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 that parents cheated.

Today, however, 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 stereotypes about intelligence.

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

Recording of the contestants at home demonstrated that almost every round of Child Genius relied upon rote memorisation. Contestants knew the questions for each task in advance and studied them at home as if they were homework. This essentially 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 (or any stereotypical “nerd” character) are good demonstrations of high crystallized intelligence.

Its counterpart, “Fluid intelligence”, is a person’s ability to reason and solve problems which aren’t based on previous knowledge. For this, think of Sherlock Holmes, especially in the books. Sherlock Holmes doesn’t hold a particularly large amount of knowledge. But he can walk into a new situation and put the pieces he sees together into a structure which lets him deduce what happened. That’s fluid intelligence in action.

Child Genius solely measures crystallized intelligence, lacking any tasks which measure fluid intelligence. This is a shame, as including a balance of events which tested both types would benefit the show in multiple ways. Firstly, it would mean we could see a more rounded picture of the contestants and understand how they deal with multiple situations. Secondly, it would let the audience more clearly understand how the contestants differ from typical children (or adults). Thirdly, it would reduce parents’ ability to hothouse and drill 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, rather than a wider range of skills.

Every round of the show can be sorted into a few basic types: linguistic tasks such as spelling and anagrams, mathematical calculations, memorisation and general knowledge. These cover what current Western culture generally sees as intelligence, especially in the context of education. But what intelligence sums up, and what factors represent it, has changed over time and over cultures.

Theories of intelligence argue for dramatically different answers to this question. The 1960’s PASS model split intelligence into four processes, while the 1980’s 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 a pyramid of factors: a fundamental g  factor branches into 9 “broad” skills such as reading and writing, short-term memory, visual processing and auditory processing. These branch into 64 separate “narrow” skills, such as object rotation ability, being able to remember 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. While representative of the way intelligence is talked about in school, Child Genius is not representative of many different types of intelligence.

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

The one time a contestant has been stated to have any neurological condition- in this case, ADHD – they withdrew from the competition after one day, having not scored 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 rounds focused solely on memorising, which use visual material. 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 extremely gifted children have characteristics which are similar to neurological conditions, because their intellectual ability can be so out of sync with their personal and emotional development. Also, children who score most highly on IQ tests are more likely to show 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 e.g. dyslexia, ADHD, or autism. (Pages 6 and 7 here give a good explanation). Many extremely gifted children have issues of this kind, a dimension of giftedness which is ignored in Child Genius.

Child Genius uses IQ score as a linear and unambiguous representation of intellect.

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

IQ tests are scored according to a mathematical model called a normal distribution (also known as a bell curve because of its shape). They are designed so that, in theory, if you gave an IQ test to everyone in the world, all the scores would fit 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.

Although any score is possible, people’s IQ scores generally range between 50-150; scores outside of this range are so rare that they can’t be given accurately, so they are basically meaningless.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

In Child Genius, almost every contestant scores above 130, and many reach the ceiling of standard tests. Because of this, comparing IQs between contestants or pointing out that one contestant has an IQ in the top 2% while another has an IQ in the top 0.2%, is entirely meaningless. Although extended IQ tests with a higher ceiling of around 180-190 do exist, the scores generated are still likely to be inaccurate due to how few people ever score that high.

Child Genius promotes two misconceptions about IQ- it uses IQ to mean overall intelligence, and it also takes the approach that higher=better. However, how IQ affects real-life functioning is non-linear. Research tends to find that an IQ score of  ~120  is often associated with success, both academically and socially. People who score in the extremely gifted range, around the 145-150 ceiling of standard tests, tend to have more polarised experiences. Many reach impressive success at a young age, but many also have great difficulties with socialising and understanding  other people. The tiny percentage of people who score in the “profoundly gifted” range (scoring <180 on high-ceiling tests), take this to further extremes; reaching incredible academic heights but often at the cost of severe isolation and poor mental health.

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, maybe it should include more explanations about how giftedness and genius are not golden tickets to success.

Child Genius focuses too much on the effects of parental coaching and input.

On watching the at-home clips and contestant interviews, it’s easy to broadly separate contestants into two groups.  One group contains the children who are extensively tutored by parents who are themselves highly intelligent and driven towards success. Multiple parents in the show have quit their jobs to focus on their child’s education (this also raises points about how class divides and resources affect how intelligence is perceived, but I’m going to leave those points for another time). These parents can come across as pushy, or 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 its good to see space in mainstream television for programmes which celebrate intelligence and learning. However, the show arguably doesn’t really represent genius, because of its format. It instead represents a more stereotypical view of high intelligence- strong performance at school-like subjects, measured by IQ scores, without the complexity and differences associated with genius.

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 explanations from experts about the consequences of gifted and genius children developing in an out-of-sync way, and knowledge about the potential negative aspects of genius, 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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