Bryan Caplan  

You Can Do Anything You Put Your Mind To: A Noble Lie?

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Arlo's Single Payer Plan... Flynn on the Flynn Effect...

People say a lot of silly things about how belief in the importance of intelligence, true or false, is "dangerous." Today I read one of the few pieces that actually presents some thought-provoking evidence on this point: Carol Dweck's chapter in Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid. In the most interesting experiment, Dweck explains that she and co-authors randomly assigned students to read an article arguing either that intelligence is (a) "fixed", or (b) "malleable." What happened?

After they finished the article and wrote about it, students went on to another task, one that was quite challenging...

Compared to the students who were focused on the idea of fixed intelligence, those who had been taught to focus on malleable intelligence now saw their difficulty as reflecting on their effort and were more persistent in their pursuit of task mastery...

Other studies found that:

Teaching students the malleable theory of intelligence not only aided their performance in the face of obstacles on an individual intellectual task, it actually raised their college grade point average and their commitment to school.

And:
[S]tudents who confronted the transition [to junior high] holding a malleable view of intelligence earned higher grades and higher achievement test scores than did their classmates who held the fixed view. This was true even though the two groups of students had entered with equal academic skills (and equal self-esteem).

The punchline, as I read it, is that people try harder if they believe that effort has a bigger payoff. This makes a lot of sense - so far, so good.

But is it helpful to convince people that effort has a bigger payoff than it really does? Yes, they'll be "more successful" ignoring the cost of effort. But why should we ignore the cost of effort - especially when it has a small return?

Thus, I suspect that students with who believe in malleable intelligence are more likely to go to graduate school despite low test scores. They'll probably get better grades because of their belief. But better is often not good enough. Belief in malleable intelligence is no free lunch - it could easily lead students to waste years of their lives trying and failing.

Don't like that example? Here's another: Know any struggling actors? How many of them should just give up?

Overall, I'm better off with a realistic assessment of the importance of ability and effort. If I thought that working an extra hour per day would make me as successful as Steve Levitt, I'd do it. And if I worked an extra hour per day, I would be more successful. But probably not much more - and there's a lot more to life than economics.


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COMMENTS (20 to date)
Daniel Lurker writes:

I love the last sentence; mentioning how there is more to life than econ while at the same time talking about the marginal productivity of your labor.

talboito writes:

Maybe your basic assumption, that intelligence is fixed, has led you to put such poor effort into this post.

Erich Schwarz writes:

If you think human beings are meat puppets, then it doesn't make any sense for them to put an effort into bettering themselves.

But if you think they're meat puppets, it also doesn't make any sense for you to emit virtual noises (such as this blog post) in an effort to make them stop. You're a robot. So are they. So why bother?

If you think, conversely, that human beings actually have something that can be meaningfully described as minds that they can indeed choose to turn to greater efforts, in order to better their lives in spite of their finite natural gifts, then ... where are you? Arguing that they should choose to give up, instead? Because ... why, exactly? Because you're so much better than they are at deciding for them whether they should just let their grades slump?

Really, sir, what were you thinking when you wrote this post?

Robert Speirs writes:

Having a realistic view of one's capabilities (a la Dirty Harry - "a man's got to know his limitations") makes for a MORE successful life, although I agree it is sometimes difficult to tell when one has reached one's limitations and a little extra effort usually does not hurt. But knowing when to give up is valuable.
And of course the truth is that intelligence has been proven to be remarkably resistant to improvement. Finding a successful approach to achieving a goal that looks unachievable requires not deluding oneself that it must be achievable but figuring out how it might be achieved. And that calculation requires - yes - intelligence.

John Thacker writes:

Because you're so much better than they are at deciding for them whether they should just let their grades slump?

Quite the reverse, Mr. Schwarz. Prof. Caplan seems to be arguing that the students *should* decide for themselves, just as he does. He merely argues that they should be given accurate information as to exactly how much effort helps. The position he sets up to argue against is one where educators believe that they are "so much better" than the students at "deciding for them" that they should keep studying, so they lie to the students about the payoff for effort.

Of course, the entire argument rests on the idea of what the actual payoff is. Rather, the original article presumes that the tradeoff to education is obviously very positive, and hence that the "effort gives reward" information is more accurate than the other one.

The whole "If at first to don't succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No sense in being a damn fool about it" W.C. Fields quote comes to mind about the optimal stopping point. (Often attributed to Mark Twain, like most quotations.)

An argument in favor of the "noble lie" in this case might be that increased education has positive externalities, and that without the noble lie students might not get the socially optimal amount of education. But then again people have learned to invoke "externalities" to justify nearly anything these days.

JW Ogden writes:

I wanted to be a Professional basketball player. I put a tremendious amount of effort into it. I did not even get close.

