Willpower and belief

I’ve blogged a bunch now about Roy Baumeister’s work on self-control, including the idea that willpower is finite in the short-term, and is depleted throughout the day as you use it. So I feel compelled to post this NYT op-ed claiming something quite different. I don’t know who’s right, but here’s the gist:

In research that we conducted with the psychologist Veronika Job, we confirmed that willpower can indeed be quite limited — but only if you believe it is. When people believe that willpower is fixed and limited, their willpower is easily depleted. But when people believe that willpower is self-renewing — that when you work hard, you’re energized to work more; that when you’ve resisted one temptation, you can better resist the next one — then people successfully exert more willpower. It turns out that willpower is in your head…

…You may contend that these results show only that some people just happen to have more willpower — and know that they do. But on the contrary, we found that anyone can be prompted to think that willpower is not so limited. When we had people read statements that reminded them of the power of willpower like, “Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities,” they kept on working and performing well with no sign of depletion. They made half as many mistakes on a difficult cognitive task as people who read statements about limited willpower. In another study, they scored 15 percent better on I.Q. problems.

I’ll keep my eyes open for a response to this from Baumeister or his colleagues, and let me know if you see one. Meanwhile, this reminded me of a similar phenomenon with respect to IQ:

Yet social psychologists Aronson, Fried, and Good (2001) have developed a possible antidote to stereotype threat. They taught African American and European American college students to think of intelligence as changeable, rather than fixed – a lesson that many psychological studies suggests is true. Students in a control group did not receive this message. Those students who learned about IQ’s malleability improved their grades more than did students who did not receive this message, and also saw academics as more important than did students in the control group. Even more exciting was the finding that Black students benefited more from learning about the malleable nature of intelligence than did White students, showing that this intervention may successfully counteract stereotype threat.

Both of these lines of research suggest that belief matters. Fascinating stuff.

IQ and Motivation

So one of the most interesting items I came across while looking into the concept of intelligence was this blog post by intelligence scholar Earl Hunt. Says Hunt:

The statistics are pretty clear. Tests of general cognitive ability are by far the best tests for predicting performance in both academia and the workplace. If a job is cognitively demanding, the correlation between test performance and job performance will be somewhere in the .40-.55 range. This is about twice as high as any tests of personality or motivation

…BUT it’s also pretty clear that people do not believe this. Over and over, I read and hear statements like “Personality is much more important than intelligence” or “Motivation is the important thing.” or ”
I knew someone who had real good (bad) test scores and they did as real bad (good) job.”…

When people reason about things, their personal experiences have much more weight than abstract statistics. AND, second point, we live in a cognitively segregated society. (The reason is at least partly because we live in an educationally segregated society.) To see what I mean, ask yourself how many of your friends…people you deal with at least once a week, and in a setting that is not restricted to formal exchanges, like a passenger-bus driver exchange, have markedly different educational backgrounds than you do?. I would bet that not very many do. (This is not quite so much the case if you are in the military, but that’s  a special situation.)

Put these two tendencies together, and you see that most people do not get to observe the problem solving behaviors of people whose intelligence differs very much from their own. This is certainly true of professionals, college professors, executives, etc….The people who do the talking. Because the typical person sees only a small bit of the range of intelligence that is actually out there, the importance of intelligence…in the big picture, in the whole population just isn’t appreciated.

So IQ matters more than we realize, and more than motivation and personality in the grand scheme of things, at least according to Hunt.

And yet here’s a post via Kevin Drum & Tyler Cowen:

On IQ tests, a single standard deviation equals 15 points. So if this research is right, giving people actual incentives to do well on IQ tests (money, for example) has the following effect:

  • Those with low IQs scored 14 points higher.
  • Those with high IQs scored 4 points higher.

