That thinking feeling: a night with Mensa

(Observer Magazine, 31 July 1991)

Mensa, the society for people with high IQs, is one of Britain’s fastest-growing organisations. Should we take it seriously? Richard Askwith investigates

ON A sunny Cambridge evening, scattered in groups around the college bar at Queens’, 50 or more people, most aged 50 or more, are sitting and drinking. They seem too quiet and self-conscious to be members of college, too ill at ease with one another to be delegates at a sales conference. If anything, their slightly forced jollity suggests a room full of newcomers at a holiday camp.

Their conversation is sober, but many are drawn to the theme of alcohol.

‘I believe that people drink,’ says one voice, ‘because they have some inhibition which otherwise prevents them from talking.’

‘There’s a choice,’ says another, ‘between a French table wine at £7, a Californian wine which I had last night at £8, and a Bordeaux at £9.’

‘This is lovely,’ says a third voice, belonging to a relatively young Canadian girl who is surrounded by middle-aged men. ‘Everyone’s buying me drinks.’ ‘Are you sure I can t tempt you?’ says an old woman with thick glasses and a bottle of Bordeaux to an even older man in a cardigan. ‘No, absolutely not,’ he replies.

‘I never do. I’m a teetotaller. Do you know the origin of the word teetotaller?’

At the edge of the same table, a middle-aged woman with a genteel accent is trying to have a conversation with a French-speaking Canadian man. ‘Teetotaller,’ she says. ‘Do you have a word in your country for someone who doesn’t drink alcohol?’ Pause. ‘Someone who don’t drink?’ he says, with a hint of incredulity. Pause. ‘Non, non.’ A minute or two’s silence; then, in the same genteel accent: ‘Vous aimez le Guinness?’ says the lady, pointing to the Canadian’s drink. Pause. ‘Non.’

Here and there, though, conversations are livening up. At a table near the door to the courtyard, a female – forties, chain-smoker, with black clothes and black nail varnish – is growing animated. ‘He said that tactile impressions enter the brain through the cerebral cortex,’ she says angrily, ‘but he’s wrong. It goes first to the brainstem, which is the most primitive part of the brain. He made an inaccurate statement. I would have taken him up on it, but I didn’t want to get into an argument. But he was wrong. It was an inaccurate statement.’ These reflections renew her indignation, and she makes her way to a table on the far side of the room. Snatches of her raised voice make their way back: ‘But that’s wrong! No, you’re wrong… I know …’

It is the evening’s first vigorous intellectual discussion, but not the last. Vigorous intellectual discussions arc what these people are here for. They are members of Mensa, the society for people with high IQs, and they have all paid just under £400 for the privilege of spending just under a week in each other’s company. The event is known as ‘Mensa at Cambridge’, and will shortly be reaching its climax with a black-tie banquet.

Their fees have also bought them five nights’ accommodation at Oueens’, lots of good food, a few evenings of entertainment and half-a-dozen or so fairly high-powered lectures (this year’s theme is ‘transport’). But the company, all agree, is what matters.

‘The lectures are just there to provoke discussion,’ says one. ‘The best bits are the talks we have when we have tea and biscuits afterwards.’

‘What I like about being here,’ says another, ‘is that I can move from group to group and guarantee that I’ll be able to listen to an absolutely fascinating, stimulating and witty conversation at every one. And if any one of them does get a bit dull, I can just move to another group.’ Mensa at Cambridge is the grandest of the many thousands of events which take place each year for the benefit of Britain’s 35,000 Mensans. Most are quite humble. A typical issue of the monthly Mensa Magazine lists between 300 and 350 forthcoming events of the ‘Pub lunch and walk, Eastbourne’ or ‘Board games, coffee and chat, Woodford Green’ variety. Many other informal events are organised by local groups and special interest groups (SIGs). There are also regular black-tie dinners and occasional residential weekends and gatherings.

