Mindy Kornhaber: Trump's Intelligence

Trump’s Intelligence

Mindy Kornhaber

Whether one prefers or deplores Donald Trump, the press is like a moth to his orange flame. As a result, he’s become the steadfast set of pixels on many of our screens for the better part of a year. How is it that someone who has never held public office and has evinced ignorance on matters of policy (e.g., abortion, a wall paid for by Mexico) has completely outpaced his Republican rivals? Is it a sign of genius? If so, what sort? I consider Trump’s intelligence through both a traditional IQ lens and the theory of multiple intelligences (MI).


According to a pre-candidate Trump tweet, “…my I.Q. is one of the highest -and you all know it!” (May 8, 2013). This tweet, like so many other Trumpnouncements, is hard to verify. Estimates online peg his IQ between125-156, but these scores don’t rest on factual bases or rigorous methodology. Correlates of a high IQ, e.g., high SAT scores, have not been forthcoming or available. So, the short answer is we don’t know what Trump’s IQ is. If Trump knows his own IQ and knows that it’s “one of the highest,” it’s reasonable to think he would release a verifiable score report.

But let’s say, for the sake of argument, Trump’s self-assessment is on the mark. Would a high-IQ equip Trump to advance the well-being of people throughout the country, and, indeed, the world? It turns out that measured intelligence and the spine required to serve the common good are usually kept in separate psychological boxes. (The Good Project, at, is an initiative spearheaded by Howard Gardner that seeks to elucidate how to achieve “the good” for society). Even if Trump's IQ stacked up, it can’t gauge whether he’d act ethically in office. Several Nazi leaders had IQs above 130 (c. top 2.4%). I keep a list of their scores posted outside my office. The point: IQ is not a measure of goodness, values, or the capacity to understand human worth and protect human dignity.

If Trump does have “one of the highest” IQs, such a score is not needed for the nation’s top job. Nearly everyone who manages the complexities of high-finance building projects in New York or a national political campaign (or gets just an undergraduate degree, without honors, from Wharton as Trump did) will have an IQ good enough to be president, i.e., one reasonably above the 100 average. An exceptionally high IQ is not required to do important and complex work: Neither Watson nor Crick -- Nobel laureates for discovering DNA -- hurtled the genius low bar of 130 IQ. And longitudinal research on the Termites (high-IQ children initially identified by IQ guru, Lewis Terman) underscores that high IQ does not foretell unusual success. The point: If Trump has “one of the highest IQs,” it doesn’t up his qualifications for president.

Even if Trump had the highest IQ in the candidate pack, it would not indicate how well he’d perform relative to his rivals. Statistically speaking, the population of candidates is too small and the variation in their scores is likely too narrow to permit such prognostications. Generally, IQ has a moderate degree of 'predictive validity' with occupational status (e.g. sales clerk v. accountant v. rocket scientist). However, it does not predict performance within occupational status. That is, IQ doesn’t help predict who’ll be a better accountant or president.

Multiple Intelligences (“MI”)

That IQ doesn’t predict performance within a given occupation indicates that success in real work requires capacities not surveyed by intelligence tests. This is partly because intelligence testing was invented with the rise of mass education in order to examine and predict performance in school settings at the time (in the early 20th century). In such settings, problems are solved by individuals, have right and wrong answers, and focus on language, math, and sequential logictasks. Intelligence tests likewise examine, and are best at predicting, these sorts of performances. Underlying such performances is supposedly one problem-solving ability (or variations thereof), called ‘general intelligence.’

Rather than seeking to explain and predict school-like performances, Howard Gardner developed MI to shed light on the abilities ("intelligences") that enable people "to solve problems or fashion products that are valued in one or more cultures." So, MI provides a more 'real world' (v. e.g. classroom) perspective on human problem solving.

Gardner's analyses of research from his own fields of cognitive development and neuropsychology, and from linguistics, comparative psychology, anthropology, and psychometrics has led him to posit at least eight, relatively autonomous intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and naturalist. Intelligence tests seek to assess the first three (at most). Standardized school tests commonly assess only the first two.

