Writer Marilyn vos Savant (born 1946) has an IQ of 228, the highest ever recorded. Someone with a “normal” intelligence will score somewhere around 100 on an IQ test. To meet someone with an IQ approaching 200 is certainly impressive. Vos Savant has lived a quiet life since childhood. Her parents made sure she maintained an average upbringing, unfettered by the intrigue that would’ve mounted if the public ever knew about her high IQ Of course, secrets like that are hard to maintain and, eventually, word got out.
Vos Savant used her fame to do something she’d always dreamed of: writing. She’s published several books and still writes a weekly column for Parade magazine. In the early ‘90s, vos Savant suffered a series of vicious attacks after answering a reader’s question in her column. She surmounted that trial with elegance and grace.
Marilyn vos Savant's intelligence quotient (IQ) score of 228, the highest ever recorded, brought the St. Louis-born writer instant celebrity and earned her the sobriquet "the smartest person in the world." Although vos Savant's family was aware of her exceptionally high IQ score of 228 on the Stanford-Benet test when she was 10 years old (she is also recognized as having the highest IQ score ever recorded of a child), her parents decided to withhold the information from the public in order to avoid commercial exploitation and assure her a normal childhood.
Ventures into Writing
Bored with college, vos Savant left Washington University after two years and launched a career in stocks, real estate, and investment. Her real interest had always been in becoming a writer, but she realized that she first needed to establish a financial base with which to support herself. Within five years, her personal investments afforded her the financial independence to become a full-time writer. Vos Savant wrote novels, short stories, and magazine and newspaper pieces, mostly political satire, under a pseudonym.
Release of her IQ Scores
Vos Savant's attempt at anonymity ended in 1985 when The Guinness Book of World Records obtained her IQ test scores from the Mega Society, a group whose membership is restricted to those with only the highest of the high IQ scores. As members' IQ scores must be higher than 99.999 percent of the general population, membership has been limited to as few as 30 people.
Most people's intelligence scores fall within a narrow range on either side of the "normal" score of 100; by contrast, vos Savant's IQ score of 228 is more than double that of a person with normal intellect and 88 points higher than the genius level.
With the publication of her IQ scores in The Guinness Book of World Records, vos Savant became the focus of media attention. Hardly the stereotypical stuffy supergenius, the outgoing, fun-loving vos Savant became a favorite on the talk-show circuit. By the time her two children from her first marriage reached college age, vos Savant decided to move to New York City and enjoy her newfound celebrity.
In 1987, she married Robert K. Jarvik, the surgeon who developed the mechanical artificial human heart that bears his name. Together, they follow pursuits both intellectual and jovial—the latter of which including ballroom dancing lessons. As vos Savant admitted in a 1994 People article, "My husband's not so hot at the tango, but don't tell him."
In 1994, vos Savant published her book I've Forgotten Everything I Learned in School! A Refresher Course to Help You Reclaim Your Education. Despite the catchy title, the volume, according to Booklist reviewer Denise Perry Donavin, is not a piece of "pop psychology or mnemonics," but a series of exercises designed to help readers strengthen their mental focus.
Two years later, vos Savant released The Power of Logical Thinking: Easy Lessons in the Art of Reasoning … and Hard Facts about Its Absence in Our Lives. In this book, the author "shows us how even the most well educated can be semi-literate in the arts of reasoning and problem solving," according to Patricia Hassler, also writing in Booklist.
"We only use something like 10 percent of our brain, anywhere between 5 and 15 percent—I don't know what the current estimates are," vos Savant told the reference book Newsmakers. In her view, humans are capable of much more. But motivation is the key:
"So how much of a role is motivation playing day-to-day, when we are talking about much smaller differences? And is it measuring, perhaps—this is just a wild, out-of-the-blue kind of a guess— does it measure one person using 17.7 percent of their brain versus some one person who uses 17.8 percent? Is that what IQ does? I doubt it. But it's one of those things where personality—or whatever you might call it—plays a great role, and I happen to have [it]."
When asked if people with special gifts of intelligence felt an obligation to society, vos Savant replied:
"I think it would be totally wrong of me to just reap the benefits of society while other people are out there digging the roads and building the schools and all of that. I wouldn't dream of it. However, I feel that we all have this responsibility and not just those of us who happen to be able to score well on intelligence tests. I think we all bear a great responsibility to give back to society. We can not give as much as we can gain. There's no way. Society is offering us so much. I don't think we could do enough to give it back, but I think we all bear a social responsibility and I think I bear one too. And I rather think that writing is an excellent way to give back to people what they have given to me."
In 1986, Parade Magazine wrote a profile on vos Savant that was so popular, they gave her a column titled, “Ask Marilyn.” In it, she answers academic and logic problems. In 1990, one of her readers wrote in with an inquiry about the Monty Hall Problem, a then-obscure probability puzzle, and her response sparked major debate. Her answer was correct. Shockingly, however, over 10,000 scholars wrote in, saying she was wrong, using sexist, derogatory, and vicious name-calling. Scott Smith, PhD mathematician from the University of Florida, indignantly wrote:
You blew it, and you blew it big! Since you seem to have difficulty grasping the basic principle at work here, I’ll explain. After the host reveals a goat, you now have a one-in-two chance of being correct. Whether you change your selection or not, the odds are the same. There is enough mathematical illiteracy in this country, and we don’t need the world’s highest IQ propagating more. Shame!
The absurdity of outrage grew to such an extent that, in 1992, game show host Monty Hall (after whom the probability problem was named), gave an interview to The New York Times. He went into great detail, explaining why vos Savant was correct. There are different psychological factors at play on a live game show when money is at stake, thus altering the variables.
Unfortunately, over 10,000 scholars did not write in with letters of apology. However, professor Scott Smith was gracious enough to say, “After removing my foot from my mouth, I’m now eating humble pie.”
Despite the inherent interest in a person with an IQ of 228 and the national outrage over her (correct) Monty Hall response, vos Savant still lives a quiet life out of the spotlight. She continues to write her column for Parade Magazine and publish books. In 2002, she wrote Growing Up: A Classic American Childhood. It features practical advice for families, featuring everything from car maintenance to choosing a career. Of course, it’s also brimming with activities for children, ages three to 18. No doubt, a preservation of privacy can be found within those pages. Her parents protected her from the spotlight when they discovered they had a child prodigy on their hands and she remains free from the pressures of fame even today.
Further Reading on Marilyn vos Savant
If you’d like to read a few features on vos Savant, have a look at any of these additional sources:
Booklist, May 1, 1994; March 1, 1996
Chicago Tribune, September 29, 1985
Detroit News, September 26, 1985, March 1, 1986
Los Angeles Times, August 27, 1987
Parade, June 22, 1986
People, July 27, 1987; March 7, 1994
Time, April 6, 1987
USA Today, March 16, 1986
Updates by Kit Kittelstad