19. What Distinguishes the One Who Joins Mensa from the 79 Who Could, But Do Not

April 4, 2016

It all came up again for me when the local Phoenix Mensa group published its latest membership figures. Those numbers prompted me to return to a question I first asked in the San Francisco Bay area ten years ago.  When I broached the subject at that time I had gotten blank looks, but never a response.  It was  as if people had thought mine was not a serious question, or was one intended merely to provoke anger and consternation.

If you ask most people what characterizes Mensa, they will likely say it is the high intelligence of its members.  But a little simple arithmetic reveals that is not the case.   According to the Greater Phoenix Mensa newsletter, it has about 1050 members.  At the same time I notice that the current population of the area has risen to just about four million.  Of that number roughly 2% are eligible to join Mensa, or about 80,000 people.  Meaning that only about one eligible person out of 80 seeks to become a Mensa member.   An even higher ratio of eligibles to members, about a hundred to one, occurred in the Bay Area when I lived there.

This suggests that “high intelligence” is not the primary or defining characteristic of a Mensa member.  It seemed to me that the question to ask was what characteristics were common to those who joined that differentiate them from the far greater number who could have, but did not.  Or in other words, whatever it is that impels that one person in 80 to join Mensa, is what, in the end, characterizes the organization.  Over the decades, and considering Mensa’s origins in post-war England, I had developed my own idea of what qualities, not all of them admirable, might be driving that impulse.

I asked readers of a local weekly Mensa calendar that carries some brief articles and member letters to give the matter some thought and offer some suggestions regarding the motivation to join the organization.

After a couple of days I had received a response from only one other member, Member A, so for a time we continued a direct e-mail exchange separate from the calendar/newsletter.

These exchanges, other than mine,  have been edited slightly to de-identify the writers.  Member A  suggested the following:

We Mensa members have all experienced the phenomenon that [sometimes] nobody knows what we are talking about in a social setting… [but] at a Mensa gathering, everybody understands or asks the questions that help them understand.  We are able to communicate with everybody else in the room…   We never have to ask ourselves, “Will these people understand what I am talking about?”  This gives us immediate acceptance in a Mensa group… [as we all have] had the same experience.  As [the elected leader of] of a large [city] group, and a Regional Vice Chairman, I have attended Mensa events all over the US.  I always fit right in…   Mensa gives us a social setting which overcomes the obstacles that we have faced all our lives.

To which I responded:

Thanks for your thoughts, the form of which reminded me of that quiz show where the answer is given and one must respond with the question it answers.

You seem to have described what you find when you attend a Mensa event, and perhaps what many of us seek as well, that others present will understand what we are talking about, and being assured of fitting in to a group.

However, that wasn’t quite what I asked.

To recap, what I postulated was:  “Which leads me to dispute that ‘high intelligence’ is the primary or defining characteristic of a Mensa member.  I suggest that whatever it is that impels that one person in 80 to join Mensa, is what, in the end, characterizes the organization.”

From your comments I might infer that what characterizes some, perhaps many, members, the one out of 80 eligibles who actually joins, is the desire to find a place where they fit in intellectually, and that they perhaps have not found that satisfaction elsewhere.

Makes sense to me.  Makes me wonder how and why 79 others may have been able to satisfy that need elsewhere and we have not.  (If that is a fair statement of the case.)  Anyhow, I think this is an important clue as to one factor that characterizes the one in 80 eligibles who chooses to join Mensa. I wonder if there are other factors.

Regarding your motivation to join Mensa, I will share one further thought…  For many people of intelligence, they must find the kind of acceptance and understanding of which you speak, and in satisfying quantities, among professional colleagues or avocational interest groups.  For instance, I’m thinking of university faculty groups, medical, legal, scientific or technical colloquia, or in interest groups devoted to math, science, technology, music, history, art, dance or literature.

The idea suggests itself to me that there is a correlation  between high intelligence and high achievement, and that high achievement would tend to throw highly intelligent people into contact with others of similar ability, thus generating any number of communities of thought.  Which is, I suspect, where the other 79 mensa-qualified individuals may be found to have landed through some sort of natural sorting process.

From time to time it has occurred to me to wonder whether people who resort specifically to Mensa may be that tiny fraction to whom intelligence itself, with or without commensurate achievement, is a preoccupation.  As if merely being intelligent should gain them automatic acceptance.  And I wonder whether that preoccupation is a healthy one.

That is why I have felt that it is not high intelligence that characterizes Mensa.  It is more likely the collective motivation of its members, to which your story provides some clues.

Within a few days there was a similar response from another member, Member B. who again changed the question slightly, and then said:

Subject: What Do Mensans Really Have in Common?

“We are able to communicate with everybody else in the room”

The level of acceptance at a Mensa Gathering is so different than anywhere else is exactly it for me.  comfort vs discomfort  Thank you for the question, article and response.

Meanwhile, Member A had elaborated with:

I have observed that the Mensa membership is not very outstanding in the intellectual advancement of their occupation.  There seem to be rather few Ph.D. scientists like me,  I have also observed that there is little Mensa participation in places where there is a high concentration of highly intelligent people.  For example, when I was [the elected leader] of [a Mensa group in an eastern state], we had not a single member from [the local very prestigious university], where essentially the entire student body and faculty is qualified for Mensa.

This seems to support your idea that people working in an intellectual environment find their peers in their professional environment.

