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Test, Drugs, and Ethics: A Discussion With Our New Supervisory Psychologist

Dr. Renee Lexow expounds on different intelligences, privacy, stimulants, changes in test results reporting, and more

Shaped by the legendary Dr. Abbie Salny, the role of Supervisory Psychologist has been vital for American Mensa, fulfilling a Mensa International requirement and helping to maintain the validity of the Mensa Admission Test and the other tests the organization accepts for admittance.

Dr. Renee Lexow assumed the role earlier this year after the retirement of Dr. G. Frank Lawlis, who had served as Supervisory Psychologist since 2002. Dr. Lexow is a licensed psychologist educated at Ferris State University and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. She spoke recently with Timothy Brooks, CAE, American Mensa’s Director of Membership.

Timothy: By and large, psychologists have acknowledged there are forms of intelligence that don’t necessarily come through in the tests that we currently have. What intrigues you the most about this development in our understanding of intelligence?

Dr. Lexow: I love the idea of expanding the idea of intelligence in general. I love the idea of us, instead of just saying, oh you’re in this group or that group as far as intelligence goes, just because this one test said you were, to look at something that really expands our understanding of what intelligence is.

Just on a personal level, when I see someone who maybe can pick up any musical instrument and just play it, even if they’ve never used it before, they’ve never seen it before, but they can pick it up and play it and they can play it beautifully — I look at someone who can do something like that, and I’m usually in awe because I’m not very musically or artistically inclined. I look at that and I say, “Wow, that’s a real gift that that person has,” not knowing that maybe they failed out of school or maybe they don’t even know how to read and write.

I’ll tell you, intelligence in general is what initially got me interested [in psychology]. My grandfather dropped out of school in the eighth grade. He had an eighth-grade education, and when he dropped out of school he started farming. He worked really, really hard his entire life, and he built a pretty large company, a farming partnership with my dad and my uncle.

With an eighth-grade education my grandfather could do mathematics in his head faster than you could get your calculator out. […] My dad’s the same way. My dad is extremely mathematically gifted. Not just being able to do calculations but conversions from solid weight to liquid ounces and from metric back to the U.S. standard. And he can multiply and divide and do portions. It’s fascinating. Yet my dad barely passed high school. Never went to college, barely passed high school, and I started looking at that.

My grandfather was not only wonderful at math, but he was a really solid businessman. He built something from absolutely nothing. When I was in college and I started taking psychology classes […] and we were talking about crystallized versus fluid intelligence, I started saying, “Hmm, my grandfather’s crystallized intelligence….” He learned throughout the years obviously from experience but with an eighth-grade education. He very clearly didn’t have a lot of crystallized intelligence in life based on academics, yet he was a very intelligent individual, and I started being curious about that. How would one measure that? What does that mean? What if he didn’t get good grades? What if on a standard IQ test his fluid intelligence wasn’t very high either? How would we explain that? That was really my first experience with it. It just sparked this fascination in me — these tests that are supposed to measure this [do so] for some but not for others. How do we explain that?

Well, we can say that it’s a really horrible test, or we can say that maybe there’s something else, there’s another component here that we just don’t know about yet or that we’re not seeing yet. That’s the idea behind expanding intelligence testing. That’s the question that many psychologists ask themselves when they do intelligence testing: “Hey, we have kids who don’t do well on intelligence testing, yet they’re scoring off the charts academically. How do we explain that?” There’s something else there that’s not being measured right now, and maybe we know what it is. Maybe it’s a musical intelligence. Maybe it’s artistic. Maybe it’s a form of creative intelligence.

We don’t have the scales yet to measure it, and so that really pushes individuals in the field who are doing the research and test development to expand on that. I think on the flip side of that, though, things like the Wechsler and the Stanford-Binet, I don’t think they will ever include those [measurements for different intelligences], which feels sad to me because they have their scales and that’s it.

Timothy: Is there any particular grand theory or idea of intelligence that you find credible? Perhaps Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences or Piaget’s Theory of Development? Is there any specific theory you find more credible than another?

Dr. Lexow: Honestly, no, because I think they’re all right and I think they’re all wrong. This kind of goes back to the understanding that there are so many things about intelligence that we don’t know. I think that each person who developed their understanding and their theory was guided and influenced by their own experiences, but that’s psychology in general. I would say that I do not believe that intelligence is one domain.

Even though I’m not necessarily 100 percent on board with any of them, I do like Gardner’s idea of multiple modalities and looking at different forms of intelligence. However, just because someone can do something, do we say that that’s intelligence?


Testing, Privacy, and Security

An image of the American Mensa Testing Consent form

Timothy: People are becoming more proactive about safety, privacy, and security in general. Now that you know a little bit about the admission program for us, how do you see Mensa adapting to those changing notions of privacy and security? What would you do to help reduce anxiety from test-takers while keeping our liabilities in check?

Dr. Lexow: I do think that moving in the direction of having background checks for the proctors would be a good idea, and the reason for that is because, I’ve talked about this before, I have a background in forensics. Unfortunately, I have seen behind the curtains what people can and will do — not everybody but what people can and will do in certain situations. […] I’m not suggesting that all Mensans have to have a background check prior to being allowed to become part of the group, but those who have access to other individuals’ information, their credit card numbers, their addresses, age, date of birth, names, photo IDs, things like that — I do think we need to protect people who are trying to become part of our organization.

We do test some minors. […] We have identified minors, the elderly, and those with disabilities need to be protected even more so than perhaps the average person, and we’ve identified that at a governmental level. This is why we have state laws protecting certain groups. I think the concept of credit card fraud is not new to anyone, and my concern is not just protecting the candidates or the prospective candidates but also for protecting the organization. We’re talking about personal security versus test security, and test security is important as well because if a test is compromised, then how do you pick and choose and say who got in legitimately and who didn’t?

