Child Genius | How does the programme portray intelligence?

Most reality shows spark controversy, and Child Genius is no exception. Series finales are often followed by arguments that the show placed too much pressure on contestants, while the 2017 series was also interrupted by accusations of cheating parents.

Today I’m going to talk about another issue; how the competition and the programme portrays “intelligence” and “genius” in a one-dimensional way which reinforces misconceptions about intelligence.

Child Genius relies on memorisation, rather than on problem-solving or deduction from new information.

Recordings of the contestants at home showed that almost every round of Child Genius relied on rote memorisation. Contestants knew the questions for each task in advance and studied them at home as if they were homework. This made every task a test of accurate, fast recall.

One explanation of intelligence argues that a person’s general intelligence – or g – is made of two separate factors. “Crystallized intelligence” is a person’s ability to use the facts, knowledge and skills they have stored in long-term memory. Recall, general knowledge, and reasoning based on existing knowledge are all examples of crystallized intelligence. The characters from The Big Bang Theory, like most stereotypical “nerd” characters, demonstrate high crystallized intelligence.

“Fluid intelligence”, in contrast, is a person’s ability to reason and solve problems that aren’t based on previous knowledge. For this, think of Sherlock Holmes, especially in the books. Holmes doesn’t rely on remembering masses of knowledge; he only cares about information that directly help him solve cases. But he can walk into a new situation and put the pieces he sees together into a structure that lets him deduce what happened. That’s fluid intelligence in action.

Child Genius solely measures crystallized intelligence and ignores fluid intelligence. This is a shame, as including a balance of events which tested both types would benefit the show in multiple ways. Firstly, we would see a more rounded picture of the contestants and understand how they deal with multiple situations. Secondly, the audience could more clearly see how the contestants differ from typical children (or adults). Thirdly, it would reduce parents’ ability to hothouse the children, bringing the emphasis back to the children’s innate ability. Novel situations which are not detailed in advance would also reduce the potential for parents to cheat or provide unfair assistance.

Child Genius focuses on linguistic and mathematical ability, ignoring non-verbal parts of intelligence.

Each task in the show fits one of 4 roles: linguistic tasks such as spelling and anagrams, mathematical calculations, memorisation, and general knowledge. These cover what current Western culture sees as intelligence, especially in the context of education. But the answers to what intelligence means and what abilities represent intelligence all depend on culture and context.

Theories of intelligence can give dramatically different answers to this question. One answer, the PASS model, split intelligence into four processes. Later, the Triarchic model split intelligence into three parts before being updated with a fourth factor (and a necessary name change). The most comprehensive current theory of intelligence, the Cattell-Horn-Carroll theory, describes intelligence with a pyramid of abilities: a fundamental g  factor branches into 9 “broad” skills such as reading, writing, short-term memory, visual processing and auditory processing. These split into 64 separate “narrow” skills, such as object rotation ability, remembering sound patterns, writing fluency, and memory capacity.

The tasks in Child Genius cover only 4 of those 9 broad areas and 10 or 11 of those 64 narrow skills. Child Genius represents the way high intelligence is talked about in Western schools, but it does not represent genius.

Child Genius is inaccessible for contestants with physical or neurological conditions.

The one time a contestant has been stated to have a neurological condition — in their case ADHD — they withdrew from the competition after one day without scoring a single point. They must have done well on preliminary tests to get that far, which suggests that the televised testing environment was inaccessible for them. (However, neurotypical children have had similar unexpected performances too).

Similarly, I have never seen a contestant with a motor, hearing, or visual impairment on the show. Many tests seem like they could not fairly be adapted for a contestant with any impairments. Spelling-based tasks would probably be inaccessible for hearing-impaired contestants, while visually-impaired contestants would be disadvantaged in the memory rounds as they rely on visual information. Contestants with speech issues may not be able to verbally express answers they know. However, adapting tasks to work around any of these impairments may make those tasks so different that they could not be fairly compared. This could lead to assumptions of unfairness on either side.

Why does this matter here? Because many gifted children experience some of the same difficulties as children with neurological conditions like ADHD or autism and learning disabilities like dyslexia. This happens because their intellectual ability develops so quickly that it becomes “out of sync” with their physical, personal and emotional abilities.

