Mensa is the largest and oldest high IQ society in the world. It is a non-profit organization started in 1946, and open to people who score at the 98th percentile or higher on a standardized, supervised IQ or other approved intelligence test. Mensa is formally composed of national groups and the umbrella organization Mensa International, which is based in England.
“Mensa” means “table” in Latin, and the logo is the world on a table, demonstrating the coming together of equals – like the Knights of the Round Tablenote Only less like regal knights and more like a bunch of people eating snacks and trading really bad puns while playing Trivial Pursuit.. The unofficial mascot is the owl.note Legend has it that the name was originally Mens, meaning "mind" in Latin; the story goes that this was scrapped after it was realised that this made the society's publication look like "Men's", especially when in all-caps, which in mid-20th century Britain would be interpreted to mean "Sodomites'". Whether or not this is true, it was reported on QI, which would be the first TV series to join Mensa if TV series could join.
Some people refer to Mensa as an "elite" organization in a pejorative sense. It's important to remember that Mensa's requirements are not intended to exclude, but to find and bring together highly intelligent individualsnote Because it's not like it's very polite to go asking random people on the street their IQ. While of course there are some who join to prove something to themselves, the majority join to meet people and make friends. Some find it very helpful in understanding their own intelligence to have the chance to be around others who they already know are intelligent.
Mensa does not have an established platform or set of values. Individual Mensans can and do have opinions about religion, politics, etc - but the organization as a whole does not. Inside of Mensa are multiple Member-operated Special Interest Groups (SIGs), of varying activity levels on subjects which range from religion to politics to movies to ESP to medical conditions to food. A SIG must be approved by the national organization to become official, and cannot use the words "Mensa" or "Mensan" in its name.
The events differ according to whatever a local group does, often having meetings at restaurants, or games nights, or parties at people's homes. The events are posted in a monthly newsletter (originally mailed on paper, these days posted online.) Some groups have more events than others. Most groups are centered around cities, making it harder for Mensans who are out in the country to attend regularly. Each local group is loosely led by a Local Secretary ("LocSec") who is voted on. Many local groups largest events of the year are Regional Gatherings (RG), which usually attract members from nearby areas and often last a weekend at a hotel. An RG usually includes low room rates for the group, a hospitality suite with food and socialization, a games room and a number of seminars on a range of subjects. Some Mensans make it a point to go to as many RG's as possible - there's usually one going on every weekend, somewhere, in the United States at least.
A country will have an Annual Gathering (AG) once a year. For instance, the American and Canadian AGs are usually held during the American Independence Day (July 4th) or Canada Day (July 1st) holiday weekends respectively. Sometimes World Gatherings are held, such as in 2006 to celebrate 60 years of Mensa - an estimated 2,500 members from over 30 countries attended.
American Mensa also holds a Mind Games event every year. At the event Mensans spend an entire weekend playing an assortment of games for instance, 65 were available in 2012. At the end of the weekend they rate each game, and five winners are chosen to receive the Mensa Select seal. A sampling of previous winners includes Trivial Pursuit, Magic: The Gathering, Scattegories, Taboo, and Apples to Apples.
What would you see if you went to a Mensa event? Well, of the three stated goals above, most members enjoy the social aspect. Being able to meet people who you absolutely know have a like level of intelligence is not something Mensa members get in their daily lives.note Which at first experience can be both wonderful and/or surprising. Wonderful in that it's nice to see other people thinking like you, but surprising in that some intelligent people aren't very accustomed to other people "keeping up" with their thought processes. What you find for the most part is people sitting around and talking, playing games, sharing jokes and doing other things normal people do. You’ll see all the sorts of people you would see at any social gathering. Probably not everyone you see will be a member, either. A Mensan's spouse and children are welcome at events, whether they themselves actually qualify or not. While in the general population, extroverts outnumber introverts, in Mensa this tends to be flipped with introverts in the majority.
For more information, you can visit Mensa International's website, and even has a sample test which cannot tell if you qualify for Mensa, but can give you a feel for the sort of things you will see on an actual test.
You can watch a history of Mensa from its origins that then specifically follows North American Mensa here: Part 1, Part 2.
Mensa is a name, not an acronym, so only the first letter has to be capitalized.
What are the chances a person could get in?
We'll answer the obvious question on lots of people's minds when learning about Mensa: Do I qualify?
Anyone can join if they have scored at the 98th percentile on the accepted tests. All you need is one test score - low scores on previous testing does not count against. After that requirement, any human, any color, any creed, any income level is welcome to join. Mensa likes to point out that while people call them elitist, you will find it hard to find another organization so accepting of so many different types of people.
