Incentives boost effort on IQ tests

Saturday, August 25th, 2018

Will intelligence test-taking performance increase if people are paid $75 to do well on the test? James Thompson takes a look:

This is an interesting question, because critics of intelligence testing have argued that some groups get low scores because they are not interested in the test, and can’t see the point of solving the problems. Perhaps so, although if you don’t get motivated by trying to solve problems that might be diagnostic in itself.

Gilles Gignac decided to have a look at this argument, seeing whether the offer of winning $75 Australian dollars boosted intelligence test scores in university students. For once, I am not too bothered by the subjects being university students, because they tend to have modest funds and healthy appetites.


The financial incentive was observed to impact test-taking effort statistically significantly. By contrast, no statistically significant effects were observed for the intelligence test performance scores.


One reason why test-taking motivation is correlated with intelligence test scores may be that bright people like solving problems. If they have to take a test, they look forward to it, knowing they usually do well, and are interested in finding out precisely how well they do. Less able students don’t like tests, and particularly get discouraged when they relate to difficult subjects.


  1. Harry Jones says:

    Smart people solve problems. Stupid people create problems.

    When I was young and nerdy, I wanted people to leave me alone so I could solve technical problems. Gradually I figured out that most technical problems are actually caused by people, and to solve technical problems as such is merely to treat the symptoms of human nature.

    I’ve known R&D people who take the stance that thinking analytically is something they do for pay, and when they go home at the end of the day they leave all that at the office. Some of them won’t even think logically at work unless they have no choice.

    There are two kinds of stupidity: lack of mental ability, and an unwillingness to use the mental ability one has. I consider the second a character flaw. This realization has led me to some dark places.

    I think there’s a Gladwell book that argues that skill correlates much more with practice than with anything else, and what we take for talent is nothing more than a willingness to put in the hours of practice to get good at something. People are born with an innate desire to get good at certain things – or at least do certain things to the point where they get good incidentally.

    My policy is to figure out what I need to be able to do well, and take that need as my motivation to get good at it, even if I hate it. The hardest part is the initial mental adjustment. After that it’s just slog.

  2. Kirk says:

    I agree with you in some respects,but I don’t find myself defining or using the word “stupid” as really relating to raw IQ-type “intelligence”.

    I think you have to carefully define your terms. There is “stupid-smart”, “stupid-dull”, and then there is the kind of stupid that leaves your jaw needing a floor scraper. It really isn’t something relating to a lot of what we term “intelligence”, at all–It stems mostly from poor judgment and an inability to foresee consequence. Dumb people exhibit just as much stupidity as smart ones do, but generally do less real harm. The smart ones scare the goolies out of me because they will come up with ill-judged actions and enterprises that a dumb person would never conceive.

    I find myself putting “stupid” along another axis than the “smart-dumb” one–Call it the “stupid-wise” axis, and relate that axis more to judgment than intelligence.

  3. Harry Jones says:

    I know a guy with an IQ in the 180′s. Even though mine doesn’t quite break 150 I catch him all sorts of blatant logical and even factual errors. I wondered about this, and then I realized:

    He never makes a mistake when it affects him personally. When there’s something at stake for him, he always gets it right. He’s only wrong about things he can easily afford to be dead wrong about. On those things, he has no feedback loop at all.

    I don’t call him a true friend because I don’t trust him. He could easily screw me over without exactly meaning to.

    We all specialize. We focus our attention on what matters to us. That includes our brainpower. That would be no problem if we all cared about the same things, but the unthinking stupidity of others impacts us every day. You could excuse them by saying “oh, he didn’t realize” but the truth is they choose not to realize.

    It won’t do any good to say people shouldn’t be so thoughtless. It’s human nature. It’s more than that: it’s a natural limitation of information processing. So I just look to protect myself from the “mistakes” of others.

    On the flip side, there’s the stock character in sitcoms of the well meaning person who wants to do good to everyone but keeps screwing it up by misunderstanding the situation. When I used to do charity work I often felt like that, like all the do-gooder stuff was missing the point somehow.

