which was as valid as such things can be. I am simply providing some context and explanation.

    I should inform readers that Ian Glendinning hosts Psybertron; one of the premier Pirsig resources on the web - he is indeed one of THE Pirsig experts!