In other words, giving people an incentive to do well collapsed the gap between high and low by ten points — and bigger incentives created even bigger effects. These results are based on a meta-analysis of previous studies, not on new research, and metastudies are notoriously tricky to do properly. So take this with the usual grain of salt until these results get replicated elsewhere.

So IQ may be a better predictor than motivation, but the latter informs the former. I wonder what Hunt’s response would be…

Get smart: 3 different methods for finding good stuff online

I’ve been pondering “intelligence” a bit lately and on Friday decided that I wanted to spend some time this weekend reading about it. I was starting from roughly scratch and looking for good resources to learn how academic researchers define, explain and generally think about intelligence. I ended up finding some good stuff but the whole process got me thinking about how we find stuff online. I found resources via three different methods that I want to briefly discuss: social recommendations, search, and feeds. There’s a lot of overlap between these, but bear with me (or don’t – your call).

Social Recommendations

I tweeted and posted on my gchat status about my desire to read some good stuff on the concept of intelligence and research around it and that got a few bites. Mostly it was just friends asking what I meant by it, or how I defined intelligence, to which I had to reply that I was hoping they could point me to the answer to that question. I did get a couple of links pointed out. Some were only slightly relevant, some were a bit better. But in any case, it turned up some interesting leads but not quite exactly what I wanted. I mentioned that this was the case to a friend (one who had provided one of the more interesting suggestions I received) and added that I was pretty used to lackluster response to my inquiries through social platforms. He remarked that he would have guessed the opposite, given the frequency with which I solicit recommendations.

He has a point. I’m not sure why I keep asking the social sphere for recommendations, despite the fact that the results are pretty weak. Maybe I’m just hopelessly optimistic about social media? In any case, with no disrespect to my friends, (who are smart, interesting, helpful, etc.) for whatever reason (shortage of time, lack of interest in my lame preoccupations) inquiring through social networks is seldom helpful for me. My guess is that this is the case for most people, but that it is neglected because “influencers” at the top of the social media food chain have the exact opposite experience. Clay Shirky can get any question he wants answered quickly with a tweet, and he’s the one writing about how effective this stuff is or isn’t. There may be certain spheres within which social inquiry is effective… maybe if my inquiries were more social, more relevant to my audience, I’d receive better response (I’m imagining things like What fun stuff is going on tonight? / What’s the best ultimate frisbee team in Boston / etc. Things that are highly relevant to a large group of my network.

Search, and not just Google

Obviously I did several Google searches immediately to try and find resources. This was kind of limited. “Intelligence” tends to turn up a lot about military intelligence, which speaks to the lack of intelligence in search, or perhaps just to my lack of it. In any case, I found a few relevant items, but not much.

I cracked through a bit by targeting a few “likely suspects”: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc. I hit their Archives to further target my search and that turned up slightly better results. One of the best things I came across was via The Atlantic’s archives (a piece from 1990.)

Feeds totally rock

Far and away the best resource I found – a link to a textbook surveying the literature on intelligence, which I then dug up on Google Books – came serendipitously from one of my favorite blogs: Marginal Revolution. Sure, it was just chance that Tyler Cowen happened to link to that book the same weekend I was looking into the subject, but it wasn’t entirely random either. I subscribe to Marginal Revolution because the content is consistently interesting, and so in a way I have tailored my feeds to maximize the likeliness that the content matches my interest consistently.

Moreover – and here’s a plug for RSS readers over Twitter – my feeds amount to a customized trove of content matched to my interests, and ripe for search. If I want something reliable on a topic, I can search Google Reader and essentially whittle my search down from the whole web to sources I like and trust. And that’s pretty powerful.

The takeaway for me is just that there are real limits to social search, and tremendous potential to carefully curated content feeds, at least relative to the general weights that I think popular commentators tend to assign to each.

If you’re a huge nerd too and want to learn about intelligence, I’ve tagged all my discoveries here on Delicious. And here’s the link to that textbook. Not light reading but I’ve skimmed a couple chapters and it’s just what I was looking for.