IQ & Intelligence


The recent publication of the book “What Intelligence Tests Miss: the Psychology of Rational Thought” by Keith E. Stanovich had the effect of renewing interest in the concept of IQ – for example, see the New Scientist article Clever Fools: Why a high IQ doesn’t mean your’re smart or Coert Visser’s interesting summary of the issue.

This gives me the opportunity to share some thoughts about another “controversy” in Psychology, namely the question about the relevance of IQ and intelligence testing. I personally think it is a “nontroversy” and, like the question about the importance of inner motivation vs. external rewards, the answer is: it depends. It depends on the context, on why the question is asked, and on why we are considering testing for IQ.

I will try to clarify my thinking by using a metaphor suggested by David Perkins, introduced in the New Scientist article mentioned above as someone “who studies thinking and reasoning skills at Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Massachussets”: “A high IQ is like height in a basketball player”.

Exactly. That implies the following:

intelligence, as measured by Intelligence tests, is something real, just like the height of a person is real. Here i quote from the excellent book “50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Conceptions about Human Behavior“, p.84: “although far from perfect measures, IQ tests yields scores that are among the most valid and cost-effective predictors of academic achievement and job performance across just about every occupation studied – factory worker, waiter, secretary, police officer, electrician and so on and on”. Nothing controversial here, I think – if your kid is very tall and she asks for your advice on which sport to practice,  it makes sense for you to encourage her to try out basketball. Of course that does not imply that all tall people do well in basketball – there are excellent basketball players that do extremely well, thanks to a lot of passion, dedication and practice, despite being not that tall.
– as Steven Pinker recently pointed out, when people are assessed using a standardized test, the goal is not clairvoyance but cost-effectiveness. If I am with a group of new friends at a City Park on a Sunday, we decide to play basketball, I am chosen as team leader and I have to select the members of my team, in the absence of other information I will pick the taller guys. Of course I might be wrong and not know that shorty over there is a former college basketball star, but not having the luxury and the time of asking each and everyone to demonstrate their skills on the court, my choice of going for the taller guys is reasonable & cost-effective.
– of course a player’s fixed height does not imply that he does not need training. Not because he would grow taller, but because height is only part of the story: a player needs to practice endlessly, learn the basics, perfect his skills, learn how to read the game, learn how to read opponents, learn different game plans, learn how to decide on the spot; he needs to keep in shape and train his body to the max. No one in his right mind would suggest that because height is an important predictor of basketball success, and Mr X is very tall, then Mr X does not need to practice, to train, to improve on his game – he can just sit on a couch all day long watching TV. The same goes with IQ – yes it is there, yes it is pretty much stable, but there is a WHOLE LOT we can do to improve how we use our intelligence: learn decision-making skills, learn how to overcome our biases, learn problem-solving skills (or solution-focused skills!!), learn critical thinking, and so on and so forth. And that is what Stanovich’s book highlights.

Which reminds me that this blog is actually a website where I am also supposed to pitch my services: no matter what your intelligence “height” is, a coach can help you reach new “heights” in life!! :)

Update on the 24th of November: you can find a very interesting interview of Keith Stanovich by Coert Visser here.

Intrinsic Motivation vs. Rewards

In preparation for this event, today I was reviewing some literature about positive reinforcement and motivation. Anybody interested in psychology knows that there is a raging ongoing debate about it. Even though the battle lines are not so clearly drawn, for the sake of simplicity we can say that on the one hand we have many psychologists saying that giving rewards actually reduces intrinsic motivation – therefore it is an ill-advised attempt at increasing motivation (see Lepper et al.,1973, Curry et al., 1990, Deci et al., 1999). This position is based on a seminal study by psychologists Mark R. Lepper and David Greene from Stanford and the University of Michigan, masterfully told here. On the other hand we have economists saying that we are rational agents and therefore giving rewards is an effective way of increasing motivation.

The controversy is well alive within psychology, too – with some authors (Martin, G., Pear, G., Behavior Modification, 8th eds, p.38) saying that “Some individuals (e.g. Kohn, 1993) have gone so far as to suggest that tangible rewards should never be given  because, for example, if a parent gives a child money as a reinforcer for reading, then the child will be less likely to “read for reading’s sake”. However, a careful review of the literature on this topic and two recent experiments clearly indicate that such a view is a myth. Moreover, the notion that extrinsic reinforcers undermines intrinsic interest flies in the face of common sense”.

The good news is that soon we might have a definite answer to the question of whether rewards work in motivating people (or at least, students), thanks to programs that reward AP scores being carried out in schools in different cities, like Dallas and New York, and financed by private groups. As the Harvard University economist Ronald Freyer, who is designing and testing several reward programs, says: “we either get social science or social change, and we need both.”

The preliminary results of these school reward programs are pretty good: “about two thirds of the 59 high-poverty schools in the Sparks program – which pays seventh-graders up to $500 and fourth-graders as much as $250 for their performance on a total of 10 assessments – improved their scores since last year’s state tests by margins about the citywide average”, with gains in some school approaching 40 percentage points (source).

As the critics of these programs are quick to point out, it is too soon to draw conclusions: typically rewards work in the short term but backfire in the long term. We’ll see.

My take on the debate whether rewards are helpful or actually hurt intrinsic motivation is: it depends. I don’t think such a question is amenable to a simple yes or no answer. Contextual factors play a large part.

For example, in the original study by Lepper et al., where the question was whether giving rewards would increase children’s motivation to draw, the 51 pre-schoolers chosen were all interested in drawing. Of course this was a crucial requirement if we want to investigate intrinsic motivation – yet it is often lost in the heat of the debate about rewards. Rewards might backfire for motivating people already interested or proficient in one activity, but what about getting somebody to start doing something?

Also notice how the study has been interpreted in literature and passed on in psychological lore: rewards hurt intrinsic motivation! Actually, the study showed that an unexpected reward (surprise reward) works better than an expected reward AND no reward.

Morevoer: the reward in this instance was a tangible reward (a certificate with a gold seal and a ribbon – this was the pre-ipod era!). What about social or other kinds of rewards? And in case of social rewards, we know (see a previous posting of mine on Carol Dweck’s work) that the way praise is formulated is of critical importance.

Let’s look at the reward programs being implemented in the schools. I think other important social dynamics are at work here, like competition and peer-pressure. And we know how peers are important in shaping who we become (see J.R. Harris work). For example, giving money for academic achievement can shift in dramatic ways youth’s attitudes and, all of a sudden, make studying “cool” – and this can be a big boost to motivate kids to learn, especially for minorities that tend to conform to negative stereotypes. Get rich or die tryin’ gets a whole new meaning!!

Update: Professor Steven Reiss on The Myths of Intrinsic-Extrinsic Motivation in Psychology Today, posted on the 20th of November 2009