Motivation Trumps IQ. What now?

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…

5 Comments on “Motivation Trumps IQ. What now?”

  1. Maryellen MacDonald says:

    Russ, you may be interested in the malleability of motivation in these motivation/performance studies by my colleague (our neighbor) Judy Harackiewicz, in which they have people write about the personal utility value of hard work in an area, the idea being that the writing exercise brings to conscious awareness and solidifies the personal benefits of good performance in an area of at least modest interest. Most of the studies to date are in education; not clear whether such manipulations would also be effective for high expertise employees in a company. Here’s a sample:

  2. RussCoff says:

    Thanks Maryellen. You’ll have to introduce me to our neighbor!

    If only I could use this to motivate my students…

  3. Janice Molloy says:

    Russ, fascinating post! The article and your thinking speak to just how complex relationships are between human capital and individual and firm performance are. An interesting question is how conscientiousness and motivation tend to relate. The HR-OB literature notes how highly conscientious and intelligent (high iq or general mental ability) tend to have better job performance. Understanding how motivation influences these relationships is an important area for future research.

    Thanks for the post, Russ, and thanks for the links to interesting work in the education literature Russ and MaryEllen! You’ve pointed to some nice opportunities for cross-disciplinary research.

  4. stevepostrel says:

    Maybe the attempts to expand the motivation results to the classroom setting failed because they stopped rewarding everybody with M&Ms. How many reinforcers do you know of that are so effective people keep consuming them even though they are starting to feel sick?

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