The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
July 27, 2020

US president Donald Trump has been boasting about his ability to remember five words in a row. Let him boast, says Terry Prone.

You have to sympathise with US President Donald Trump over the cognitive tests. Well, no, actually you don’t have to sympathise with him, but having a little try wouldn’t do you any more harm than a few stretching exercises and might render you less rigid and lower your blood pressure. 

You could at least acknowledge that his boasts are understandable. Not credible, and we’ll come back to that, but understandable. You don’t have to ace a test in order to want to boast about it. Not failing is pretty good, too.

When I started to edit magazines, the managing editor in the old Creation group told me I needed to have a test in each edition. 

“How do you mean, a test?” I asked, thereby establishing that I probably needed one, right there. “A questionnaire allowing readers to find out if they are hoarders. Or generous. Or sexy.” 

I asked, in a humble way, where I would find the experts to provide these questionnaires and the method by which to assess them. The managing editor, a terrifying woman with a deadly commercial brain untroubled by literacy, looked at me in the way you’d look at a 20-year-old who asked what a red light was for.

“YOU will devise the questionnaires,” she told me and swept off to lunch with an advertiser. So I developed questionnaires that allowed readers to decide if they were likely to be unfaithful to their partners in the following year, questionnaires inviting them to decide whether they were just pigging out or had a food addiction problem, questionnaires allowing them to assess how good they were as friends, as shoppers and at keeping their homes free of vermin. 

You name it, I dreamed up a test for it, discovering early on that the more complicated the weighting of the answers, the better readers liked it because it felt more scientific. I got my clever sister to do the mathematics for me for free and was constantly surprised by her actually doing the tests. 

Here was a mathematical genius, the first computer programmer in the Irish civil service, who knew that I had made up the questionnaire, and yet she would answer the questions and add up afterward. 

It’s nothing to do with logic, this abiding attraction of the test that invites you to assess some aspect of yourself in which nobody other than you has the smallest interest. She would get quite mad, I remember, if she scored badly as a friend or a tidy-upper.

Letters from happy readers poured in. They told me they had, courtesy of my magazine, discovered fundamental truths about themselves that would change and improve their lives. 

Now, I didn’t breach any ethical code in doing this, mainly because nobody would have known an ethical code, back then, if it bit them in the leg. I didn’t claim that the tests were scientific or developed by psychologists.

As far as I was concerned, they were pretty much aligned with the horoscopes, which I also made up for every edition and which got similarly ecstatic responses, particularly from Librans. I went soft on people born under Libra because that was my star.

My own experiences with testing went back to my first summer job, in the Dublin Gas Company, an outfit distinguished by two unrelated factors. 

The first was that it was a legend for poor customer care, with a massive complaints department devoted mainly to the mopping of tears from gas-users who had suffered outages, breakages or explosions, although, give them their due, the Gas company took explosions seriously, noting them in red, rather than black. 

The other factor was that my father worked there. On the day, I was meet by a gentleman, called Frank Maye who took me into an office and asked me to fill out an intelligence test. The first question was a drawing of a rhinoceros or me to identify. The problem is right there. I have never been desperately sure of the difference between a rhinoceros and hippopotamus. I guessed right and proceeded. 

At the end of the test, Mr Maye told me I had the job. He did not tell me that for the next eight weeks I would be on the telephone to disgruntled customers trying to explain why I wouldn’t be able to get a fitter to them for about 300 years.

If, in common with Trump I aced that particular test, it was, sadly, a once-off. It was downhill from that point on, largely due to my older sister. The annoying thing is she is clever at everything at which I am dumb as a tree, starting with maths. 

Once I got to long division I was goosed. However, my sister believed that maths was a simple joyous thing and that if I concentrated I would be fine. 

This notion that if you concentrate you can achieve anything is misconceived. I concentrated and was defended by arithmetic and algebra.

No matter how I tried I could not master them. My sister however was convinced I was doing this just for spite and that I was really able for what I was pretending to be unable to do and that in due course higher maths would be no problem to me.

Accordingly, as soon as she got to university and encountered concepts like IQ tests she resolved to administer one to me and did. I did my level best to prove that I had intelligence. I failed. 

There is a six-letter C word associated with intelligence or lack of the same which should not be used in a respectable newspaper like this, but that was in use at the time and it applied. The good news was that my sister immediately gave up on trying to teach me anything. The bad news was that my self-esteem evaporated. 

Prior to this, I had relied on anecdotal evidence on my lack of brains. But thanks to my sister, I now had hard evidence founded in cutting-edge science.

It comes therefore as a shock to realise that I am not actually dumb as a bag of hammers, but rather have been merely subjected to the wrong tests. Had my sister foregone the algebra and simply asked me to repeat the list ‘person, woman, man, camera, TV’ I could have been discovered to be not a dullard, but a stable genius capable of leading the free world. Look: Person, woman, man, camera, TV. See? I can do it at will. If my life had been filled with tests like those, I would be awash in self-esteem. Because tests like those I could ace.

Although, now that I think about it, the one Trump took required him to identify a picture of an elephant. With my luck I’d get Frank Maye’s rhinoceros edition, incorrectly declare it to be a hippo, and wind up wearing my dunces’ cap once more.