Friday, January 18, 2013

Motivation vs Intelligence

Quick armchair experiment: Imagine you have a 12 year old boy named Johnny. You have requested a conference with his 7th grade math teacher, Mr. Smith. When you ask Mr. Smith to explain Johnny’s relatively low report card grade for math, he says that Johnny is less intelligent than others in the class. How does that make you feel?

Now imagine a nearly identical scenario with only 1 difference: substitute “motivated” for “intelligent” so that Mr. Smith’s explanation for the low grade is that Johnny is less motivated than others in the class. How does that make you feel?

If you are like me you have had plenty of parents inquire about kids’ grades, and so have already put yourself in the place of this imaginary parent. And you likely never have nor ever will attribute poor performance to lack of intelligence -- that just seems cruel! But you probably have offered something like the second explanation: that little Johnny just hasn’t put in the effort required. If he just works harder his grades will improve. That sounds so much nicer.

The difference between the two explanations -- the reason the first seems cruel and the second nice -- may seem obvious, but only given an intuitive model of intelligence and motivation that I think needs revision. According to the model intelligence describes something about a person’s biology while motivation describes something about a person’s spirit. With this model intelligence limits a person, something like a person’s height, except even more broad in the scope of things a person won’t be able to do. Motivation, on the other hand, potentially expands the person. It feels like the immaterial medium through which we transcend our physical boundaries.

I'd like to point out two good reasons to get over this model. First, any conceptual model that relies on non-natural phenomena puts itself beyond the scope of science. What research program can you design to look for the sources of motivation if it is, in essence, a non-physical trait? Second, as new data emerge they must be reconciled with our models for understanding the underlying processes at work. Brain imaging studies, for example, may produce data about motivation that need explanation. Models built on non-physical attributes will not provide the foundation needed to accommodate these data and something will be forfeited -- either the best interpretation of the data or the model that we have come to rely on.

Most of the non-scientific community is ready to forfeit the best interpretation of the data. Social-scientific studies, particularly in education, also seem determined to follow human intuition and attempt to fit the data with outdated models of human agency. The rest of this post will illustrate with a case in point.

A small buzz began to hum in the blogosphere following the December publication of a new study about the sources of improvement in understanding math. [see] The website of the British Pschological Society led with: "Being motivated could be of greater importance than intelligence when it comes to academic achievement, new research has suggested." The post continued, "the study found a young person's growth in mathematics achievement is driven more by their determination and how they study rather than how smart they are." []

US News reported that "Innate intelligence -- as defined by IQ tests -- may provide a head start, but it's learning skills and determination that ultimately add up to success, according to the new research." []

Most tellingly, posted, "You don’t have to be born with math skills; solving problems is a matter of studying and motivation." This is a welcome finding, the author contends, because "...the findings provide reassuring confirmation that academic success is not governed by a student’s cognitive abilities alone." [emphasis mine] []

Thank goodness, these posts imply, math performance depends on something besides the brain -- even if ultimately the brain has to do the work. You are born with the brain (or at least the instructions for growing it) but motivation comes from somewhere else. Someone demanding a fully naturalistic account of math performance might like to know where to find all the non-cognitive human math abilities.

The appetite for this kind of news is abundant and calls out for an explanation. One reason is that it seems to support the intuitive model that motivation and intelligence are different. This feeds into the desire that parents and teachers feel to help young people. It's hard to imagine ways to intervene to increase intelligence but easier to imagine ways to intervene to increase motivation. It likely goes even deeper, though, to the sense of personal efficacy that correlates with perception of control. When we feel that something is outside of our control -- then it is outside of our control. Conversely, to the extent we are convinced that something is within our control, we actually gain a concomitant measure of control over it.

The intuitive model of human motivation requires that it works something like Dumbo's magic feather. Both posit the need for magical source of power. The point of the story, though, was that the feather wasn't actually magic. And for Dumbo to think that flying depended on magic made his flying susceptible to what nature would ultimately reveal -- that the feather was just a feather, and what mattered was Dumbo's belief about himself.

The intuition about motivation is like Dumbo's belief about the feather. It may have served to foster a sense of self-efficacy, but we have to grow past the belief that it's source is other-worldly if our powers are to continue. Continued research in neuroscience will likely reveal that motivation is a cognitive ability just like intelligence. It is built into the brain, varies from person to person, and worst of all, levels of motivation probably remain stable within one person. I think it is likely we will learn we have no more power to intervene over intrinsic motivation than over intelligence.

That intelligence and motivation are both real and physically mediated in the brain does not need to imply that our involvement as teachers and parents is wasted. Understanding how someone processes information and how they are self-motivated gives us the tools -- perhaps the only tools -- for appropriate intervention. Discussing the intelligence of the children we work with should not be any more taboo than discussing relative levels of motivation.


  1. Reading your post, it is difficult to avoid a sense of pessimism for a teacher, parent, coach who wants to affect outcomes of a young person. That feeling is itself demotivating. As you say: "When we feel that something is outside of our control -- then it is outside of our control." And the converse is true as well.

    Maybe there is a more useful dichotomy than natural (materialistic?) vs. supernatural/"other-worldly." Perhaps an appropriate paradigm might be nature vs nurture (environment). Surely there are numerous examples of charismatic leaders who can inspire their charges to do far more than they otherwise would have willed. Even if this influence is to some extent built on deception and manipulation, it is nevertheless motivation coming from somewhere other than the achiever's brain. I would posit that there is an entire industry of motivational speakers and life coaches that pedal concepts and platitudes that are not entirely based on objective fact. Sometimes, they are just bold faced lies, which does not dispute their effectiveness.

    Maybe a more secular concept of "spiritual" is useful as well. Spirit as a positive or energetic frame of mind can be contagious, providing a will to action for other individuals or a group.

    1. "Johnny" performs at a lower level than other kids in his class. If we attribute it to (his) lack of motivation, is that just shorthand for the relative absence of external motivators (motivational parents, speakers, coaches, etc)? If not, if we are still talking about Johnny's motivation, why is that different from Johnny's intelligence?

  2. I agree with your earlier point that a teacher is more likely to speak of lack of motivation than lack of intelligence, because somehow it seems more polite. This may be because we perceive that motivation can more easily be remediated. As you point out, we may find that this is not true. Maybe it's all about hope.