Enough said.

Rue Des Quatre Vents writes:

Professor Caplan,

You have interesting strategies for discomforting your competition. What better way to keep the competition at bay than to suggest that they're stupid and that trying to become smarter isn't worth it? Since I consider myself stupid, unfortunately I cannot heed your advice to lay down arms. Instead, I will continue to bring my best effort to becoming more intelligent than you. Nice try though on your part. You almost had me.

Heather writes:

What were the students told about the malleability of intelligence? I think that, as the study noted, more effort will produce better results given a fixed starting point, but there is only so much a person can do. The idea that is being presented is one of marginal returns. What amount of effort to boost scores is the correct amount?

From a personal standpoint, I believe that intelligence is fixed plus or minus a certain amount. By working harder, you can trend toward the plus side of the equation, but you aren't going to get past that, which would help define the marginal return of the effort.

Matt writes:

A lot of slackers in high school are intelligent, but don't put forth much effort because it isn't required. A lot of bad students put in little effort, because they assume they are stupid. Why weren't students taught the benefits of effort, or told the Calvin Coolidge quote on determination?

Intelligence may or may not be malleable, but effort is 100% malleable. And there are plenty of stories of people who used sheer effort(Edison) rather than God given talent (Einstein) to solve problems. But maybe if teachers taught students that effort was the main determinant of their outcomes (assuming class isn't graded on a curve), it might be damaging to their self-esteem, because they could only blame themselves for their failures.

Nacim writes:

You've convinced me to not do my homework and play video games instead. Now I don't feel so guilty since I have economics on my side.

Bill Churchill writes:

As with all dichotomies, that of the malleability or fixity of “intelligence,” is always best understood within the context of a “relevant range” of comparison to, and/or within a benchmark standard matrix. The issue of whether or not “intelligence” is merely a socially ascribed trait notwithstanding, the dichotomy you mention is best resolved by setting the range of what is measured—which action creates a kind of Heisenberg effect, where the fact and scope of measurement pre-determines the result.

Most people would say that Einstein or Leonardo were intelligent. In comparison to these gentlemen, the intelligence of the rest of us can be said to be “fixed.” However, within a narrower range of comparison, (using the questionable IQ model for the sake of argument), an IQ of 105 could be improved to one of 115 through one’s effort.

In other words, it’s not an “either-or” proposition. The implications for the exertion of personal effort are that one should be free to stretch as far as they can go--AND, that the only educational and professional limitations that should be set on anyone are those that can be found in nature, (one’s own nature and that of his varied existential contexts), rather than within the confines of social policy.

Posted by: Bill Churchill

TGGP writes:

Bill, your name will show up in your post due to you putting in the "name" box, you don't have to state it at the bottom.

talboito, it's not just an "assumption". There is a very high correlation between IQ as a youth and as an adult. Interventions like Head Start have not been shown to result in lasting increases in IQ.

TGGP writes:

An excellent overview can be found in the Gene Expression post g: A precis

B.S. writes:

Dr. Caplan assumes the intelligence curve is bounded from above. Therefore, each person has a "limit". Does anyone ever actually reach their limit? More interestingly, are there such things as divergent intelligences?

Bill Churchill writes:

“Intelligence,” like “Excellency” and “Royal Highness,” is a social myth. What distinguishes one as “intelligent” has more to do with the approbation of society, and less to do with one’s actual capacity to perform--which itself is largely socially constrained.

The IQ test is a game. It has a goal—to answer certain questions “correctly” within the time allotted. The purpose (measuring mental capacity) is not necessarily in line with the players’ goal (answering the test questions correctly). If two equally “gifted” children are called upon to select an answer to an IQ test problem, one having been told the above stated goal, and the other being told to, “just pick a choice;” the former will appear more intelligent than the latter-especially if the latter has chosen to play the “class clown.”

AND, the fact of this Choice is precisely my problem with the IQ test. The child who conforms to this “outer game” (the “proper” taking of an IQ test) will be deemed more “intelligent than” the child who marches to his own drummer. The former child will be a good socialist, large corporation manager or other type of lobbyist; the latter will be more likely than the former to turn out to be an Einstein, Edison or Leonardo.

We need to realize that anything good that was ever created was created by truly independent minds. Independent minds generally don’t take things (like IQ tests, God, the Easter Bunny, Republicans, Democrats, Conservatives or Liberals) on faith. They generally oppose capricious governments of any kind, be it “the” government, or a government privileged large corporation--A truly independent mind knows that there is NO difference between these two forms of public coercion and militancy against personal liberties. It is important that we understand that to maintain our private and public happiness requires as much, if not more dedication to personal liberty than creating it in the first place. Society tends to buckle under the burden of masters, whoever they may be. People do not create what they cannot enjoy—this is a fact of nature that all our wishes for social utopias cannot extinguish.

