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Fri, 16/08/2013
Stephen Lewis, The Press
Journalist Stephen Lewis was recently invited to sit a Mensa IQ test in York. Find out how he got on…


It was the question about the cannibals that got me. That and the one about where the Joneses lived.  First, those cannibals. I can’t remember all the details: they are lost in the haze of panic that had descended on me. But the question involved a big game hunter who had been found dead, with an unfired, loaded gun beside him. He was being hunted by cannibals, and was also deep in man-eating lion territory.

Which of the following is certainly true, went the question: He died of fright and was eaten by a lion He died of natural causes and was eaten by a cannibal He ate a lion cub and died of an upset stomach He jumped over the moon and broke his neck when he fell.

Okay, the details are hazy and I may have got those options slightly wrong. There was certainly a logic to the choices given, and it should have been possible to work out which was true. But for the life of me, my frenzied brain couldn’t do it.

“You’ve had 15 minutes,” came the remorseless voice of Richard Arthurs. “You have three minutes left.”

Three minutes? To answer – I scanned the question paper – an impossible number of questions.

I ticked a box at random, and moved on to the next question. The Joneses, the Harrises, the Smiths and the Waltons live in a row of four terraced houses. The Waltons insist they have to live at the end of the row. The Harrises won’t live next to Waltons, the Smiths’ house has three bedrooms, and Mrs Jones has been having an affair with the window cleaner (okay, again those probably aren’t the correct options. Blame my state of panic: at this stage, any semblance of logic was beyond me). Question: which house do the Joneses live in?

I was still pondering the possibilities when Richard’s voice came again. “Time’s up. Please put your pens down.”

Why on earth, I thought, would anyone put themselves through this voluntarily?

In case you were wondering, I recently sat the Mensa test – purely for the purposes of this article and not because I had the remotest possibility of passing.

But with the Annual Gathering of Mensa taking place in York in September, now seemed as good a time as any.

Mensa is the society for brain-boxes. It calls itself ‘The High IQ Society’, and to be eligible to join, you have to be among the most intelligent two per cent of people in the population.

Richard, a meteorologist, is both a Mensan himself and Mensa’s North Yorkshire test administrator. On top of which he also seems a perfectly nice bloke.

“So what’s your IQ?” I asked, when I turned up at the testing centre (otherwise known as the Priory Street Centre). He gave me a smile which seemed to suggest ‘off the chart’, then said: “Mensans never discuss their IQ.”

My fellow candidates were a mixed bunch: perhaps quieter than average, and not obviously super-intelligent. They included a teenager accompanied by her mum; a young man who drained the water-cooler dry in record time; and a youth who’d come all the way from Cambridgeshire.

We eyed each other warily: and then the test began. There were two tests, in fact. You only have to pass one to be invited to join Mensa. The first takes 30 minutes, and consists of a series of drawings and shapes. You have to recognise patterns and mark your answers on a tick-box sheet.

The second is longer and involves more drawings and shapes, but also word tests, number tests (where you have to look at a sequence of numbers and say which one is missing) and logic puzzles (like the one about the lions and cannibals).

I sailed through the first few questions in Test 1. I’m obviously a genius, I thought. Then they began to get harder. And harder. And then Richard started saying “you have three minutes left”.

I answered nowhere near all the questions before Richard called time. He collected the answer sheets, and after a brief break the second test began. Again, I started okay. And again, the questions got harder as the time ran out. By the time I got to the cannibals, I felt as though I’d be happy to be eaten by a lion if it only got me out of there.

“How did you get on?” Richard asked me, again with that nice smile. I restrained the urge to do him some damage.

Most of my fellow contestants quickly beat a retreat. Only one would talk to me: a nice middle-aged woman who gave her name only as Chris.

What on earth did she want to take this test for? Pure curiosity, she said. She has a PhD and works in the NHS, so had nothing to prove. But what interested her about Mensa’s IQ test was that it is supposed to assess natural intelligence – not how much you can remember, but whether you can think. Did she feel it really did assess her intelligence? She hummed. “I’m quite sceptical. There are different forms of intelligence.”

The worst thing was the time limit, she agreed. “If you didn’t see the solution straight away, you had no time to think about it.”

And that’s the big difference between this test and the IQ tests you can do online. There, there is no time limit. You’ll get a score of 132 and be told you’re a near genius.

Try it for real with Richard Arthur breathing down your neck and the cold reality hits home. You’re not… That won’t be confirmed for another two weeks, fortunately. The answers have to be sent away to be checked by an educational psychologist, you see. I may or may not tell you how I got on…


There are more than 21,000 Mensans in Britain.
The Mensa IQ test costs £22.50 to take. It will next be held in York in December.
This year, from September 20 to 23, Mensa’s national Annual Gathering will be held in York, at the Park Inn on North Street.




Originally published in The Press, York on 3 August 2013; reproduced with kind permission of Stephen Lewis. Since writing the article Stephen has joined Mensa having scored in the top two percent.

Find out more about IQ tests.