The Origin of the Wonderlic Test (and Which Manning Scored Higher)

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If book smarts translated to field sense, NFL coaches would be desperately recruiting mathletes. But a soaring SAT score is the last thing you need to excel on the gridiron.

According to Jonah Lehrer, author of the 2009 bestseller How We Decide, “The velocity of the game makes thought impossible.” Instead of thinking, athletes rely on fast-twitch intuition, gained from countless hours of training. They need to build instincts.

Yet, every year, rookies in the NFL take the Wonderlic test before they enter the league. The 12-minute IQ exam dates back to World War II, when the government used it to select candidates for pilot training. Then, in the 1970s, coach Tom Landry co-opted the Wonderlic to help him find future Dallas Cowboys. Before long, the test became synonymous with football. New editions of the iconic Madden video game even come loaded with a souped-up exam.

Still, test results of NFL stars rarely correspond with their quarterback ratings. Terry Bradshaw (Wonderlic Score: 15) may never be a finalist for a MacArthur Fellowship, but that didn’t stop him from winning four Super Bowls and serving as a TV football analyst for nearly 30 years.

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So why does the NFL use the test? Some speculate that a low score gives team owners an excuse if they want to bail on a high-salary player. Others think the exam is just good branding—after all, other pro leagues don’t test for IQ. In 2005, The Wall Street Journal picked the three teams with the highest Wonderlic scores, dubbed them “Team Protractor,” then monitored their seasons. They went a dismal 14-34.

While the Wonderlic test is a major part of the NFL’s recruitment process, the Wonderlic Corporation is uneasy reciprocating. After all, the company tagline is “pinpointing accuracy.” If Team Protractor was any measure, they may need a new angle.

As for the Mannings, not only has Eli won more Super Bowls, he reportedly outscored Peyton on the Wonderlic 39 to 28.

This article appeared in the September/October 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine.

April 24, 2012 - 9:29am
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