If TV Tropes is ruining your life it's probably a given that your intelligence is at the very least in the upper 50%. That's a wide swath of humanity, and no guarantee of the top 2%, but only you can know how intelligent you are. Only one person out of every fifty qualifies, but 1 in 50 would be pretty good odds to a gambler. The odds of winning a state lottery are 1 in 120 million, yet people (even Mensans!) will blow money every day on it.
Mensa has its own test you can take. It will not tell you what your specific IQ is, simply if you qualify for Mensa or not. You must be over 14 years old to take Mensa's own test, but other IQ tests exist for any age. (For more about IQ Testing in general, see that page.) Many local groups will have a test during their RG - sometimes taking the test includes admission to the RG the full day of the test.
The best place to go for information, of course, is the International Mensa Website's listing of each country's Mensa websites. Visit the site for your home country and they will have information on how to see if you qualify, and how to contact your local group.
It cannot be stressed hard enough that if you want to be in Mensa, but don't score into it - we are sure you are smart enough not to base your perception of yourself on a number. Everyone has an intelligence they can make the most of, even if it isn't exceptional.
Tropes which apply to Mensa
Many of the tropes under the Intelligence Tropes index can be applied somewhere to someone in Mensa.
"Mensa takes no stand on politics, religion or social issues. Mensa has members from so many different countries and cultures with differing points of view, that for Mensa to espouse a particular point of view would go against its role as a forum for all points of view. Of course, individual Mensa members often have strong opinions—and several of them. It is said that in a room with 12 Mensans you will find at least 13 differing opinions on any given subject!"
All of the Other Reindeer: Mensans are not a stuck-up bunch thumbing their noses at the dummies. Quite the contrary. Many Mensans were the dorks, nerds and geeks in school and remember all too well what it was like.
Almighty Janitor: Remember: Intelligence is born, not made and college degrees are earned, not granted. There are many, many Mensa members who are college professors, authors and the like – but there are also many truck drivers, janitors, and other blue-collar workers. note There are also multiple-degree professionals who have not scored high enough to join Mensa. When you go to a convention, and everyone is dressed in their street clothes it can be really hard to tell the difference between the blue-collar and white-collar workers - which is sort of the point of Mensa. Many “almighty janitor” sorts don’t advertise their membership because it usually attracts uncomfortable “why aren’t you a rocket scientist” questions they don’t want to have to bother answering. Fact is, a high IQ does not always make a good student.
Always Someone Better: Mensa is for folks who make it into the top 2%, and it's simply the largest and most well-known of several IQ groups. The following organizations are similar to, but not parts of Mensa. If you are an even higher percentage than 98th, then you can opt to also join:
The top 1% is Intertel. Leans a little more intellectual than Mensa, but it's not really a big deal because if you qualify for it you can join Mensa, too.
The top 0.003% is The Prometheus Society. At this level and up you can't really join to be social - there's very few members in all.
The top 0.0001% is Mega Society. Get in there, and you're literally one in a million. You would certainly have the right to brag, though some argue that this far "off the chart" it's hard to gauge exactly what it means with so few examples around to study.
Ban on Politics: Mensa as an organization holds no opinions on politics - members are free to discuss as they so feel, so long as they make sure that if they are speaking to a group they let everyone know that their feelings are not representative of Mensa as a whole. When at a group function it's suggested to tread as carefully on politics and religion and other hot-button topics as you would in any other social group.
Isaac Asimov was said to have been shocked that all these intelligent people hadn't come to the same political conclusions he had.
Child Prodigy: Averted, usually. Oh, if a prodigy who is being reported about on the news is also a member of Mensa it will get pointed out, but most kids in Mensa are just kids. Really smart kids, but normal kids all the same. To be a prodigy you have to be good at something well before you should be, and intelligence doesn't always manifest itself in early musical ability or math skills.
Dumb Is Good: Some people who join Mensa hope for something fresh and noteworthy to put on their resume. Most resume services suggest leaving it off. Some workplaces see a naturally intelligent person as a threat to their own job, and thus consider them "overqualified".
The same sometimes applies to a certificate of Mensa membership displayed next to a diploma. Some consider it bad form because the top 2% is something you are born with, not something someone else can earn.
Fantastic Recruitment Drive: Nope, though you can't blame normal people for daydreaming about being recruited because the organization noticed they were smart. It would be fun to think that Mensa is out there scouring the world for super intelligent people, but it isn't - and actually a lot of intelligent people are kind of skittish about Big Brother Is Watching so that would backfire considerably. The organization is not a secret in any way and hopes people who think they are intelligent get themselves tested and apply for membership.
Anyone who says "Yeah, Mensa wanted me but I decided not to join" probably just didn't quite score in. You join or you don't. Mensa doesn't go hunting.
Great Big Brain of Everything: Averted. Not every member knows everything. You have Mensans who are great at math but not literature, and Mensans who are great at literature and not math. What does seem to be true is Mensans know what they do and don't, and are more than happy to learn more about what interests them, and take the word of someone who is more knowledgeable on a certain subject than themselves.
