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…