Imagine the world is a high school. You’ve got the big, jock countries like Australia, South Africa, and the USA. You’ve got the self-consciously old-fashioned intellectuals like Britain and France, and then you’ve got the cool kids everyone wants to hang out with (yeah, Italy, we’re looking at you). But what about the brainboxes? Who in our analogy are the nerds spending their spare time in the science labs while the other countries are learning to smooch and bum smokes?
Well, thanks to some slightly dubious science, we possibly have the answer! Between 2002 and 2006, a joint British-Finnish study carried out IQ tests in countries all over the world, then ranked each nation by their average national score. While IQ tests may not be perfect – they miss intelligence defects even clever people suffer from, like dysrationalia, which is a fancy way of saying “choosing the simplest answer to avoid having to think too hard” – and this particular study was controversial for its methodology, it still makes for a fun comparison. Want to discover which countries are getting beaten up for their lunch money every morning? Read on.
10. Austria (average IQ: 100)
We’re gonna go out on a limb here and suggest not many of us associate intelligence with wearing lederhosen. But maybe that’s why we’ve all been underestimating Austria for so long. They’re willing to dress like a person with their fashion sense surgically removed because they don’t care what we think. They’re too busy using those gigantic sausage-and-beer-fueled brains of theirs to pay attention to mere mortals like us.
Part of Austria’s geniusness (that’s a word, right?) may be due to its comparative wealth. The CIA World Factbook ranks it the 33rd richest nation by GDP per capita, which doesn’t sound all that impressive until you realize the much-larger UK ranks at 40th. Since income and education tend to go hand in hand, it stands to reason that Austria might have more brains to spare, especially given its tiny population. Only 8.474 million people call this spectacular alpine nation home, fewer than Czech Republic, fewer than Cuba, fewer even than London.
Historically, the Austrians have put those big brains of theirs to good use. Their Hapsburg dynasty once ruled most of Europe.
9. Switzerland (average IQ: 101)
A short hop across a near-impenetrable barrier of frozen mountains from Austria, Switzerland is the place to be if you want cuckoo clocks, triangular chocolate, guns, or Nazi gold. It’s also home to some of the smartest people on the planet. Yep, the Swiss apparently value intellectualism almost as much as they value morally-dubious neutrality, and they have the historical figures to back up this claim. It was in the capital of Bern that the German-born Albert Einstein dreamed up his general theory of relativity.
So what is it about living in this bracing mountain environment that turns the Swiss into such geniuses? Well, they’re rich for starters. Seriously, if you were to grab Switzerland by the ankles, turn it upside down, and shake it vigorously, enough spare change would fall out to finance at least three globe-straddling empires. The multilingualism of the Swiss may help, too. At the Federal level, Switzerland gives German, French, and Italian equal weight, which may be significant as some studies link speaking multiple languages with increased intelligence.
On the other hand, maybe they’re just spending so much time avoiding fighting wars that they’ve got time to read all those brainy books gathering dust on other nation’s shelves?
8. Mongolia (average IQ: 101)
A great, big expanse of vast steppe in Asia, Mongolia has desert, mountains, yurts, and almost nothing else. We mean that in all seriousness. Despite being big enough to squash Texas and California flat and still have room for Montana, it is home to barely 3 million people, most of whom could spend their whole lives swinging a string of dead cats and never get even remotely close to hitting anything. One apparent upside of all this space? Intelligence. Lots of intelligence.
When you think about it, Mongolia scoring so highly is kinda unexpected. While breathtaking, their country ain’t rich. The CIA World Factbook ranks them at 122nd for GDP per capita, only slightly above Albania. But it seems what little money they have, they spend wisely. The country ranks surprisingly high on education, beating out even some European systems. On a perhaps more controversial note, some “race realists” have suggested Mongolians may just naturally have better visual-spacial awareness, giving their overall IQ scores an additional boost.
Whatever the truth, it seems that one thing is clear. If you’ve ever had a hankering for sparkling intellectual discussion in the emptiest landscape you’ll ever see, go to Mongolia.
7. Iceland (average IQ: 101)
…annnd we’re back in Europe, this time in the far, frozen lands of the north, where “banking” is synonymous with “crime” and summer is just God’s cruel joke breaking up the punishment of winter. Yep, it’s the teeny tiny island nation of Iceland, a place that was once just a glorified fishing port, became a casino banking mecca, and now is famous as one of the richest, safest countries on Earth. Evidently, all that safety has combined with all that enforced time spent indoors escaping the weather to create a nation that seriously likes to study.
What’s amazing about this is that you wouldn’t have put money on Iceland hitting so high up these rankings a few decades ago. Prior to the 1980s, the very-literally-named land of ice was a kind of mid-ranking boring outpost of fishermen. The economy exploded in the ’80s, blew up even larger in the ’90s, and somehow managed to claw out of the devastating financial crash by turning the entire country into one of the world’s tourist hotspots. See, that’s those clever Icelandic brains for you, thinking their way out of a pickle that doesn’t involve reckless borrowing or blowing the national budget on lottery tickets.
6. Italy (average IQ: 102)
Oh come on, this isn’t fair! Italy already has class, great looks, a cool persona, and more sun than most of us will ever see in a lifetime. And now you’re telling us they’ve also got a world-beating IQ? We don’t wanna moan and say that life isn’t fair, but clearly life isn’t fair.
