Sweet!


This blows me away:

Suppose you pay children in the 5th and 6th grades, right when you think of the achievement gap opening up between blacks and whites, to take an IQ test.

Say you have unmotivated black kids living in the middle of the ghetto and white kids from Scarsdale or some other upper-class neighborhood. You give each kid who gets a successful answer one M&M — just give them an M&M — and you say for each point extra on the IQ test, each correct answer, I’ll give you one more M&M. It turns out that the gap between the black and white student in the IQ test scores vanishes — vanishes completely.

If I’d heard this from almost anyone else, I’d be instantly skeptical. But I heard it from Jim Heckman, who sets the standard for caution and reliability in social science. I highly recommend the whole interview; you can read it here.

Click here to comment or read others’ comments.

Share/Save

28 Responses to “Sweet!”


  1. 1 1 Andy

    I have always thought that you can excercise your brain and your IQ. I know that there are brain training games and such but I am not sure these actually do much good given how simple they are. It feels similar to excercising leading to better fitness but those games are a bit like walking up the stairs instead of using the elevator – if you are not fit all you will get is out of breath, you will still be unfit unless you hit the gym. Anyway, it’s a shame that a lot of people still think they are just born with a certain level of “smartness”.

  2. 2 2 Harold

    Veryt interesting article. The Flynn effect – IQ has risen each generation since the 1930′s- shows us that what is being measured by these tests is not innate just intelligence. This shows us that motivation is a big part of it, which perhaps should not surprise us.

    This finding seems to contradict one here:
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160289609001561
    which claims black/white difference is unlikely to be environmental.

  3. 3 3 roystgnr

    http://www.researchgate.net/publication/6988001_The_effects_of_primary_reward_on_the_I.Q._performance_of_grade-school_children_as_a_function_of_initial_I.Q._level

    Trying to use incentives, particularly candies, to affect children’s IQ test results, seems to date back decades. I found the above study using this methodology and reporting a dramatic improvement in scores of initially-low-IQ kids (along with no change for medium or high scorers). But it wasn’t segregated by race, so I’m still not sure what the exact study being referred to by Heckman is.

  4. 4 4 RPLong

    Further to Andy’s point, my view has always been that people who are more familiar with logic games and logic puzzles grow more adept at solving them. I don’t think this is due to the fact that brains get smarter as they practice, so much as it is due to the fact that certain kinds of puzzles are unfamiliar until you familiarize yourself with them.

    I think of my father, who could solve the crossword puzzle in the Sunday newspaper in 10 minutes. I asked him once how he knew some of the more obscure words, and he explained to me that the more you do crossword puzzles, the more you figure out what words they’re looking for.

    I think the same is true for the kinds of logic puzzles they have on IQ tests. Someone who has very little exposure to these sorts of puzzles finds them more difficult than someone who has already done such puzzles on previous occasions.

  5. 5 5 Ken B

    @Harold: Great point. I think the Flynn effect is an embarassment for those (like me) who think IQ tests have predictive value. It simply cannot be true that we are 2 standard deviations smarter than the people of 1913. So the Flynn effect shows up a serious problem with the tests.

    So perhaps the Flynn Effect measures the annual sales of M&Ms!

  6. 6 6 Eliezer

    Don’t let Bloomberg find out about this. As chief of the food police, he would arrest you for giving m&m’s to kids.

  7. 7 7 Floccina

    So would we conclude from that the black students are not less intelligent or less well prepared but less motivated. If so the question is why, especially seeing that they are poorer which one expect to make people work harder. Perhaps some segment or the population has decided for some reason that the dis-utility of work is not worth the pay off. Very puzzling.

  8. 8 8 Floccina

    So would we conclude from that the black students are not less intelligent or less well prepared but less motivated. If so the question is why, especially seeing that they are poorer which one expect to make people work harder. Perhaps some segment or the population has decided for some reason that the dis-utility of work is not worth the pay off. Very puzzling.

