Inside the largest gathering of certified “geniuses” in human history, held in Boston this week, sits a table covered in stacks of stickers.
The stickers are round dots, in four colors, and each person must pick a sticker and place it on their badge for the Annual Gathering of Mensa. It is part of a hugging game they play.
A green dot means “hug freely.” Yellow means “ask first.” Red is a clear “no.” A Blue dot means you are single.
“It’s kind of like a traffic light,” said Tom Schnorrenberg, a 40-year-old from Tewksbury who was staffing the sticker table, dressed in a t-shirt that read “Wicked Smaht,” the slogan of the Boston Mensa chapter.
Collected on the second and third floors of the Sheraton Boston this week are 2,300 people, who share something both quantifiable and abstract: membership in the world’s most-famous “high IQ” society.
Eligibility for Mensa is limited to those who have scored in the top 2 percent on one of the certified “intelligence” tests they recognize, which is an impressive, but not rare accomplishment. Millions of Americans would meet the threshold. Yet only 56,000 people in the United States, and about that number in the rest of the world, have felt the need to go through the process of certification.
They are not in Mensa because they qualify to be in Mensa. They are in Mensa because they want to be in Mensa. Those who come to the Annual Gathering – a subculture within this very particular subculture – are those who find their comfort zone around others just like them. Some get real serious with the whole “hug freely” thing.
There are two routes to membership: the easiest is if you have already scored in the top 2 percent of one of the 200 accepted qualifying tests, which include many of the standard academic tests that most everyone has been forced to take at some point in their scholastic lives, from the Stanford-Binet to the SAT, which has a threshold score of 1250. (Qualifier: that score only counts if it’s from 1974-1994, when the test changed. For tests taken before 1974, the minimum is 1300.)
Then there are those who walk in the front door and sit down to take Mensa’s own exam. These are the people who have always suspected that their IQ was very high, and now they are ready to put their ego on the line and find out, once and for all. Literally. Because once you take the Mensa exam, you can never take it again.
Nora Doherty, who passed the test last year, and had come from Chicago for her first Annual Gathering – known this year as “Brilliance in Beantown.” She said the moment she got accepted into Mensa felt like a salve to what she described as her “imposter syndrome.” She had dropped out of high school, but eventually graduated from law school, but still felt like she was going to be found out. “Getting into Mensa made it feel like it wasn’t a fluke,’’ she said.
The point of the conference, regulars say, is not to gather as some superior group. Instead, it is an attempt to have their own corner where they can be left alone to get, for lack of a better word, nerdy.
“Nothing makes me feel better than having an audience where I don’t have to repeat myself,” said Mark Williams, of Ossining, N.Y., who was attending his 29th consecutive Annual Gathering.
Many people interviewed described themselves as socially awkward, and said they found their tribe with fellow Mensans. The Annual Gathering, or AG, is like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for those who like being around people who like being intelligent.
The Annual Gathering features loads of lectures on everything from Burning Man to JFK’s autopsy, a rock-paper-scissors tournament, the hugely popular Mr. Mensa pageant, a giant game room filled with piles and piles and piles of board games – the games usually roll all night – and all sorts of excursions around the city, including the main event for the blue dots: the Gen X and Gen Y pub crawl.
‘Nothing makes me feel better than having an audience whereI don’t have to repeat myself.’
Sean Guerino, 36, who hosts a Mensa dinner in Harvard Square every month, said he was your classic awkward nerd, but “when I walked into my first Mensa event, I knew. I sat down, and I thought, ‘I’ve never met these guys before, but I know these guys.’ Other people might talk about shoes. Mensans talk about their origin, their evolution, their effect on the spinal column.”
Other than the annual gathering, the main social hub of the Mensa world is American Mensa Facebook page, which is notorious as a hub of ferocious intellectual debates. “Imagine any Internet argument and ratchet up the intellectual aptitude by two and the research by 10,” Doherty said. People love demanding that their enemies be retested.
“All these people have in common is that they scored in the 98th percentile on a particular test,” said Victoria Liguez, a Mensa spokesperson. “Everything else is up for grabs.”
On Wednesday, in a small conference room on the third floor of the Sheraton, a dozen-and-a-half people — including a home-schooled high school kid, a Korean college student, a guy who had just read about the conference that day — took out their number two pencils and began the Mensa exam, which costs $25 at the conference. There is another exam offered on Saturday at 9 a.m.
The Mensa exam is actually two exams, and a person need only score in the top 2 percent on one of them to gain entry. The exam is pass/fail; you’re in or you’re out.
The first of the two exams, the Mensa Admission Test, takes up the majority of the two hours, and begins with a very complicated story read by the proctor, then six rounds of multiple-choice questions that deal with logic, abstract reasoning, spacial reasoning, and word problems, followed by a seventh round where you answer questions about the story you heard before all those brain-twisting questions. And it all happens at an incredibly stressful pace, with seconds to tackle a question or move on if you hope to get through before the section before the proctor’s iPhone announces that eight minutes are up.
The second test is the Wonderlic, a 50-question, 12-minute sprint that moves even faster. Most people do not finish the test, which has become famous as the mental exam administered to prospects at the NFL combine. Johnny Manziel reportedly scored highest among quarterbacks this year with a 32. Tom Brady is said to have put up a 34. For Mensa admission, you need a 37.
Taking the two tests back-to-back is a marathon while sprinting, and it delivers a real beating on the brain. At the final “pencils down,” it was a room full of panting brains.
Carolyn Walsh handed in her bubblesheat, stood at the front of the room, and simply had no clue how she had done. But she did know why she was there, had a clear answer to the existential question of why this was a club she needed to be in, what proof she would find in this percentile.
“My sister took the test about 10 years ago and passed,” said Walsh, a 58-year-old tax preparer from Wareham, “We compete at everything. She has diabetes, and we prick ourselves and compete over who has higher blood sugar. So this has been burning me up for 10 years.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.