The cause of high Italian IQs is as mysterious to us as it is to you. Going on a long Google search mainly turned up blogs with names like “race realist” and “not politically correct” so we decided it’d probably be more fun – not to mention informative – for all of us if we just cracked some light-hearted jokes about pasta and pizza, while secretly wishing we were Italian. Or we could, y’know, point back at Italy’s long, illustrious past as the seat of the Roman Empire, a multi-nation state that made staggering scientific and engineering advances at a rate usually reserved for countries in the grip of the industrial revolution, while also producing art and literature that would still stand up some 2,000 years later, but where would be the fun in that?
5. Taiwan (average IQ: 104)
So, this is a little controversial. We’ve included Taiwan on this list of countries, while excluding Hong Kong, despite the international community recognizing both as part of China. Well, it’s true that Taipei doesn’t have a seat at the UN and isn’t included on any other official list of countries. But it’s also completely self-governing, calls itself separate from China, and functions like a totally independent state, so we’re including it here. And that’s just as well, because Taiwan’s average IQ is enough to leave other countries eating its dust.
Founded after Chairman Mao’s victorious forces chased his enemies off the Chinese mainland at the conclusion of the Chinese civil war, Taiwan today is a prosperous, forward-thinking nation that also just happens to look darn fine in a picture. You better believe Taipei uses that prosperity to invest in its young. A 2015 study by the OECD comparing data from 76 studies placed Taiwan’s education at 4th best in the entire world (in case you’re wondering, the USA came in at a mildly-embarrassing 28th). Gee, it’s almost like an intelligent population might somehow be linked to investing heavily in your education system.
4. China (average IQ: 105)
If any Taiwanese readers were hoping to beat out their old nemesis in these rankings, we’ve got some bad news. The original study this article was based on had mainland China just edging out its breakaway state, with an average IQ of 105 compared to Taiwan’s 104. Ouch. Well, thems the breaks, Taipei. At least you guys can comfort yourself at night with your functioning democratic system.
Actually what’s driving China’s high score is unfortunately hard to say. Beijing is notoriously uncooperative about divulging actual, useful data relating to a lot of fields, and the OECD education rankings just miss China entirely. Still, China certainly has its fair share of very smart people. The Middle Kingdom is competing with and outperforming the US in key technological sectors, and much of the most interesting cutting edge tech is now coming with a ‘made in China’ stamp.
On the other hand, China is also notorious for grade inflation and handing out junk degrees from its universities, so we’re not really sure what this tells us. Except, perhaps, for reinforcing our introductory point about the IQ study this article is based on being more a guideline than the last word on the subject.
3. Japan (average IQ: 105)
Still in Asia, the next country on our list is one famous for technology, cuteness, and generally doing so many things in such a weird way that it fueled basically 90% of early internet memes. Yep, Japan is another world leader in the being really, ridiculously smart stakes, romping home with an average IQ score of 105. That’s over 100 times the intelligence of the average person you’ll find dynamite fishing, kids!
We’re all familiar with the Japanese stereotypes: absurdly hard-working, absurdly dedicated to their jobs, and absurdly stressed out by their high pressure schooling. But, hey, it seems to be working. In that 2015 study we told you about earlier, the OECD ranked Japan joint 4th with Taiwan for education, where math and science were concerned. Countries 3rd, 2nd, and 1st were… well. You’ll be finding that out as you keep on reading.
Given their great education system and general braininess, it’s perhaps no surprise that Japan spent decades at the forefront of technological change. For a long, long time, everything exciting and important was coming out of Tokyo.
2. South Korea (average IQ: 106)
Did you know South Korea comes 3rd in global education rankings? Well: surprise! And get used to these references, by the way, because from here on out, all countries are ones that are going at the education rankings like gangbusters. The democratic brother of despotic North Korea, South Korea is a hi-tech paradise, with world-beating internet, widespread use of smartphones, and all other things that point to an entire industry of clever people doing clever things to collectively make the world a cleverer place. And all this in a country that manages to cram more than 51 million people into a place smaller than Iceland (pop: 334,252).
Of course, a lot of South Korea’s intelligence wins likely come from it being a wealthy country with a sterling education system. Not that it was always this way. Back in the dark ages of the mid-20th century, Pyongyang was actually richer than its southern neighbor by a significant margin. North Korea was blessed with the monetary backing of the Soviets, and had a huge amount of mineral wealth. South Korea, by contrast, had to transform itself through sheer brute willpower alone. Even ignoring the IQ scores, we guess it paid off.
1. Singapore (average IQ:108)
When Singapore declared independence from Malaysia in 1965, it was one of the poorest states in the world. Literacy was at third world levels. Not a desirable start for a country that wanted to be a world leader in education, attainment, and wealth. Yet, somehow, Singapore managed to pull it off. From being a tiny island with no natural resources, its exceptionally long-serving leader Lee Kuan Yew managed to turn his home into a global powerhouse. In doing so, he raised the education level of Singaporeans so high that they cruised to an easy first place in these very rankings.
According to the OECD, Singapore has the single greatest education system in the world. The only other territory that hits the same level on the IQ rankings is Hong Kong, but since that ain’t a country, it doesn’t get a spot on this list! The city state – one of only three left in existence – is also home to fantastic infrastructure and cleanliness that is so strictly enforced you can get publicly caned just for chewing gum. Whether that’s worth it just to live surrounded by a country of brainboxes is another matter entirely.