If true, Trump’s self-reported high IQ indicates that he has the linguistic intelligence to speak persuasively to his political supporters and the logical-mathematical intelligence to determine when to seek bankruptcy protection. However, IQ scores say nothing about forms of savvy essential for political life and leadership: intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences.

Trump -- and anyone aspiring to high office -- believes he can do better than the next guy or woman. That kind of belief will be more or less grounded in intrapersonal intelligence. This intelligence enables individuals to understand their own feelings and motivations and to have an effective working model of themselves.

On the intrapersonal front, Trump may have an understanding of his own feelings and motivations. He is evidently motivated to garner the spotlight and hold it by tossing out comments that violate common practices of civil and political speech. This has led various psychologists to label him a narcissist (see Vanity Fair, November 11, 2015 online).

However, what is especially problematic is the chunk of Trump’s intrapersonal intelligence entailing "an effective working model of oneself." He apparently thinks his skillset as a popular entertainer or businessman fits him to be president of a democracy whose Constitution was designed to check and limit power. Yet, "You're fired!" is not a workable presidential directive to Congress or the Supreme Court.

Interpersonal intelligence enables individuals to understand others' motivations and needs. As Trump struts down the runway toward the November election, he will have to rely more on interpersonal intelligence than his work until now has required. Two aspects of interpersonal intelligence are important.

First, to get elected, it’s essential for Trump to understand voters’ needs and motivations, so that he can persuade them (as well as delegates) that he’ll act in line with their interests. Trump has shown he has enough interpersonal intelligence to get more votes than his Republican rivals. He understands that parts of the Republican base feel pushed off the economic ladder (perhaps by immigrants) or have been ignored by (weak, bought) politicians. These days, he's seeking to get votes by identifying himself/his candidacy as a victim and outsider, akin to those in his base who feel marginalized. He also understands that violating typical modes of speech appeals to many people who are sick of politics as usual. However, if Trump actually wants to win (and, of course, he’s a winner not a loser!), he’ll have to use his interpersonal intelligence to gain support from those who have not yet found his modus operandi appealing (and/or Hillary will have to stumble). He’s a good salesperson for himself. Perhaps he’ll succeed.

Second, were Trump to be elected, he would actually have to work in a sustained way with people whose desires, intentions, and motivations are often at odds with his own. This is something for which he’s evinced little inclination. For such work, he'd also need to draw on intrapersonal intelligence to understand that he must learn to work with people who have joint responsibility for governing. Despite being a “deal maker without peer” , he’d have to figure out how to “deal” with leaders of other powerful nations, even though their knowledge and experience in matters of world affairs far exceed his own.

In sum, it's not necessary to have an unusually high IQ to be a good president. Moreover, IQ doesn’t measure the intra- and interpersonal intelligences needed to run for office and succeed if elected. Trump has good enough interpersonal skills to get votes from his base of supporters. He may have good enough skills to grab the majority of the electorate in November. However, to be effective as POTUS, Trump would need exceptional interpersonal skills. Unfortunately, he shows inadequate capacity to take in others' perspectives, weigh them, and work constructively with people he can’t fire. He'd also need adequate enough intrapersonal intelligence to realize he’d enter the office without an effective working model to guide his actions in office. He’d have to seek to address that flaw, despite already perceiving himself as a great and amazing success story . Whatever his IQ, Trump’s gaps in inter- and intrapersonal intelligences are deeply problematic for the job he’s now seeking. They could also be problematic for the nation and the world.

Mindy Kornhaber is an associate professor at Penn State. She joined the faculty in 2001 after serving as a researcher at Harvard University for more than a decade. Her work draws equally from the fields of social policy and human development and focuses on two related questions: How do institutions and the policies surrounding them enhance or impede the development of individual potential? How can individual potential be developed both to a high level and on an equitable basis? For the past several years, she has been concerned with testing policies and their influence on educational equity and students' intellectual development. She is also concerned with assessment, educational equity, how theories of intelligence influence school practice, and school reform.