Motivation Trumps IQ. What now?Posted: September 6, 2012
An article recently posted in Slate reviews research showing that a significant portion of the variation in IQ tests is attributable to motivation rather than ability. In one striking study researchers measured the children’s IQ and split them into High, Average, and Low groups. They reran the test offering the low group an M&M for every correct answer. As a result of this simple incentive, the low group’s score went from 79 to 97 – on par with the average group.
Ok, so incentives work. Perhaps not a big surprise on many levels.
On the other hand, there is a large OB/HRM literature invested in the conclusion that performance increases are associated with hiring employees with a higher IQ. The assumption there is that IQ measures ability as opposed to motivation.
This raises a critical question for strategy scholars. Is motivation an immutable attribute of human capital (as the IQ literature would assume) or something that is fairly malleable? If it is immutable, the OB prescription of hiring “high motivation” (e.g., high IQ) individuals may still make some sense.
If motivation is more malleable, firms may be able to find people with innate ability and motivate them to apply it more effectively. Subsequent research by Carmit Segal suggests that such motivation may be a stable attribute in workers and related to long-run wages. It also turns out that research to take the M&M experiment to the next level has been a resounding failure. Motivation is complex and hard to accomplish on a large scale. Incentive programs for teachers, students or their families, as a matter of policy, don’t seem to be effective in increasing their performance.
Bus what if some firms, focused on a narrower population of individuals with specialized expertise, were more effective at motivating than others? Perhaps this motivation challenge is not quite as complex (if the population is more homogeneous). This might create value and, at the same time, the employees’ next best alternatives might not be nearly as attractive. A key implication here is that employees who are more motivated may or may not require more financial compensation. Motivation itself can be a powerful differentiator…