  9. 9 9 Brandt Kurowski

    But immediately after the quotation you cited, he goes on to say

    “If you take disadvantaged, minority children starting at age six to eight weeks […] and give them intensive interventions for about eight years, you can boost their IQ”

    and that to do these interventions:

    “What you do is do what a normal middle-class parent does.”

    So which is it: is there no IQ gap between disadvantaged kids and advantaged kids when both are properly motivated? Or do disadvantaged kids have lower IQs than normal middle class kids because they haven’t been raised with the same interventions?

    Am I missing something, or are these two options mutually exclusive?

  10. 10 10 RPLong

    @Floccina – Don’t you remember what it was like to be a sixth grader? The only reason I cared about performing well on tests was because I had a reputation for getting good grades. I had plenty of intelligent classmates who couldn’t have cared less about school work. This was true regardless of socioeconomic background or race. Not everyone views schoolwork as their chosen method of “getting ahead,” especially when they are 12 years old!

  11. 11 11 Andy

    @4

    “Further to Andy’s point, my view has always been that people who are more familiar with logic games and logic puzzles grow more adept at solving them. I don’t think this is due to the fact that brains get smarter as they practice, so much as it is due to the fact that certain kinds of puzzles are unfamiliar until you familiarize yourself with them.”

    I would say that this IS getting smarter since we measure smartness by these tests (or in terms of thinking the way you start to think if you practice these tests).

  12. 12 12 Martin-2

    Andy (11): “I would say that this IS getting smarter… in terms of thinking the way you start to think if you practice these tests”

    This depends on whether the test-taker generalizes their new puzzle-solving skills to outside the test room.

  13. 13 13 Ken B

    @RPLong:
    I can remember in some early grade, grade 3 or 4 by inference, they gave us “tests”. No reason given. But it wouldn’t affect our marks. That was the day I learned to wiggle my ears, so I spent a lot of time during the test wiggling my ears. I assume these were IQ tests; Lord knows what they did to the scores. I even distracted the kid next to me, who watched me wiggle them.

    That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

  14. 14 14 nobody.really

    It simply cannot be true that we are 2 standard deviations smarter than the people of 1913.

    Uh, guys…? 1913 wasn’t all Downton Abbey, you know. Consider the popular music of the era: “Ballin’ the Jack” and “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam.” Plus, it was the height of the maudlin Irish craze: “Danny Boy,” Peg ‘o My Heart,” “Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Looral.”

    In contrast, when people were exposed to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – they rioted. Literally.

    So, is it crazy to think that the average person may have grown more intelligent since then? Reflect on “When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam” before you make any snap judgments. Just sayin’….

  15. 15 15 conor

    @nobody.really

    I’d be surprised if the average person weren’t smarter than his turn of the 20th counterpart. That said, I’d be even more surprised if his counterpart was on average mildly retarded.

    Also, I wouldn’t go to music quality as a defense of Flynn given the scientifically confirmed simplicity of modern chart-toppers.

    Taking Flynn even further back, what do you think would be the IQ score of say the drafters of the Magna Carta given that the average must be 100. What would the average person of that time have scored on an IQ test with today’s scoring.

    Hell, what if we compared Virgil or Euclid to his temporal compatriots and then both of them to our average.

    I’m probably overlooking something important in all of this.

  16. 16 16 Ken B

    @14: Yes it is crazy. Two sigma is HUGE.

    And post riot Sacre — first performance only btw — quickly became the most influential piece of music since Tristan und Isolde, so there’s that.

  17. 17 17 RichardR

    I think you should remain skeptical until a peer-reviewed paper is published demonstrating the result. Moreover one study means little because you also need to know how many studies come to different conclusions. If hundreds of studies are done into the black-white IQ gap it’s not surprising if a few find that the gap can be explained environmentally.