We need to get over our internal sense of dissonance about the independence of other people. Their independence is not a threat—the real threat is anyone’s capacity to take your independence from you through the creation and coalescence of governmental powers.

The problems we face as a society have to do more with our individual and collective lack of understanding of the concepts of “privacy” and “property” than they do with how we should order our social policies around such Gnosticisms as “Intelligence.”

Posted by Bill Churchill

B.S. writes:

Well gee, I thought we were discussing intelligences and not everything else...

But to respond, there is a such a thing as intelligence whether we are able to objectively and accurately measure it or not.

Back to the discussion, I've experienced this phenomenon myself. I was raised as a gifted child and always was told about how good I was and how smart I was and blah blah blah... So you know what I did? I decided that I didn't need to work hard, cuz I was already smart. It's probably best not to praise your children too much in this way, it can go to their head. Potential intelligence, like potential, can remain inert forever.

TGGP writes:

Bill, did you read the link I gave? IQ has more predictive power than any other piece of data social scientists have available to them. If you don't think Einstein and Edison had high IQs you don't know what you're talking about. There are IQ tests that are designed to lack any cultural/social bias like Raven's Progressive Matrices or Reverse Digit Span, basically leaving just raw cognitive horsepower. Eliminating cultural bias from a test results in a higher "g loading", which means it correlates more with other tests. I'm not trying to convince you of the normative worth of having a high IQ, just the empirical point that there is something real underlying it rather than a "social construction" which makes it such a good piece of data.

Bill Churchill writes:

An IQ Test is an instrument for indexing the relative “intelligence” of persons TO EACH OTHER. As such, it needs to rely on a contextual benchmark standard. Whatever the latest fad in “values free” indexing—it is still indexing—and the standard used for the indexing is still external to the person being tested.

Most people would agree that many vertebrate species have a higher intelligence than the cockroach—yet the cockroach has outlasted many such “more intelligent” species. If “native capacity,” (a 19th century pseudonym that somewhat more accurately illuminates the scope of what is now called “intelligence”), is what is being measured, the cockroach wins out over much of the rest of terrestrial life. I do not know the mind of a cockroach. I do not experience its opportunities or its challenges. But that is no reason to disrespect its ability to survive and thrive based on its “lack of intelligence.” Yes, it is true that any particular cockroach has a short life and that many would argue that the longevity of the species is based on its supposed “strategic bias” for surviving as a species over surviving as individuals—but what do I know of the mystery of the cockroach?

Nature has many things we don’t understand. We need to strive to understand them on their own terms, (and how we humans can benefit from that understanding), while refusing to stuff them in our own little categorical boxes. Humans thrive better as individuals. Humans seek personal niches, and cockroaches (it could be argued), seek species-based niches. (Even the “cockroach as socialist” argument begins to break down when you consider that it has been recently discovered that the actions of birds in flocks are predominantly individual, with the flocks themselves serving as market mechanisms that enable such groups to fly together more efficiently over long distances.)

The problem that we face with Gnostic concepts such as “intelligence” is that these are not “natural” concepts. They do not arise out of what is “real.” Then again, what is “real?” The answer to that question relies on the values of the measurer more than on the thing measured. “Reality” is based on “values.” Values are the objects of human actions. Human action is based on several dimensions of survival (personal, familial collective, etc.) That which can’t be explained as promoting survival in one of these dimensions can be explained as promoting it in another. When, as humans, we act on values, we often act on individual values. Having embraced a value, we strive consciously, or unconsciously, to achieve its obvious (or hidden) object.

Hence, what we decide to measure says as much about us as it does about the thing measured. What can we say about the spiritual-emotional-psychological thrust of a need to measure relative “intelligence?” It says that our value can only be defined according to a fixed external standard--selected by others—for their purposes. The focus is not on us as the individuals we are as human beings--Its focus is on “placement.” The IQ test was originally created for the purpose of determining who got what job in WW1. It is necessarily socially focused. It was created to peg people into fixed niches based on the desire of would-be masters. Once assigned, they intimate that, “you need not strive”—as you can never hope of being “measurably better.” The bottom line for the IQ measures is that they have chosen a life of control, brought about by their discomfort with the individuality of other people.

An outgrowth of this discomfort is that it has created many conservatives--who want do such things as to restrict social funding to various early childhood policy programs--and use the supposed narrowness of IQ differentials over time, (within the various out-groups measured), to bolster their argument. They are as bad or worse that the equally uncomfortable liberals who want to use the same tests to “equalize the group” divergences measured. The real problem is that we are not exploring the basis of forming a competent science for understanding the establishment of workable (and enduring) social contracts. Instead, we are quibbling over such Gnosticisms as “intelligence.”

