The effect of motivation on IQ scores, standardized tests

A study suggests that IQ tests are not just testing intelligence but are also indicators of the test taker’s motivation:

The link between our IQs and our fates becomes muddier when we consider motivation – an aspect of test-taking that is often ignored. Simply put, some people try harder in IQ tests than others. If you take this into account, the association between your IQ and your success in life becomes considerably weaker. The tests are not measuring intelligence alone, but also the desire to prove it.

Many standardized tests assume that the people who take them are alert and motivated. As such, their scores reflect the height of their abilities. IQ tests are no different. The questions are ordered by difficulty to keep people’s morale up. Edward Thorndike, a pioneer of intelligence testing, wrote that “all our measurements assume that the individual in question tries as hard as he can to make as high a score as possible”, although he admitted that no one knew if that was the case…

Duckworth herself recognizes that people who actually administer the tests will be well aware of the issue of motivation. She says, “Where the problem lies, in our view, is in the interpretation of IQ scores by economists, sociologists, and research psychologists who have not witnessed variation in test motivation firsthand. [They] might erringly assume that a low IQ score invariably indicates low intelligence.”

Is this view common? Sternberg thinks so, pointing to the fact that Duckworth’s study was newsworthy enough to be published in PNAS, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals. “[This shows] how off-track our society has gone in its acceptance of commercial persuasive appeals to buy into standardized tests as some kind of panacea for predicting almost any outcome in life that we value.

I would be interested in hearing more about what helps determine a test-taker’s motivation. This report hints at this: “motivation is itself affected by a person’s background, and their beliefs in their future options and their chances of success.” This sounds like it is tied to social class and might fit with Annette Lareau’s work regarding the “concerted cultivation” of middle- and upper-class parenting versus the “natural growth” approach taken by lower-class parents.

The last two paragraphs of the quoted section above gets at two broader issues: academics (including sociologists?) who might take IQ tests as signs of intelligence and the public’s faith in standardized testing. I can’t imagine too many sociologists would say that IQ tests are a great measure of intelligence but the larger issue regarding standardized testing is an important one. But if standardized tests are also picking up the effect of motivation, is this necessarily bad – wouldn’t higher levels of motivation be seen as a good thing for most uses of standardized tests?

Additionally, I think I have heard of elementary school teachers trying to boost the motivation levels of students for standardized tests. But does the same thing happen at higher levels, like high school or college? Is this something that college professors should pay more attention to?

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