Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Low IQ or Low Motivation?

There's a determinist line of thinking, in regards to education, which emphasizes that there's a limit to how much someone can be educated, and that that limit is set by the innate intelligence of the person. That level of innate intelligence is often considered to be measured by IQ. And there is, as with so many things, some basis for this. IQ tests can diagnose lack of mental ability, and lack of mental ability can mark out certain limits to how much education can accomplish.

However, it turns out that IQ tests (and many other measures of achievement) don't just measure innate intelligence, they also measure whether the person taking the test bothers to try hard enough to get it right. Paul Tough quotes some fascinating research along those lines in this except from his book How Children Succeed.
Consider a couple of experiments done decades ago involving IQ and M&M’s. In the first test, conducted in Northern California in the late 1960s, a researcher named Calvin Edlund selected 79 children between the ages of 5 and 7, all from “low-middle class and lower-class homes.” The children were randomly divided into an experimental group and a control group. First, they all took a standard version of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Seven weeks later, they took a similar test, but this time the kids in the experimental group were given one M&M for each correct answer. On the first test, the two groups were evenly matched on IQ. On the second test, the IQ of the M&M group went up an average of 12 points—a huge leap.

A few years later, two researchers from the University of South Florida elaborated on Edlund’s experiment. This time, after the first, candy-less IQ test, they divided the children into three groups according to their scores on the first test. The high-IQ group had an average IQ score on the first test of about 119. The medium-IQ group averaged about 101, and the low-IQ group averaged about 79. On the second test, the researchers offered half the children in each IQ category an M&M for each right answer, just as Edlund had; the others in each group received no reward. The medium-IQ and high-IQ kids who got candy didn’t improve their scores at all on the second test. But the low-IQ children who were given M&M’s for each correct answer raised their IQ scores to about 97, almost erasing the gap with the medium-IQ group.
The M&M studies were a major blow to the conventional wisdom about intelligence, which held that IQ tests measured something real and permanent—something that couldn’t be changed drastically with a few candy-covered chocolates. They also raised an important and puzzling question about the supposedly low-IQ children: Did they actually have low IQs or not? Which number was the true measure of their intelligence: 79 or 97?

This is the kind of frustrating but tantalizing puzzle that teachers face on a regular basis, especially teachers in high-poverty schools. You’re convinced that your students are smarter than they appear, and you know that if they would only apply themselves, they would do much better. But how do you get them to apply themselves? Should you just give them M&M’s for every correct answer for the rest of their lives? That doesn’t seem like a very practical solution. And the reality is that for low-income middle-school students, there are already tremendous rewards for doing well on tests—not immediately and for each individual correct answer, but in the long term. If a student’s test scores and GPA through middle and high school reflect an applied IQ of 97 instead of 79, he is much more likely to graduate from high school and then college and then to get a good job—at which point he can buy as many bags of M&M’s as he wants.

But as every middle-school teacher knows, convincing students of that logic is a lot harder than it seems.
Another study, which tracked high school and college students over subsequent decades, and included a test which in effect measured the willingness of the taker to take the time to get easy but tedious questions right, found that this motivation to do well even on a seemingly low reward test was just about as good a predictor of success later in life as measured IQ.

You would think this would be a hopeful sign: that many people who might otherwise appear to be destined to do poorly can do better if only they can be motivated to exert themselves. But as the article describes, attempts to motivate people (outside the confines of offering candy for answers on a fairly short test) are often surprisingly unsuccessful. There are already very strong incentives to try hard in school and in life, the problem is that the rewards are distant.


Jennifer Fitz said...

So, what you're saying is, I should stop eating the M&M's now? They aren't making me smarter?


Seriously, you point to a thorny problem. I know from experience that kids do learn that neglecting a painful school assignment is more pleasurable than doing the work. It's hard to find the balance between teaching kids to persevere on unpleasant tasks in hopes of longer-term rewards, versus overwhelming them to the point that they prefer to shirk, despite the consequences.

bearing said...
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bearing said...

I immediately thought of the book Willpower. It's pretty good as pop science goes, and has some ideas about how to develop willpower (that is, if you're trying to develop your own).

I wonder what's the state of "perseverance" research these days -- it seems to be correlated with so many good outcomes, and yet I'm assuming it's also highly confounded with other "good" traits. Can it be taught?

mandamum said...

Goes along with the marshmallow studies where the kids who could put off eating the marshmallow for a greater return did better down the road because they already had the skill/trait to choose delayed gratification. So: skill or trait? I ask with Bearing, can it be taught? Is it more likely caught? Or is it innate?

Al Kresta talked to someone on his radio show a while back who had written (I think it might have been in "The State of White America" but am not sure) about how people who do well in this society are still doing things like working hard and saving for a rainy day and so forth, but they have stopped preaching these habits to others. So you end up with a class system whereby you either learn such good habits at home (and succeed) or you don't learn them at all (and often don't succeed).

bearing said...

...but they have stopped preaching these habits to others

Yeah, I think part of it is the shaming sort of tone that is often used when people talk about class privilege.

I think a lot of people are reasonably shy about attributing their own successes to anything that smacks of "I am a better person." You may have a well-developed work ethic, attention to detail, all that sort of thing, but you have it in part (we think) because of coming from a group where all that is highly valued and expressly taught, because there is no pressing need to emphasize short-term survival, and because there is enough security to have a notion that if you save for later, it'll still be there when you want it.

I think I subscribe to the notion that certain traits are adapted for success in certain environments. People run into problems when they are well-adapted to succeed in one environment (by the definition of "success" in that environment) and then they try to make their way in another. I am not trying to draw a relativistic equivalence between one kind of success and another -- I certainly prefer a particular sort of success -- only to point out that a given individual may be performing quite well by the standards of one environment, because of innate skill that has been adapted to that environment, and then when moved into another environment his skills will not serve him as well.

Jenny said...

Slightly related thought:
I saw something not too long ago remarking about the difference in language used about low-income schools in the 60s and now. Basically back in the 60s, the schools were described in a positive manner as rescuing students from dead-end families and giving children their only opportunity for success. Now schools are described in a negative manner as failing the students and trapping families into a system without a chance of success.

Essentially these are the same kids in the same schools. Before it was the fault of the families and now it is the fault of the schools. Truthfully it is a little of both.

I think it is very likely that motivation is mostly caught and not taught. Students who have low motivation families and go to schools surrounded by other kids from low motivation families do not have much opportunity to catch that trait.

Clare said...

For some reason I am reminded of Beatrix Potter's sparrows, who, when Peter Rabbit is caught in a snare with farmer McGregor hot on his heels, "implored him to exert himself."

MacBeth Derham said...

Then perhaps a real test of future success would be an MQ?

Benjamin I. Espen. said...

The grim thing is this motivation to perform tedious tasks for low reward is itself a partly heritable quality of our personalities.

mandamum said...

Isn't the "motivated to perform tedious tasks for low reward" how the school system trains individuals to be "successful" as cogs in a post-industrial-revolution society? Some homeschool proponents writing the history of US compulsory education make a bit of that argument.

Bearing, thank you for pointing out that "success" depends on your environment, and that it's only worth delaying gratification if you have some guarantee it won't all be stolen in the interim. Hmmm...

William Leonard said...

In recent decades while aggregate enrollment at non-elite institutions has increased graduation rates have steadily declined. Is there a relationship? As enrollment growth is the proportion of below the mean growing faster than those above?