TGGP writes:

Bill, a cockroach can live for about a week with its head removed before starving to death. Ability to survive and intelligence are two very distinct things. I am not disrespecting the former when I say cockroaches are not intelligent.

Also, IQ scores are normed to comparable people taking the same tests, but the tests themselves show an increase over time which has been dubbed "the Flynn effect". Once again I am going to implore you to read the link I posted. Ignoring IQ is not going to make it go away. It is very real and very significant.

Bill Churchill writes:

The "G"-spot tickle -- Part 4:

Dear TGGP, (whomever you are):

Thanks for the link. But, being intimately connected to the subject of psy-testing that you're alluding to when you laud the high predictability of intelligence testing, I can assure you I've seen it all before. I love playing with these people. I have done it all my life. I have scored from the low 80s to the high 160s on these so-called stable-predictor tests--mostly because I was able to see through their faulty methodologies. I even showed 2 shrinks, and a non-shrink tester, how their particular tests were faulty--the shrinks failed to "get it"--while the grad-student (tester) got it right away--so much for experts. These dolts (experts) are truly fixated on their "religion of g"--and the "wonders of statistics" confirms them in their belief. It was amazing how they "saw through" my rascally (Bugs Bunny) disguise, and "shot the wabbit," by again proving to themselves, (by Gnosticisms I cannot fathom), that their Gods reign and all is well in the world. Yes, they blinded me with "SCIENCE"--or so they believed. However, like our hero, "da wabbit," I will not give up--it is time to keep killing this, and a variety of other such sacred cows.

It is important to understand that correlation (whether internal or external) does not mean causality, it only points to the existence of possible relationships between the measurement made and the thing measured. Many bad ideas have been built up over the years due to logical fallacies. Throw in statistics--and now you have the equivalent of the classic case of the "vaulted ceiling and stained glass proof" of the existence of God. The misapplication of "statistics" is simply scientism run-amok. Its not necessarily lying, in the sense of intentionally fabricating untruths--It is simply begging the question of what is being measured. (I believe my former posts on this subject sufficiently explain the "what" that is actually being measured.) The real danger is that people can become pigeon-holed and assigned rolls based on such esoteric concepts as that of the unchangeable "g." Whether in the hands of totalitarian governments or the totalitarian mega-corporations of the likely future, "g" can be a potent force for the suppression of human survival--even for the survival of those that employ it. (I will not condone the burning of a witch--let alone the determination of whether or not a person is a witch by comparing her weight to that of a duck.)

I really do understand the need that many, (if not most), people feel to "control the rabble," so that we all may "survive in a shrinking world"--but it is the rabble is who, through its capacity to INNOVATE , creates survival. Smith's "Invisible Hand" has many more applications than the "pecuniary" one to which it has been banished. We cannot centrally plan our society--in ANY dimension--or for any motive--there is no God to save us from our own wanton stupidity in this regard. Even if there was such a God--such a salvation would be unfair to the rest of nature--as it would inevitably be granted at the expense of the rest of nature. Society is a venue of nature that lurches forth in the fits of creativity and stupidity, and these are part and parcel of the struggle between liberty and central planning.

The example of the felling of the Berlin Wall should be proof enough that people can, and do, suddenly see through the logical fallacies upon which their society can become based--so that when a society's structures are formed on shaky premisses, it will eventually crumble. The danger here is that such a revolution often creates a destructive wake in its path--a wake that will most often, (given human history), result in another society based on a similar set of "ideas" that eventually become nothing more than force and fraud. (The modern state of Russia, under Putin, is a classic example.)

Unfortunately, like the politburos of yesteryear, large corporation HR departments and personnel wonks fail to heed the lessons of the past--and dumbly stumble forward to a brave new world where their central planning fantasies will likewise need to be enforced at the point of a gun. The only way I can see out of this impending situation is to understand the various ways in-which market mechanisms can find natural orders within the chaotic aspects of natural social systems. By exploring social issues through this lens, we can create the security byproduct of a natural orderliness that we all seek--while solving our personal and collective problems through the greatest diversity of innovation possible at any given point in time.

We are living on borrowed time. Some day, we will encounter alien civilizations. The more prepared we are, through a greater diversity of available survival strategies, the more we will be able to interpret and respond to what we encounter. (Furthermore, if that encounter becomes adversarial--the less centrally planned we are, the less of a "head" the aliens will be able to find to cut off, and so sever us from our survival as a species.) So. let us put away the who-do voodoo of central planning, (and its justifications like IQ), and get on with fostering as much innovation as possible--before its too late, and we wind up like the original denizens of the western hemisphere on the day Columbus landed. Time is of the essence.

Let us not undo ourselves by playing the Elmer Fudd of the universe.

Posted by Bill Churchill

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