Improbably High IQ: Averted. You won’t be finding anyone quoting a number – indeed most people in Mensa really don’t care what your IQ is. You're in, so you're in. Fact is, the actual number score can vary from test to test, which is why entry is for "The top 2%" as opposed to some arbitrary numbernote The same way Celsius and Fahrenheit are different temperature scales, but the point at which pure water freezes is a fixed temperature with a different designation in each scale (0 degrees and 32 degrees). If a person is a member their scores have been checked by their national office, and the difference between an IQ of around 130 (very-very loosely the entry level number) and a member with an IQ of 160 is up to a lot of subjective data.
Insufferable Genius: Mensa has its share, but they’re rarer than you’d think. All Mensans are geniuses by definition, and that makes this sort of person plain old “insufferable”.
Most Mensans are better grounded in reality. It's common to say all that making it into Mensa proves is "we're just good at taking tests". If a Mensan is really being in their true form, they'll say "We're just good at taking one test." (The test that got them into Mensa)
Jack-of-All-Trades: A lot of people in Mensa know a lot of things about a lot of subjects completely outside of their area of expertise. A conversation can slide all over the place, ending up nowhere near what anyone was talking about in the first place.
Nerds Are Virgins: Um. No. Not only will most Mensa parents beg to differ, but some of the special interest groups Mensa has may make your eyes pop out. If a member is a virgin, the chances are it is by choice and not because they "can't get any".
Never Live It Down: Yep, Mensa is for high IQs. A lot of people consider Mensa to be full of itself for exactly that reason and nothing will ever budge them from that stance.
To be fair to Mensans, it's hard for a tall person to state "I am tall" as a simple fact without sounding condescending to other people. Same with being in Mensa.
Not So Different: Folks in Mensa do all the things everyone does. They forget things. They make mistakes. They forget that just because they can often figure things out and usually leap to the correct conclusion doesn't mean they're always right.
It's a joke and a polite jab among Mensans when they or another Mensan does something stupid to call out "Retest!"
It's also said among them that "Mensans can do more stupid things faster than 98% of the population"
Not That Kind of Doctor: Most large events will be attended by several different types, possibly none of which can perform surgery.
However you don't really pass the test - you qualify. It's like having your height measured. If you want to be six feet tall but measure at five foot three, you didn't fail anything, you just aren't six feet tall.
The Pirates Who Don't Do Anything: If you're looking at them expecting them to do what's generally considered "smart" based on what you've seen on TV, you'll be disappointed.
Very early on in Mensa's history one member complained that while intelligence was required to join, all they ever really did together is go out to dinner.
Poor Man's Porn: The January 1992 Mensa Bulletin cover became controversial due to its "pornographic" nature, with readers even writing in accusing the magazine of feeding their pornography addictions. The model was wearing a fairly modest negligee. Some Mensans later made fun of the discussion by complaining that one of the following covers, which was of flowers, was offensive because the flowers on the cover had their sexual organs showing.
Proud to Be a Geek: Indeed, it is nice to not only be brilliant but have the membership card to prove it.
Required Secondary Powers: See Almighty Janitor above. Many people assume a lot of things about intelligence that are sometimes associated, but not a part of intelligence. Being smart doesn't mean you like classwork, got along well with teachers (try taking a class where you can think circles around the teacher- some really don't like it!), having good interpersonal skills, etc. That's why the vast majority of Mensans are average joes, just going on about their lives and not rocket scientists.
It Runs in the Family: There's a strong genetic connection to intelligence. When one person joins Mensa, it's not uncommon for other family members to discover they qualify and join, too.
Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: One of the nice things about being among other Mensans is you don't get quite as many strange expressions when you use a long/rare/complicated word. Other Mensans aren't afraid of asking for clarification or a definition, either. On the other hand, people who have been using such words just to sound smart to the masses will sound very obvious to members.
Silent Majority: It's unfortunately not particularly surprisingnote Mensans aren't stupid, after all., in an organization based on intelligence, that there are a lot of people with social anxieties or hectic schedules. There are many people who join Mensa but don't attend any events, which can be frustrating to the local group, who are trying to get some fresh faces.
Smart People Know Latin: Played straight in the name - "Mensa" means "Table", but that was decided on back when Latin was a required high school course, too.
Sore Loser: Let's face it, you have to be in the top 2% to join - that's the rule, and the line had to be drawn somewhere. Some folks just don't qualify, and their reaction can sometimes be a bit like a Rage Quit.
Anyone who ends up in the top 3% but not the top 2% needs to understand that they're still a pretty smart cookie.
Statistically, the total of people with an IQ in only the 3% range outnumbers the top 2% and 1% ranges added together.