I earned a PhD … the easy way.  My parents supported me through a BA and a year of graduate school.  I got married, and my wife didn’t like the academic life, so I took a job [in my field] in [an Eastern city].  I took evening classes at [another top-flight university], and after a few years, I was accepted in the graduate school there.  I took night classes to fulfill all my class credit requirements while working full time, and got a fellowship to do my research.  I completed my requirements when I was [under thirty], pretty much on track for a full time student.  I ended my education totally free of debt.  I practiced [my profession] for 50 years.  What a great ego trip!  The biggest companies in the world came to me to solve their problems.

I don’t remember ever meeting another Mensa member with an advanced degree.  You are the first!  [Ed. I am sure there must be quite a few.]

To which I responded:

That is an interesting observation.  I once knew an extremely bright and able trial lawyer, often hired by big firms to litigate cases for them, who had earned his right to sit for the bar exam by “reading law” in a judge’s office, after only one year of college and one year at a law school.

He tended to brag a bit, and I thought it was because he always felt “one down” to lawyers, even inferior ones, with a law degree.

It now occurs to me that a person like that, very bright, might think of Mensa as replacing the official credential he could have earned, but didn’t.  And such a person might also place an inordinate amount of stock in an official credential, and in belonging to an organization that excluded lesser intellects.

I myself regret never finishing law school and have felt that something was lacking, despite the fact that I later earned a medical degree and practiced medicine for more than 40 years.  The ego of a narcissist, though large in size is notoriously fragile.

Earning an advanced degree.

I lived in West Philly, just off the Baltimore Ave streetcar line, when I went to medical school at what was then the Hahnemann Medical College and Hospital of Philadelphia.  It was by then fully allopathic, but we did learn a bit about homeopathy from a historical perspective.  I was married, fresh out of the Army and already had one baby when I started medical school in 1960.  Congress considered, but failed to pass a Cold War GI  Bill in 1959, then did pass it in 1965 after I had graduated, so I had no government financial help, but my Dad became terminally ill when I was half-way through school on loans, and set up financing to complement a small scholarship, so that I could  finish after he died.  After a year of internship and a year of surgical residency, with a 36-hour-on, 12-off schedule, my wife packed up the by then four kids and was ready to leave.  So I quit my residency, got a job in an older doctor’s office, and studied on my own in order to pass the then new specialty board exams for Family Practice.  Then I opened and gradually built up a solo family practice.

My student loans were small by today’s standards, about half a year’s salary for a working physician, and I had them paid off within a decade of graduation.

I don’t think people who haven’t done it have the slightest visceral understanding of how much sacrifice, time and work it takes to get an advanced degree.  But when I was 32 my wife and three kids were still eating government cheese, beans and spam.  Not that I am complaining and I haven’t thought about that in years.  In 1965 I made only $3,000 a year, but at least we lived in a hospital-provided two-bedroom apartment in San Francisco that was clean, safe, and a block from the panhandle of Golden Gate Park.

I know from experience that this is not an unusual experience for graduate students, but the grit and determination it takes to do that may have been lacking in those members of Mensa who think that their intelligence alone should be enough to qualify them for life.

As the colloquy ended I had these further random thoughts:

1)  Perhaps while 79 out of 80 mensa-qualified folks find the comfort of automatic acceptance among professional or avocational peers, that last one has not had that need met elsewhere and discovers Mensa as a solution.

2)  Geeks are the most wonderful people!

I watch a lot of movies.  One plot-formula I can occasionally enjoy is the high school film where the “unusual” kids are excluded at first and think it is because of a defect in themselves, which of course we the audience know is not true, for they are both more clever and more compassionate. In the end the tables are turned on the superficial ones and the bullies, and the geeks are relieved of their misery and find their strength and beauty.

There are various plot devices to bring out the reversal, one of which is the school reunion film, where time has worked the required magic.  The fat kid has become slender and handsome/gorgeous.  The nerd is a tech billionaire.

In these films, of course, we, the audience, are all on the side of the geeks from the start, because we can see the qualities to which the others are blinded by their inherent cruelty and stupidity.  It does help that in the Hollywood version the underlying beauty/genius of the geeks is only thinly disguised by heavy spectacles, an unflattering hairdo, dental braces, an awkward lack of self-confidence, or cringing victimhood.  Whereas in reality, geeks are sometimes truly unattractive until they are transformed by life-magic into feeling like winners.  If that happens.

Could this be the conclusion?  For those who are never fully transformed, there is Mensa?

No, that’s not quite it either.  Interesting to think about, but I think it would take a greater number of thoughtful members to answer the question fully, of what characterizes or distinguishes mensans  from other folks.


Some hears ago, upon learning that Mensa was started in England just after WW II, I began to suspect that it was both a part of, and partially the product of, the post-world-wars reaction against the British class system:  that prototypically  unfair societal rule that conferred nobility upon some and “common” status upon others merely because of birth status.

While in the invention of Mensa there may have been a vague intent to replace aristocracy with some sort of meritocracy, ironically, the founders emulated the key injustice of the thing they were most against, by tying membership in the class to a largely inborn quality, IQ, rather than to achievement.  Perhaps that was because they were focused upon a retributive exclusion of members of the aristocracy from their own favored-class status, which they effected by utilizing a quantifiable test that could never be circumvented.

While Mensa history does support that theory, at the same time knowledge of it may have biased my observations about Mensa.