IQ and Motivation

I have never been a fan of the idea of IQ testing. I have always felt that the number generated is a measure of a person’s ability to successfully take a particular type of test  as opposed to measuring anything else. A look back at into history of attempts to measure intelligence, shows that all of original testers had strong racial and sexual biases. Stephen Jay Gould, in his 1981 book, The Mismeasure of Man, examined the data and studies and thoroughly debunked them.

In 2006, upon the 25th anniversay of Gould’s book, Brett Clark and Richard York wrote a very good synopsys, albeit framing it as a battle between right and left with ideologies.

As Gould writes in the introduction to the revised edition, “The Mismeasure of Man treats one particular form of quantified claim about the ranking of human groups: the argument that intelligence can be meaningfully abstracted as a single number capable of ranking all people on a linear scale of intrinsic and unalterable mental worth”; it “is a critique of a specific theory of intelligence often supported by particular interpretation of a certain style of mental testing: the theory of unitary, genetically based, unchangeable intelligence”…

In an unflinchingly rational manner, Gould devastates this “IQ as indicator of general intelligence” interpretation by showing it to be a creation of the statistical procedures used and the a priori convictions of the researchers.

We can perhaps accept racism in what we often consider a ‘less enlightened time’, but the idea of innate biologically determined intelligence has continued. “The Bell Curve” published in 1994, continued the concept of genetic determinism, and has been used as an argument in favour of racially based capabilities and used to political ends. Coincidentally, all of these studies and books place blacks at the lower end of the intelligence continuum.

The Bell Curve, published in 1994, was written by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray as a work designed to explain, using empirical statistical analysis, the variations in intelligence in American Society, raise some warnings regarding the consequences of this intelligence gap, and propose national social policy with the goal of mitigating the worst of the consequences attributed to this intelligence gap. Many of the assertions put forth and conclusions reached by the authors are very controversial, ranging from the relationships between low measured intelligence and anti-social behavior, to the observed relationship between low African-American test scores (compared to whites and Asians) and genetic factors in intelligence abilities.

However, whether or not you accept the concept that a single number resulting from a single test can provide an indication of intelligence, there is no definitive correlation in societal concepts of ‘success‘.

What IQ tests measure is a certain type of potential. That potential still needs to be developed and nurtured by the person who has it. That person may not have the inclination or desire to do so. Not everyone who has a potential talent also possesses the desire to do something with it.

In  other words, even if IQ tests measure something, it doesn’t mean a damn thing. ‘Potential’ is such a non-committal word that it is totally worthless. Theoretically, at birth we all have the ‘potential’ be be absolutely anything. Barring actual brain or physical damage, what we become is more likely a product of our family’s socio-economic status that our IQ.

Now, researchers have determined that success on an IQ test can be affected by motivation.

New work, led by Angela Lee Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and reported online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences explores the effect of motivation on how well people perform on IQ tests. While subjects taking such tests are usually instructed to try as hard as they can, previous research has shown that not everyone makes the maximum effort. A number of studies have found that subjects who are promised monetary rewards for doing well on IQ and other cognitive tests score significantly higher….

Duckworth’s team found that the average effect was 0.64 (which is equivalent to nearly 10 points on the IQ scale of 100), and remained higher than 0.5 even when three studies with unusually high g values were thrown out. Moreover, the effect of financial rewards on IQ increased dramatically the higher the reward: Thus rewards higher than $10 produced g values of more than 1.6 (roughly equivalent to more than 20 IQ points), whereas rewards of less than $1 were only one-tenth as effective.

The Duckworth team concludes that IQ tests are measuring much more than just raw intelligence–they also measure how badly subjects want to succeed both on the test and later in life. Yet Duckworth and her colleagues caution that motivation isn’t everything: The lower role for motivation in academic achievement, they write, suggests that “earning a high IQ score requires high intelligence in addition to high motivation.”

In other words, not only do you need to be good at taking a particular test, you must also want to do well. Follow this up by deciding that wanting to do well in life translates into higher ‘success’. Going back to my original thesis, wanting to do well is a product of your upbringing and the expectations of your family and peer group. Any effort to promote ‘success’ among individuals needs to be based upon social programs that support the disenfranchised, rather that relegating them to second class citizens due to the circumstances of their birth.

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