Super Intelligence: This is the closest you'll get in Real Life to the real thing, but as the rest of this page repeatedly points out it's not at all like it is in fiction.
They Walk Among Us: Top two percent sounds pretty rare... but it's not, really. That's 2 in every 100 people - one in fifty. That means chances are very high (provided you know at least fifty people) that you know someone who qualifies. They may not even know they qualify. Heck, YOU might qualify, troper.
2% of the population of the 2012 United States of America (310,973,921) is about 6,264,020. If that percentage of the US were rearranged into its own state it would be the population size of Missouri, and the 18th most populous state of the 50. American Mensa (The largest chapter in the world) only has 57,000 members in 2012 (which would only amount to a small city or county in the USA), so it's not that Mensa folks walk among us, but lots of smart folks walk among us. Some of them probably don't even realize they're that smart. You can apply the same math to your own country.
Translation Train Wreck: Mensa was started in England, and no one knew how big it would eventually be. They chose "Mensa" for the noble reasons mentioned above, possibly not even knowing there would eventually be a Mexican chapter of Mensa... and "Mensa" loosely means "(female) idiot" in Mexican Spanish. "¿Estas mensa?" is "Are you dumb?"
Woody Allen's short story "The Whore of Mensa," about a man who is unhappy because his wife will not discuss Ezra Pound or other sophisticated subjects, so he seeks out a service that provides college students for this purpose.
Columbo: "The Bye-Bye Sky-High IQ Murder Case" is set at a Mensa-style club, with the killer being an Insufferable Genius who considered the victim, and the other members of the club, to be inferior to his own intellect. When dealing with Columbo, he occasionally got glimpses through Columbo's façade, and by the time of the his arrest, was relieved to have been caught by someone he now considered a peer, intellectually.
Stargate Atlantis: It’s revealed in the first season that Rodney is in Mensa, and Shepard qualified but decided not to join. Atlantis evidently has its own Mensa chapter. (Presumably informal, as it would probably violate security to inform the organization of an offworld group.)
Shepard brings it up again in the 2nd Season episode "Coup D'etat"
Is talked about in the Season 3 episode "McKay and Mrs. Miller". It is learned that in one parallel universe it is Shepard who is in Mensa, and not McKay.
Columbus, Ohio Area Mensa had permission to sell buttons to benefit their local scholarship program. The buttons had a link to www.mensa-atlantis.org, but that simply redirects to the American Mensa Website now.
Las Vegas: Delinda, who is a member of Mensa, but usually acts very flighty and has a short attention span. She used to be a psychology major, and can still reel off several concepts from the field at the drop of a hat, but quit because it was boring.
Alan Statham, the neurotic Consultant radiologist, from Green Wing states that he's a member of Mensa.
Playboy: Did a pictorial in November 1985 of "The Women of Mensa" featuring young women who were Mensa members. As you read the "famous Mensa members" below, you'll see a Mensa member made "Playmate of the Month" in 1987.
Kevin & Kell: Lindesfarne and Fenton's specific IQ scores are never mentioned, just that they're high enough that Commander Kitsune gave them Mensa memberships for a wedding gift. You can't really do that, though - the scores have to be submitted by the applicant in original form or notarized before you can become a member. Maybe he just paid up their dues.
Bad Machinery: Linton has a supposedly "official" Mensa membership certificate from the Internet, whose authenticity is doubted by Jack and Sonny when they note that the logo is in Comic Sans and "genius" is misspelled. Link
The Simpsons: Lisa is invited to join the Springfield chapter of Mensa in "They Saved Lisa's Brain". The members of the Springfield Chapter are Comic Book Guy, Dr. Hibbert, Principal Skinner, Professor Frink, and Lindsay Naegle.
Lisa: My family never talks about library standards. And every time I try to steer the conversation that way, they make me feel like a nerd.
Comic Book Guy: We are hardly nerds. Would a nerd wear such an irreverent sweatshirt?
Professor Frink: Yes, we call that the "Dennis Miller Ratio."
In one episode of Extreme Ghostbusters, a ghost modeled on the Sphinx asks a riddle of its victims and renders those who answer incorrectly into helpless, mindless beings. This includes an entire chapter of Mensa.
Famous people who are current or former members of Mensa:
Isaac Asimov - author of more books than you can shake a stick atnote Asimov was a long-time member and Vice President of Mensa International, albeit reluctantly; he described some members of that organization as "brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs." He took more joy in being president of the American Humanist Association.
Marilyn vos Savant – The last person ever listed in the Guinness Book of World Records under "Highest IQ"note The category has been withdrawn. She qualifies for and is in Mega (see above under Always Someone Better), and the chance of someone else scoring that high - or even what scoring that high means - are up to subjective interpretation.
Deborah Yates - Member of the Radio City Rockettes.