Placebo and Intelligence

In a recent experiment, psychologists “designed a procedure to intentionally induce a placebo effect” in order to test the claims of intelligence increasing software.[1]

What they found is quite interesting. In the control group (people who simply thought they were participating in an experiment) there was no different in pre and post training intelligence. But in the experimental group (who were told they were training to increase their intelligence) an increase in intelligence was measured (5-10 IQ points) after only one hour of training. In general, exercises designed to improve intelligence take several hours of training over the course of several weeks. This study was designed to remove the possibility of training based improvement.

Study

This are the fliers used to advertise the study. Placebo on the left, control on the right.

Basically the report revealed a problem with the design of several studies which advertise being a part of experiments that improve the brain as participants may improve performance simply because of reasons related to beliefs about intelligence. While the research should temper claims made by intelligence games, until their methods can be tested more thoroughly, I’m more interested in what this means about perception in relationship to human excellence.

Carol Dweck (whose work is mentioned in the study) posits that self-theories determine whether or not somebody will change, learn, or grow in a desired way. For instance, if somebody believes that they can improve, then when they face obstacles they will attempt to improve when they fail. But if somebody believes that they cannot improve then they are likely not to. So while there are genetic limits to IQ, it appears that within a certain range, change self-theories and perhaps cognitive training can improve IQ. I find Arthur Whimbey’s research on this compelling. Prior to computer games, like we have today, he found that teaching people to think procedurally and sequentially (out loud or writing out their thought processes) led to increase IQ scores and performance in school.

Anyhow, it’s worth a read.

[1] Cyrus K. Foroughi et al., “Placebo Effects in Cognitive Training,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (June 20, 2016), 1.

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