The children who score most highly on IQ tests are likely to have massive discrepancies between their highest and lowest scoring abilities, a difference which also characterises learning disabilities.  A related concept is “twice-exceptionality“, which is when giftedness co-occurs with learning disabilities or neurological conditions. (Pages 6 and 7 here give a good explanation). The more gifted a child is, the more likely they are to have issues of this kind, but this part of giftedness is completely ignored in Child Genius.

Child Genius treats IQ score as a linear and unambiguous representation of intelligence.

A personal bugbear of mine is how common misconceptions about IQ are, so I’ll try not to fall into any here. The most important thing to know about IQ is that it’s not direct. While centimetres directly measure height, and kilograms directly measure mass, IQ scores represent a person’s IQ in relation to everybody else’s IQ. If everyone in the world suddenly got smarter, the average IQ score would still be 100.

IQ tests are scored to fit a mathematical pattern called a normal distribution, which is also known as a bell curve because of its shape. They are designed so that if you gave an IQ test to everyone in the world, the collection of scores would fit in the pattern below. 34.1% of people would score between 100-115, and another 34.1% would score between 85-100, while only 0.1% of people would score over 145.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Although any score is technically possible, fewer than 1 in every 1000 people score below 50 or above 150. Because extreme scores are so rare, they aren’t as accurate as common scores — the more extreme an IQ score is, the less information it can tell you. Extended IQ tests with a higher ceiling of 180-190 do exist, but these scores are still of limited use because of how few people ever score that highly.

In Child Genius, almost every contestant has an IQ score above 130, and many hit the ceiling of standard tests. So when the voiceover mentions that one contestant has an IQ in the top 2% while another has an IQ in the top 0.2%, that distinction is close to meaningless.

Child Genius promotes two misconceptions about IQ — it uses IQ to mean overall intelligence, and it also takes the approach that higher = better. However, the effect IQ has on real-life functioning isn’t a straight line. Researchers tend to find that an IQ score of around 120 (“well above average”)  is often associated with success, both academically and socially. People who test as “highly gifted” (< 145) or “exceptionally gifted” (<160) often have polarised experiences. Many of them experience great success at a young age, but many also have great difficulties with socialising and with understanding other people. The rare people who score in the “profoundly gifted” range (<175) take this to further extremes; they reach incredible academic or creative heights, but often at the cost of severe isolation and poor mental health caused by being in a world that does not understand them at all.

Child Genius is a celebration of contestants’ impressive abilities, so focusing too hard on the potential negatives isn’t really its place. At the same time, it would provide a far clearer picture of genius if it made room to show how giftedness and genius are not golden tickets to success and greatness.

Child Genius focuses too strongly on the role of parental coaching and input.

Based on the at-home clips and contestant interviews, it’s easy to broadly separate contestants into two groups.  One group contains children who are extensively tutored by parents who are themselves highly intelligent and driven towards success. Multiple parents in the show have left their jobs to support their child’s education (this raises points about how class divides and resources affect how intelligence is perceived, but I’m going to leave that discussion for people who know more than me.) These parents can come across as pushy, or even as unwilling to let their children be children rather than prodigies.

Another group contains children who intensely control and decide upon their own learning, dragging their supportive but often confused parents along with them. The children here may have exhausted every resource their local community has. To me, children in this group represent the autonomous nature that separates genius from high intelligence. (Obviously, not all contestants fit into the clear-cut groups I’m showing here).

The programme should be focused on the children’s abilities, not the parent’s abilities to design training regimes for the children. This also links back to my second point, about the limited types of intelligence tested within the show. Situations which cannot be drilled, such as finding out how contestants use information in a novel situation, measure intelligence in ways which cannot be as greatly influenced by the parents.


Child Genius is an interesting programme, and it’s good to see space in mainstream television for celebrating intelligence and learning. However, the show arguably doesn’t really represent genius, because of its format. It represents a stereotypical view of high intelligence — strong performance at school-like subjects, measured by IQ scores — without showing the complexity and depth of genius-level intelligence.

So, how could it do better? Hypothetically, I’d like the programme to go beyond the yearly competition. I think that following the children through other aspects of their life, looking at situations beyond academia, would present a much clearer view of what genius and giftedness look like. I also think that having experts talk about the consequences of gifted and genius children developing in an out-of-sync way, and explaining some of the potential negative aspects of genius-level intelligence, would be beneficial. For the participating families this would be a helpful resource, while for the general public this could help break down some of the stereotypes and expectations around intelligence.

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