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Performative intelligence - The Ex-Communicator

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January 25th, 2009


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10:51 am - Performative intelligence
I've said before that I think intelligence is a role you can step into: you decide what level of performance is appropriate for you, and you expend the energy you need to maintain that position. When you need to act smart you can, when you don't, you relax. Some people try hard on IQ tests (and exams etc.) because it is important to them to do well. Others don't try, or panic, or don't have the confidence to keep at difficult questions.

I think it's particularly difficult for people who are told by the people around them that they aren't very good. When a confident person is confronted by a hard maths question, her thought processes go something like 'OK, Don't panic, you've been through this before. Time to concentrate. Now what worked last time...' Someone with exactly the same level of maths ability who thought 'This is impossible, I'm no good at maths, hurry on to the next question' would get a lower mark, despite being just as clever.

Here's an interesting study which seems to support my theory:

Dr. Friedman and his colleagues compiled a brief test, drawing 20 questions from the verbal sections of the Graduate Record Exam, and administering it four times to about 120 white and black test-takers during last year’s presidential campaign... On the initial test last summer, whites on average correctly answered about 12 of 20 questions, compared with about 8.5 correct answers for blacks. But on the tests administered immediately after Mr. Obama’s nomination acceptance speech... black performance improved, rendering the white-black gap “statistically nonsignificant,” he said.


I think the same goes for women, the same goes for working class people. If you can make people more confident, if you have a theory that differences between people are flexible, then people can do much better. Which actually proves the point.

ETA - obviously that study is only a few days old and has not been peer-reviewed yet. I'm not claiming it literally 'proves' anything. I just mean this is the sort of thing I was talking about.

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Comments:


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From:azdak
Date:January 25th, 2009 11:41 am (UTC)
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Someone with exactly the same level of maths ability who thought 'This is impossible, I'm no good at maths, hurry on to the next question' would get a lower mark, despite being just as clever.


Does this mean you think there is some base-line of objectively determinable "natural ability"? Because the rest of your entry seems to argue that there isn't really any such thing - that intelligence is a matter of "performing", the outcome of a set of largely unconscious decisins based on where you want to position yourself, and what you believe you can achieve.

I have no trouble believing that confidence enables a person to perform better at pretty much anything, though I'm less sure that this particular study proves anything at all. The test was administered 4 times, to a total of 84 black subjects, which means an average of 21 black participants per test. The educational standard ranged from high school drop-put to PhD holder. That gives us at least five basic levels of academic attainment (dropped out of high school finished high school, dropped out of university, completed university, completed higher degree). And that in turn means an average of 4 black subjects per academic level per test. The results are going to come out very differently if you have one fewer high school drop-put in the post-Obama test.

Moreover, they managed to find over 330 white subjects for the tests, which means you get more of a levelling effect in their results - outliers have less of an impact the more participants you have.

In other words, this looks like a non-study to me.
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From:communicator
Date:January 25th, 2009 12:16 pm (UTC)
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Yes, well the study itself can stand or fall by its own strengths. But I do feel that studies like this, if repeated enough, will lend support to the idea that what we call intelligence is actually the result of a load of decisions, which are made moment by moment.

Your question is a good one: in my post criticising the idea of innate ability, I do fall back on talking as if there is such innate ability. In fact, yes, to be honest I think there probably is. But I think the effect of motivation, confidence, etc is so massive that it renders all modern generalisations about race, gender and class unhelpfully inaccurate. I doubt whether we even begin to understand what people are capable of.

OTOH My partner is very good at playing the guitar, and he thinks anyone could do it as well as he can if they persist and practice. I actually don't think I could ever be as good as him, whatever I did. I think he's projecting how own ability, generously, onto others. So - in some cases I am happy to say 'I don't have this ability' and I don't think I could get it. But who knows? I may be just as much a prisoner of expectation in this.
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From:happytune
Date:January 25th, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)
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I wonder if the damaging thing to confidence isn't some kind of perpetuated sense of /innate/ ability as a kind of starting point, but rather the sense of a /maximum/ capability? So expressed, damagingly in my view, as people 'achieving their potential', which psychologists since Vygotsky have been proving is a load of nonsense.
[User Picture]
From:azdak
Date:January 25th, 2009 04:43 pm (UTC)
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Yes, I think that's a very good point. One can better at anything, with the right teaching methods, but that doesn't mean we're all going to improve to the same point. And we certainly don't all start from the same point, for various reasons, one of which is almost certainly related to "innate" ability. My singing is painful to the ear, and while good singing lessons would probably improve things a bit, I'm starting from a very low point indeed!
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:January 25th, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC)
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I remember you talking about that last week
From:cdybedahl
Date:January 25th, 2009 12:23 pm (UTC)
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I got this right next to your post on my friends list.
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From:communicator
Date:January 25th, 2009 12:30 pm (UTC)
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Yes. Kids working in bars add up the cost of long complicated orders in their heads - they can all do it. In countries where people tip the bar staff, all the drunk customers work out charge+15% (or whatever) in a flash.
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From:vilakins
Date:January 25th, 2009 04:04 pm (UTC)
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I agree; people tend to perform to their and others' expectations.

But on the tests administered immediately after Mr. Obama’s nomination acceptance speech... obviously that study is only a few days old

When was he nominated? August? So it's months rather than days. :-)
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:January 25th, 2009 08:07 pm (UTC)
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Oh, yes, I misread it, but in any case the article says it isn't peer-reviewed yet
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From:hafren
Date:January 25th, 2009 04:14 pm (UTC)
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My mother was convinced she couldn't do anything relating to maths or computing - "all those numbers". She could, however, knit Aran sweaters. Ever seen one of those patterns? They were sodding great graphs needing the ability to keep sequences of numbers firmly fixed in the head. But that was OK, because they weren't called graphs but knitting patterns, and hence something she expected to be able to do.
[User Picture]
From:happytune
Date:January 25th, 2009 04:21 pm (UTC)
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:-) My partner is a mathematician, and said the same thing when he saw my knitting patterns.

[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:January 25th, 2009 08:09 pm (UTC)
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Yes, good example.

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