IQ, Motivation, and Success in Life: It’s Less About The Intelligence and More About The Incentives

Motivation matters. It matters a lot. It matters more than we thought, and might make more of a difference on both performance and life outcomes that we thought possible. 

What is IQ? The Intelligence Quotient, yes, but what does that mean, exactly? What does that little score, that has been tied in so much research to so many rosy outcomes, from better academic performance, to increased longevity and better health, to better performance on the job, signify?


Traditionally, the answer is, “Why, intelligence, of course” – or at least, some aspect of intelligence as measured by a test of certain types of mental performance. But a recent study casts doubt on that notion, or rather, questions whether that is all that is being captured, or if there isn’t something more to the story.

Motivation matters

The main finding: motivation matters. It matters a lot. It matters more than we thought, and might make more of a difference on both performance and life outcomes that we thought possible. In a statistician’s terms, motivation might be that dreaded third causal variable that affects the neat A-leads-to-B relationship (where A is IQ and B, all of those wonderful life events) that has been demonstrated time and time again, the X Factor that might lead to both A and B and thus amplify the apparent effects of A.

In a series of studies, a team of psychologists, led by Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania, demonstrated that motivation has a striking impact on performance on one of the most respected, time-tested, validated and replicated ad infinitum, and heavily relied-upon standardized tests this country has ever produced: the dreaded IQ test (or, as it is professionally known, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, WISC for short). This is the test that has so reliably predicted a host of positive life outcomes almost since its inception, over half a century ago.

In the first study, some children received additional incentives for their performance on the WISC, while others just took the test under normal conditions. Lo and behold, those who were incentivized performed better. In the case of children with lower IQs, the difference was almost a full standard deviation, while for those with higher IQs, the boost was more modest (about a quarter of a standard deviation). Even more convincing, perhaps, is a second study, where a group of children was followed for close to 15 years. Again, the researchers demonstrated that motivation predicted academic performance in adolescence (higher motivation equals higher performance), criminal convictions (higher motivation equals fewer convictions), employment (better and more likely the higher the motivation), and years of education in early adulthood (more motivation, more years). While IQ remained predictive, its value was greatly reduced when the researchers put motivation into the mix. In fact, in the case of the non-academic outcomes, like employment and criminal convictions, the predictive value fell by about 68-84% – a huge drop-off. Something to consider the next time we tout the all-importance of IQ scores.

So what does that mean?

Now, I’m not trying to comment on the effects of various standardized testing, be it an IQ test or the SATs, on education, or debate their usefulness as a measure. What I am trying to do is force the question: a measure of what exactly? It may turn out that IQ tests remain incredibly instructive and predictive of lifetime success – but I think it makes a difference to know if that predictive value is a function of some quality of motivation, of mindset in the person in question, and not of some immutable, innate, amorphous and indefinable thing, some mythic quotient of intellectual capacity.

Clearly, the WISC is measuring something. But intelligence, or at least intelligence in its most common definition, is not exactly it. It may play a part, but motivation might be a more crucial ingredient than anyone has previously imagined. Could it even be possible that motivation might be a key ingredient of a more broadly conceived intelligence?

Where does motivation come from – and what can we learn from it?

I’m tempted to ask: where do these differences in motivation come from? Aren’t some children incentivized, in a manner of speaking, to perform well from the very first, praised and encouraged, pushed to succeed and to achieve, while others may fail to get the same sort of reinforcement? Indeed, the researchers also found that children with lower IQ tended to have lower motivation, even when differences in race, family structure, and socioeconomic status were taken into account, and that there was a greater variability in IQ in that sample.

So, motivation might not only be driving the effects; it could also be leading to differences from the earliest of ages. And while this has disturbing implications, it can also be a cause for optimism – because motivation, at any point in our lives, is something that we can control. And if it makes such a big differences, we might be more tempted to play an active role in self-motivation in a variety of situations, even those where the stakes seem relatively small, like some silly little test.

If we learn to supply an internal motivation to any situation, no matter how inconsequential it may seem, this might turn into a greater life attitude that could translate into more benefits than we thought possible – those same benefits that have in the past been attributed to greater intelligence or higher IQ. And who knows; maybe as a result, that pesky IQ score will go up as well. Because if I take anything away from these findings, it is this: motivation improves performance, not just on tests, but in life.

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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