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How Smart Are You - Answer Carefully

IQ TestFlickr photo by Alberto G.

Do you think you are pretty intelligent? If you don't think so, perhaps you should start thinking differently. In fact, as reported in past issues of the Brainpower Newsletter, how you answer the question of how smart you are can actually affect test scores.

Yes, you read that correctly. Your belief or even your pretense that you're smarter can affect intellectual performance. In Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink, there is this interesting bit of research reported:

Two Dutch researchers did a study in which they had groups of students answer forty-two fairly demanding questions from the board game Trivial Pursuit. Half were asked to take five minutes beforehand to think about what it would mean to be a professor and write down everything that came to mind. Those students got 55.6 percent of the questions right. The other half of the students were asked to first sit and think about soccer hooligans. They ended up getting 42.6 percent of the Trivial Pursuit questions right.

Gladwell points out that there was no evidence that the subjects in the "professor" group knew more than the ones in the "soccer hooligan" group. They were simply in a different state of mind due to the little exercise in imagination. That was interesting enough, and confirms the idea that how we think about ourselves affects how we think period. But there is also another study he discussed in the book:

The psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson created an even more extreme version of this test, using black college students and twenty questions taken from the Graduate Record Examination, the standardized test used for entry into graduate school. When the students were asked to identify their race on a pretest questionnaire, that simple act was sufficient to prime them with all the negative stereotypes associated with African Americans and academic achievement--and the number of items they got right was cut in half.

Fascinating... and sad too. Gladwell's comment:

As a society, we place enormous faith in tests because we think that they are a reliable indicator of the test taker’s ability and knowledge. But are they really? If a white student from a prestigious private school, gets a higher SAT score than a black student from an inner-city school, is it because she’s truly a better student, or is it because to be white and to attend a prestigious high school is to be constantly primed with the idea of "smart"?

How intelligent are you? Probably more so than you realize, but how you think about and answer the question makes a difference. I'm not going to suggest that you start standing in front of your bathroom mirror and saying "I am smart." Affirmations may work to some extent, but as I have said before, evidence is more convincing than affirmation.

So why start assuming that you are pretty sharp mentally, if you do not already assume this. Then you can start to look for examples of when you had a good idea, or solved a problem efficiently. You'll find them, and that will put you in a different state of mind, which will change your mind in subtle ways.

If you already consider yourself to be pretty smart, you can take the next step and read our page on how to become a genius. To work on the underlying physical basis for intelligence, see the pages on brain exercises and brain foods.

For more of the latest brain research and ways to become smarter, be sure to subscribe o the Brainpower Newsletter if you haven't already done so. The form should be in the side bar on this page and is also on the home page, and there is no charge.

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