Timothy: We’ve seen that with the Raven’s and tests like that where it’s been compromised. One of the recent hotbed topics with the testing program is the idea of recreational use of prescription drugs. First, in your opinion, how rampant of a problem is it?

Dr. Lexow: I think it depends on the environment. Academically, it’s a huge problem. It’s a huge problem because people will use stimulants to study longer, to stay awake, to be more alert, to enhance those things. But in reality, let’s be clear: Using a stimulant when you don’t have something like ADHD […] has the opposite effect. For individuals who have attention and focus problems and take a stimulant, it calms them down. It allows them to focus.

There is some evidence to suggest that small amounts of stimulants do improve performance but only slightly. We’re talking about having your intelligence tested on a day that you didn’t get a good night’s sleep versus on a day you feel very well-rested and without stress. Yes, it does improve it, but it doesn’t give you the answers. It doesn’t actually increase your knowledge.

I do think it’s important to have that disclaimer in there, but there’s no way you can control for it because I just don’t think anybody is necessarily going to think, Hmm, I’m going to take the Mensa admission test. I am going to get high before I go do that. We typically see it in academics, during exams when a student has studied for 36 hours straight to do projects, and they take it to stay awake so that they can go take their exams. They don’t usually do phenomenally well, to be clear. You wouldn’t be able to limit that because you can’t say, “Okay, well no one’s allowed to drink any caffeine beforehand because that’s also a stimulant.”

Timothy: Right. When you were talking about mild stimulants, in my head I was thinking having a cup of coffee while taking the test or something like that. In your mind, is it less about a blanket policy against any substance and more a notion of test-takers self-identifying? That would relieve the organization and proctors of that function and put it more on test-takers to understand that those substances can impact the score and we don’t recommend it.

Dr. Lexow: I would say that we don’t support or recommend that anyone uses anything that is a mind-altering medication or drug unless it’s prescribed by a physician.

I do think it’s a problem. You’re talking about an illegal behavior before you come in and take a test. I understand, but at the same time, yes, it might improve performance a little bit, but again, it doesn’t give you the knowledge to take the test. I would argue that if someone says that they took a stimulant like Ritalin, which would be obviously at a higher level than drinking a cup of coffee or having a Coca-Cola, and it improves their score significantly, I would then question whether or not they actually have a medical need for it. Because in reality, when you look at the order of stimulants, you have a cup of coffee, a Coca-Cola, and then you have above that Ritalin, and then above that you would have cocaine, essentially.

Timothy: Yeah and amphetamines.

Dr. Lexow: Amphetamines, right, exactly. Are you telling me that somebody who does cocaine is going to do awesome on the Mensa test?

Test Score Reporting

A photo of individuals getting ready to take the official Mensa Admission Test at the 2019 Annual Gathering.
Several individuals prepare to take the official Mensa Admission Test at the 2019 Annual Gathering. Sandy Marak

Timothy: One of the changes that you’ve already had us implement is changing the way we report scores to individuals. With that in place for a couple of months and getting some feedback from individuals, can you explain for members the reasoning behind removing percentiles from score reports and removing conversion charts?

Dr. Lexow: The reason that we did is because this is more about ethics, and because we are performing testing and because I’m a licensed individual who is overseeing these individuals, I have to make sure that everyone is still following the ethical guidelines. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, well the person who violated the ethics was unlicensed. I’m supervising someone; it’s my job to make sure that that person is also following ethical guidelines.” There are ethical guidelines, and we’re doing this nationally, which means that the ethics change and the state laws change, obviously, state to state.

To err on the side of caution to ensure that we are following the more stringent ethical guidelines and to make sure we’re not violating any of the guidelines, we cannot, as psychologists, give someone their score without helping interpret it for them.

Timothy: That’s something that the vast majority of the admission program lacks the expertise to do.

Dr. Lexow: Correct. In reality, it is unethical for me to administer, even for me to administer a psychological evaluation, and hand them the report, even with the interpretation in the report. I have to have a feedback session. I have to explain to them what it means. They have to have an opportunity to ask those questions so that they fully understand what that score means.

Pandemic Therapy

Timothy: What’s it like being a therapist during a pandemic?

Dr. Lexow: It is interesting, to say the least. It has created a whole new level of anxieties in individuals, and we’re seeing some are having responses that are similar to trauma responses. The social isolation has worsened a lot of people’s symptoms; individuals with whom I had made progress over the past two, three years are backsliding. Not everybody, but some of them. It’s been interesting. I’ve done the telehealth. A lot of people don’t like it because there is an emotional connection that needs to happen when you’re in the room to build rapport, and it’s kind of a miss when you’re performing via telehealth.

Timothy: Do you have any tips for our members for reducing anxiety and stress in these times?

Dr. Lexow: Yes, absolutely. Limit your involvement in social media and/or watching the news. Now, I’m not saying to be uniformed. What I’m saying is limit yourself. If you find that you’re reading news articles for hours and hours and hours and your anxiety is going up or your depression is increasing, stop reading for today. Limit yourself.

I would say it is important that with every conversation that you have, you have to make it a point to talk about at least one positive thing that’s going on. Two would be better. Doesn’t matter what it is. It could be that the weather was nice. It doesn’t have to be anything specifically about you, and it doesn’t have to be big. It could be that you saw a child playing, and that really helped you feel happy, or you saw someone do something nice for someone else, that somebody’s still holding open the door for you and that felt really good. That was a nice thing. It’s important to talk about the positive things because the negativity only exacerbates anxiety and depression.

I would say if they can video chat to video chat. It’s helpful. It’s not ideal, but it’s helpful reaching out and actually talking to people [because] for those who stick to emails and text messages, it’s not enough of a human connection.

— with Charles Brown