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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