  18. 18 18 nobody.really

    Also, I wouldn’t go to music quality as a defense of Flynn given the scientifically confirmed simplicity of modern chart-toppers.

    In 1976 the US was awash in national Bicentennial-inspired restrospectives. Most were perfectly forgettable, but I recall one parody with an Alistair Cooke look-alike reviewing popular music down through the ages. In a slow, solemn voice he intoned lyrics from the nation’s beginning,

    Yankee Doodle. Keep it up.
    Yankee Doodle Dandy.
    Mind the music. And the step.
    And with the girls be … “handy.”

    middle,

    Hurrah. Hurrah.
    Oh, the men will cheer.
    The boys will shout.
    The little old ladies will all turn out.
    And they’ll all feel … gay….
    When Johnny comes marching home….”

    and end (up until that point).

    Move it in. Move it out.
    Shake it in. Shake it out.
    Disco lady….

    From that point on, I became convinced that music was the ultimate yardstick for specious intertemporal comparisons.

  19. 19 19 Floccina

    BTW I think he is comparing the underprivileged children with the m&m motivation against the upper-class kids without.

  20. 20 20 Conor

    Internet arguments are so impersonal. Call me maybe?

  21. 21 21 Patrick R. Sullivan

    Am I the only one to notice this;

    ‘In some states over 80 percent of African-American families are now single parent. Even among Hispanic families it’s a staggering figure, which has traditionally not been the case. To the extent that those early environments are actually worsening in this dimension, that should translate — and does seem to translate — into deteriorating conditions for the next generation.

    ‘So what you’re getting is kids growing up in a new form of child poverty. That new form of child poverty is actually threatening their ability to go to school, their willingness to learn, their attitudes and their motives. That’s a major source of inequality.’

    It’s not the shortage of M&Ms.

  22. 22 22 Floccina

    Also, I hate to the one who has to post this, I wonder if white kids could jump if we motivated them with M&M’s. At an early age of course.

  23. 23 23 Doug

    Two words: twin studies.

  24. 24 24 ed

    I’m surprised that Steve is so impressed by a single chatty and not-very-specific reference to some kind of study involving candy, when it seems inconsistent with (1) most previous research (2) the decades of practical failures of efforts to “close the gap” (3) even Heckman’s research agenda itself, which seems to be about early intervention improving cognitive function.

    I would be willing to bet that this study is much less important than it may seem from the description.

  25. 25 25 Harold

    ed – I am not sure about your points. (1) It is consistent with some other research not consistent with other research. I think it a bit premature to say it is inconsistent with “most previous research”. Perhaps a recent review article could shed some light? (2) The decades of practical failures are not failures. The black-white reading gap narrowed from 1.25 standard deviations in 1971 to 0.69 standard deviations in 1996. The math gap fell from 1.33 to 0.89 standard deviations. (3) Heckman’s agreed with the punchline “Genes are very important, but the environment in which genes are expressed is really your destiny.” M&M’s are part of the environment. I don’t see a contradiction.

    That said, it does seem hard to pin down the origins of the claim that differences disappeared.

  26. 26 26 Darin Johnson

    Larger tests have not replicated the result Heckman describes. I share “ed”‘s surprise that our host was so impressed by this.

  27. 27 27 Economiser

    @ Darin #26:

    Were those larger tests sponsored by Hershey’s?

  28. 28 28 Tim Fitzgerald

    I can see the merit in providing competent parenting to innocent children whose own parents are unable or unwilling to do so themselves. The argument goes that the expense is recouped, in the future, in a society with more productive citizens and fewer incarcerated criminals.

    Fair enough, but if you are going to make an economic argument you also have to address the source of the problem. If child “A” is produced by incompetent parents and society bears the cost and the responsibility for the upbringing of that child, then society has an interest in preventing children “B”, “C”, “D”, etc., from being left on the doorstep.

    My libertarian self and my inner taxpayer are odds over this issue.

    Tim

Comments are currently closed.