British Mensa was founded in 1946. Ten years ago it had 2,000 members. Today it is growing at a rate of nearly 10,000 members a year, and expects to pass the 40,000 mark early this year thanks to a clever marketing programme which combines a £200,000-a-year advertising campaign with a concerted effort to improve the range of activities and services available to members. Membership costs £25 a year, and each member has also paid for two tests (£19.50) to establish that he or she has the necessary IQ requirements.

Mensa has an income approaching £1 million a year and a rapidly increasing influence on British life. 1989 saw the creation of the Mensa Foundation for Gifted Children, an organisation devoted to rescuing clever children (identified by IO tests) from what Mensa sees as the ‘downward levelling’ tendencies of comprehensive education. Last year, the first Mensa summer school was run for the benefit of those same children.

Later this year, a full-time, fee-paying, 700-pupil ‘hot house’ school is expected to open in Battersea, south London, for children who have performed well in IQ tests – the first, Mensa hopes, of a network of up to 50 such schools. And there have been rumours of a forthcoming court case in which a five-year-old Mensan, backed by Mensa, will sue her local authority to establish her right to have her educational ‘special needs’ met at the State’s expense.

The Nineties will see more schools, more gifted children- and more Mensans. Since the membership requirement is defined as an IQ score which places one ‘within the upper two per cent of the general population’, it would theoretically be possible to increase membership to more than one million, and Mensa believes it is only just beginning to realise its potential for expansion.

Although Mensa may be Britain’s fastest growing society, it is not its best loved. Some, resent it on moral grounds for its elitism, for its supposed right-wing bias, and for the emotional harm it can allegedly do by discriminating between people on the basis of IQ tests.

Others object to it intellectually, arguing, with some justice, that IQ tests measure nothing but the ability to perform IQ tests. And large numbers of people simply resent Mensans, not least because of their implicit contempt for non-Mensans. (Paying to belong to a society which excludes all but your intellectual equals is tantamount to saying that the company of ordinary people – your inferiors – is not good enough for you.) But that, according to many Mensans, is almost exactly why Mensa exists: not because the clever people reject the ordinary, people, but because the ordinary people reject the clever people for not being ordinary enough – making the clever people feel inferior, not superior.

‘Many people here,’ says a bearded computer programmer, ‘had difficulty fitting in at school, and most have had difficulty fitting in in the adult world. Mensa gives them a chance to move in a world where they’re not different.’

‘I was miserable at school,’ says a bespectacled record dealer. ‘I was always in trouble, never fitted in.’ ‘I think most people here had unhappy childhoods,’ says another computer programmer.

Seen from this point of view, Mensa seems less threatening – more like a lonely hearts club than a sinister political conspiracy. And sneering at its members’ apparent self-satisfaction begins to seem patronising. After all, what right have those who can find stimulating company without recourse to contact groups to look down on those who are not so privileged?

‘One girl put it frightfully well,’ says an upper-class, middle-aged lady who once worked in the civil service. ‘She said: “It’s like finding my tribe.” That’s how I felt when I joined Mensa. For the first time in my life I felt that I’d found my tribe.’

Another lady, a teacher, explains it more briefly.

‘Mensa,’ she says, to general approval, ‘means never having to say things twice.’

Some members take this a stage further, apparently thinking that Mensa means never having to say things at all. Painfully shy, they prefer listening to talking and stick to the printed programme, from the ‘icebreaker’ (a regular feature of Mensa events) on day one to the late-night films and the semi-formal discussions (‘RAP sessions’) on most afternoons. More confident members relax, skip lectures and enjoy the social side.

‘This is the most sparkling, intelligent, witty collection of people 1 can ever remember meeting,’ says the old woman with thick spectacles.

‘What I really need,’ says a plump, married teacher, ‘is a dishy young man to take me out for a nice smooth ride in a punt. Ah, you look dishy …’

‘You’re not going to make us out to be some sort of dating agency, are you?’ says a motherly sort of lady in a rather revealing dress. ‘Because that’s what people have written before, and it’s not true.’ None the less, Mensan gatherings do have a reputation (which some members seem to find gratifying) for becoming quite steamy once the inhibitions have been banished. There is a distinct sense of sexual restlessness in the air. Later in the evening, a computer programmer makes two clumsy passes in quick succession. Both are unsuccessful. Later still, several couples can be seen in fervent, but no doubt quite innocent, embraces in various corners of the college.

