High IQ (but not low IQ) people do better with a ‘do-your-best’ mentality

Source: canva.com

Source: canva.com

The Journal of Applied Psychology recently published a study looking at the relationship between general mental ability (GMA) and task performance. Past research has repeatedly found that GMA and task performance have a robust positive relationship. This led to the belief that the more intelligent a person is, the better they perform. Makes sense.

However, the current study provides evidence that when high GMA individuals are under pressure, they perform worse than those with lower levels of GMA under similar situations.

It’s believed that the process works as following: When high GMA individuals are placed under intense pressure, their mental resources are consumed to a greater degree by intrusive thoughts, worries, and performance anxieties. This makes it harder for these perfectionistic type individuals to adapt to a dynamic performance environment. Ironically, their intellectual competence might be the thing that hinders their ability to perform well.

This led the researchers to propose the following: setting goals that are associated with lower levels of pressure (i.e. learning goals and do-your-best goals) could increase adaptive performance in dynamic environments for high GMA individuals.

source: canva.com

source: canva.com

The study and findings

The research team recruited 261 undergraduate business students to participate in a stock market exercise. Before the experiment began, each participant had their GMA measured through an online test known as the Wonderlic Personnel Test Quicktest (WPT-Q). Following this, each participant was assigned to one of the three goal-type treatment conditions: performance goals, learning goals, and do-your-best goals.

Each participant was asked to estimate the pricing for multiple stocks given potential indicators of firm value (e.g. advertising, revenue growth). Initially, participants were unaware of how the indicators were related to the correct price. However, after each trial, they were provided with the correct stock price. This gave the participants the chance to determine how reliable the indicators were.

Their performance was measured by the distance between the individual’s estimate of the stock price and the correct price. In the performance goal group, participants were told they must estimate a stock price within $7 of the correct price in order to be successful. Participants in the learning goal group were instructed to identify and implement seven effective strategies to maximize their performance. Lastly, participants in the do-your-best group were instructed to simply do their best.  

The experimenters also added three subtle manipulations to mimic the dynamics of the constantly-changing business environment. Each person was exposed to the same three treatment changes.

The first change, known as dynamic complexity, involved changing the relationship between indicators of firm value and the correct stock price. Originally, market share was a significant indicator of the correct stock price. After the change was implemented, market share could no longer be used as a reliable predictor. Another indicator, revenue growth, experienced the opposite effect.

For their second change, known as component complexity, the researchers increased the number of indicators that affected the correct stock price.

Finally, coordinator complexity was implemented, making each indicator equally valid. This final change increased complexity because no single indicator could be relied on more than the other indicators when determining the correct price. The participants ability to adapt to each change was measured and factored into their results. Over the span of 90 minutes, each participant was presented with 270 decision trials.

source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30628803

source: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30628803

The results are displayed in the graph above. In the do-your-best and learning goal conditions, those higher in GMA (right side of the graph) displayed a strong ability to adapt to changes throughout the experiment. This allowed them to vastly outperform those lower in GMA (left side of the graph). On the other hand, higher GMA individuals in the performance goal condition didn’t display a superior ability to adapt. In fact, they performed very similar to those lower in GMA.

This leads us to the question: why do goals that focus on learning or doing your best provide an advantage for higher GMA individuals? The key factor that differentiates these goals from performance goals is their lack of pressure. As previous research has shown, individuals with higher intellectual abilities are more prone to choke under pressure. The results of this study support the hypothesis that setting goals that are associated with lower levels of pressure can allow a higher GMA individual to perform at an optimal level.

Results applied: Improve performance with the right goals

Setting goals can be incredibly beneficial. Individuals who set goals tend to reach higher achievements as well as experience more intrinsic motivation. However, as this study points out, not all goals are effective. Although they often function as a driving force towards success, they can also hinder your performance. That’s why it’s important to set the right kind of goals.

Start by taking an online test to measure your GMA (from above). If you scored on the lower end, you will benefit from setting performance goals. If you scored on the higher end, try setting do-your-best and learning goals.

  • Performance goals: Pursuing this type of goal requires you to direct your attention to the outcome of a task, rather than the process. Too much focus on the outcome (e.g. whether or not you’ll meet your goal) can increase the amount of pressure. This, in turn, can cause higher GMA individuals to choke. However, those lower in GMA don’t experience the choking effect because they’re often unaffected by additional pressure. Set performance goals by picking an area you want to be successful in and set a high (but attainable) standard. As you work towards this goal, ensure that you are performing at your absolute best in order to achieve the desirable outcome.

  • Learning goals: Learning goals require you to come up with multiple approaches to completing a task. This leads to greater focus on the process, rather than the outcome. An emphasis on the process means more information can be consumed, allowing you to capture the complexity of the situation. Altogether, this can enhance adaptive performance for higher GMA individuals. Set learning goals by writing down a goal you’d like to achieve. Then write down at least seven approaches you can take to achieving this goal.

  • Do-your-best goals: These goals allow for a wide range of acceptable performance levels because they don’t have a specified standard. For high GMA individuals, the lack of pressure associated with do-your-best goals minimizes their risk of choking. The key to setting do-your-best goals is quite simple: don’t set any goals. Just perform to the best of your abilities. It eases the tension of a perfect performance, where success becomes a natural byproduct of the process.