    I don’t believe in empathy. I mean that in the sense that an agnostic doesn’t believe in God. I doubt its existence. I never assume someone knows just how I feel even if he seems to think he does.

    I don’t consider anyone a fool unless he miscalculates his own self interest. Everyone will fail to consider what’s best for others, but to screw up what’s best for you? That’s not normal.

    One step above that is if you take care of your short term needs and wants while failing to plan ahead more than a year or two. I call that slightly below average. No consideration for future Homer.

  4. Kirk says:

    I think that the concept “intelligence”, at least as regards to how we talk about whatever it is that the usual IQ test is measuring, is badly defined, and the surrounding thinking that uses that term to discuss things relating to it is thus equally specious.

    I know some astoundingly “dumb” people who would never do some of the things I see very “smart” people do routinely, and it’s mostly due to that “wisdom factor” that’s missing when we discuss intelligence. Being able to figure out how to do something may indicate a sort of intelligence, but the guys and girls I want to be around are the ones who can make good decisions about whether or not to do that something in the first damn place.

    Whether we’re talking about courses of action in an emergency, or interpersonal relationships, the raw “figure it out” factor is always outweighed by the “is it wise to do this in the first place” factor. And, that’s something which is completely left off the damn intelligence tests, because it’s only apparent in real-world circumstances, not the rarefied and artificiality of the paper world we are testing in, hoping it is a decent proxy for the real world.

    Smart is as smart does; there are some supposedly really smart people that do nothing but dumb all day long, thinking that since they did really well on the tests they took in school that they’re absolute geniuses. Meanwhile, everyone around them is left cleaning up nothing but the messes they make.

    I’m not sure how the hell you could reliably and easily test for “wisdom”, but it’d sure be nice to know people’s “WQ”, or Wisdom Quotient along with their IQ.

  5. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Harry Jones…If it’s worth doing well, it’s worth doing wrong until you learn to do it well.

  6. Harry Jones says:

    Wisdom is learned. Intelligence is the ability plus the inclination to learn wisdom.

    Cultural wisdom is when you do what worked for your elders and ancestors. Cultural stupidity is when you do what didn’t work for them, simply because they did it. Cultural intelligence is knowing and caring about the difference.

    All human progress is the result of people acquiring new wisdom from their own experience. Societal stagnation is when people cling to what doesn’t work. Societal regress is when we reject what has been proven to work.

    Anybody can screw up, but not everybody can learn from screwing up.

  7. Kirk says:

    Harry Jones,

    See, this is one of the problems with language itself–It’s like color-blind people talking about color with those who aren’t. Your usages inevitably come to reflect your experiences, shaping how you see that particular word or phrase.

    In my experience, the word “intelligent” and “intelligence” are triggers for suspicion, because my references for them are shaped by my experience, and I’ve suffered a lot dealing with those who have been termed “intelligent” by the rest of society, or who have self-declared themselves as such.

    Usually in the absence of actual evidence to support such a thing.

    Thus, when I see and use the word “intelligent”, I’m thinking of that arrogant ass I had to deal with as a 20-something NCO, a MENSA member whose actual real-world performance demonstrated a lot of book-smart knowledge, and very little common sense.

    The term has been irrevocably polluted by that set of experiences with multiple people, and at the point I’m at now, the word/concept is almost an insult. Your own life experience and usages of the word are obviously different.

    Me? I’m with Hanns Johst, who actually wrote that line used by Goering: “Wenn ich Kultur höre…entsichere ich meinen Browning”, translated as: “When I hear culture…I unlock my Browning.”.

    I hear someone say they’re “intelligent”, or that something they’re doing is “intelligent”, I’m gonna be that guy edging away, and looking for the fire exit. ‘Cos, you see, I no longer associate “intelligence” with the virtues.

    Wisdom? Yeah, I’ll stick around for that…

  8. Harry Jones says:

    Words are words. To some people, words denote concepts. To others, they denote only attitudes and emotions. These people pollute language. When they’re done with the English vocabulary, we’ll be better off pointing and grunting.

    This is why I never take what people say at face value.

    I recently had a run-in with a mod who insisted that the definition of “bigotry” was a failure to assent to his point of view.

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