As with the well-stocked personal columns of Mensa Magazine, the impression is not so much of impropriety as of a general emotional gaucheness, which people with lower IQs tend to grow out of in their teens. (One gets the same sense of immaturity from the ill-concealed jealousies, feuds and ambitions which characterise Mensa’s internal politics, and from the advertisements in Mensa Magazine which regularly invite members to apply to even cleverer societies, open only to the top one per cent of the population.)

At the grand black-tie banquet, it is clear that there is much ice still to be broken. Several people appear to spend the entire meal in silence, reading and re-reading the menu or staring fiercely at the table-cloth. Others converse only in short bursts, minimising eye contact. But some seem more at ease, especially those who have been to Mensa at Cambridge before and, as a result, are among old friends. When conversation turns away from the personal towards the abstract, the discussions can become quite lively, and several positively sparkle.

Yet one cannot help feeling that it all ought to be slightly more, well – clever. Typical talking-points include a proposal to airlift millions of Hong Kong citizens to Northern Ireland; various ingenious solutions to Britain’s transport problems; and the decline of law and order – all pretty much standard saloon bar stuff. The quality of discussion is not noticeably more intelligent, or informed, or full of insights, than one would expect from any other group of reasonably articulate people. On the other hand, the discussions do last longer, and, in marked contrast to the non-Mensan world, fierce arguments rarely degenerate into personal animosity. Mensans are good at concentrating, and they like arguing.

Later on, an unexpected Mensan trait reveals itself, as conversation after conversation turns to such subjects as dowsing, biorhythms, clairvoyance and extraterrestrial intelligence. All are discussed with a mixture of detachment and naivety, with liberal use of statements like ‘Apparently, scientists in America have proved …’ and ‘The Government is worried but refuses to admit …’ ‘You shouldn’t take them too seriously,’ a computer programmer tells me later, ‘or not all of them. I think many of them don’t really believe in that sort of thing, they just find it more interesting to sort of half believe it, so that they can argue about it, rather than just dismissing it altogether.’

After the banquet, there is a ceilidh in the college bar. The dancing emphasises the Mensans’ lack of the less cerebral graces, in spite of the bandleader’s painstaking directions. ‘For those of you who are having difficulty with counting,’ he reminds them, ‘it goes like this: one, two, three, four …’

Conversations grow more intense. ‘I’m psychic, you know,’ says a voice. ‘I’ve always had this amazing ability to see straight to the heart of a problem,’ says another. ‘I have amazing empathy,’ says a third.

And then, gradually, the company disperses – to more drinking, to all-night arguing, to a rooftop sing-song, to a dowsing display on one of the lawns – and, of course, to those clumsy embraces.

It may seem cruel, snobbish even, to mock Mensa, when much of its ridiculousness derives simply from the admirable breadth of its social mix. But there is something almost pernicious about its self-congratulatory silliness, and its confusion of a certain kind of mental agility with wisdom. ‘Can you solve this problem faster than Shakespeare?’, asks one of the best-known Mensa advertisements, as if the aptitude for spelling required by the puzzle were in some way comparable with being capable of writing King Lear.

Socrates put his finger on it when he suggested that the wisest of men is ‘he who has realised… that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless’. But then Socrates wasn’t a member of Mensa.

In the morning, the Mensans at Cambridge sound slightly paranoid.

‘What sort of angle is this article going to take?’ ‘You won’t make us out to be weird, will you?’ ‘I don’t mind what you write, as long as you report the facts accurately.’

‘There was a terrible article which said that we were all socially and emotionally inadequate. You won’t say anything like that, will you?’

Then more pressing matters, like the need for all sorts of genuinely fond farewells, intervene.

‘Did you have a good time?’ the plump married lady asks a rather sad-looking teacher.

‘Not really,’ says the teacher.

© The Observer 1991

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