Oct. 5, 2011 — -- If you think you can, you probably can. If you think you can't, you probably can't.
New research shows that it's how you think about your level of intelligence and your ability to grow that determines how quickly you can correct even a minor error and move on. The work suggests that it's not whether you can pump your IQ up a notch or two, but whether you think you can that really matters.
Psychologists at Michigan State University in East Lansing conducted a series of experiments to see if "mind set" makes a difference in how humans process and react to mistakes. And it turns out that it not only makes a difference, it does so almost instantaneously.
"It all happens in the first quarter of the first second after the mistake is made," psychologist Jason Moser, lead author of a study that will be published soon in Psychological Science, said in a telephone interview.
Research by others has shown that "mind set" matters when addressing big mistakes. But Moser's team wanted to bring it down to the nitty-gritty. Does it matter in the trivial mistakes we make every day of our lives? It does, according to the research.
The researchers recruited 25 undergraduates at Michigan State for the project. That's a small sample, but the effect was so large that Moser is comfortable with the study. It has also been corroborated by other research in his lab.
The participants (20 females, five males) were wired to a series of sensors connected to an encephalograph to measure electronic impulses showing how quickly they responded to an error, and whether they did better in a subsequent test. The test itself was incredibly simple.
As the participants sat in front of a computer, a series of letters repeatedly flashed across the screen -- for example, either nnnnn or nnmnn. They were to push a button one way if the letters were all the same, or another way if the middle letter was different.
They had only a few milliseconds to make a decision, but still got it right most of the time. But when they made a mistake -- simply pushing the button the wrong direction -- there were two electronic responses. The first, which Moser calls the "Oh crap response," indicated something had gone wrong, and a second response indicated whether the participant tried to correct the error.
The session included 480 trials. The participants were then asked a series of questions to determine if they thought their intelligence is innate and immutable and there's nothing they can do to change it, or if they thought they could continue to raise their intelligence and grow.
Four similar questions were asked, including how strongly they agreed, or disagreed, with this statement: "You have a certain amount of intelligence and you really cannot do much to change it."
The bottom line: Participants who through they could raise their intelligence performed far better than those who thought they couldn't.
"The growth-minded people had a larger attention signal to their mistakes, and that's why they ended up doing even better on the next trial," Moser said. "Their brains are tuned differently at a very fundamental, basic level."
Or as the study concludes, "We therefore show that growth-minded individuals are characterized by superior functionality of a very basic self-monitoring and control system."
Can You Raise Your IQ? Do You Think You Can?
The study does not address the long-standing debate among psychologists over whether IQ can be raised, although there is substantial evidence that under some circumstances it can. Psychologists have found, for example, that some adopted children have IQs that are 20 percent higher than those of their biological siblings. Other studies have indicated that nutrition at an early age can affect intelligence.
But no one, other than pill pushers, thinks it's easy to raise intelligence. Maybe over the long haul it does change, for better or for worse, but Moser thinks it is probably very difficult to achieve, and at least as far as his study is concerned, possibly irrelevant.
There is more at work than simply intelligence, he said. Motivation and effort "are huge," he added, and they are not just dependent on intelligence.
They also, according to this research, need the right "mind set."
Moser's study opens with this quote from Henry Ford:
"Whether you think you can or think you can't, you are right."