After three days on the Eurozone, the Deep End turns to the happier subject of confectionery. According to a fascinating piece for Slate by Paul Tough (author of How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character) eating sweets really can make you more intelligent. Or, at least, they can if you happen to be a child sitting an IQ test.

Mr Tough describes how American researchers discovered that children measured as being of lower-than-average intelligence could raise their scores right up to average if bribed with M&Ms – something which came as bit of a surprise:

  • “The M&M studies were a major blow to the conventional wisdom about intelligence, which held that IQ tests measured something real and permanent—something that couldn’t be changed drastically with a few candy-covered chocolates. They also raised an important and puzzling question about the supposedly low-IQ children: Did they actually have low IQs or not? Which number was the true measure of their intelligence: 79 or 97?”

Some people dismiss the importance of IQ, but it does make a difference. IQ is related to academic performance which, in turn, predicts how likely a student is to get a good job – “at which point he can buy as many bags of M&M’s as he wants.”

However, IQ isn’t the only test that’s a good predictor of future success. There’s another measure called the “coding-speed test”, which scores accuracy in a series of extremely mundane data entry tasks.

  • “Predictably, the kids who did better on the cognitive-skills tests were making more money. But so were the kids who did better on the super-simple coding test. In fact, [for] participants who didn’t graduate from college, their coding-test scores were every bit as reliable a predictor of their adult wages as their cognitive-test scores. The high scorers on the coding test were earning thousands of dollars a year more than the low scorers.”

Why should this be?

  • “Does the modern American labor market really put such a high value on being able to compare mindless lists of words and numbers? Of course not.”

In fact, it’s not even the case that “students who did better on the coding test had better coding skills than the other students”:

  • “They did better for a simple reason: They tried harder. And what the labor market does value is the kind of internal motivation required to try hard on a test even when there is no external reward for doing well. Without anyone realizing it, the coding test was measuring a critical noncognitive skill that mattered a lot in the grown-up world.”

In other words, this is all about character – in particular, the virtues of being bothered to do something well for its own sake. Paul Tough argues that such traits help explain why bribing children with sweets raises their IQ scores:

  • “It’s not as if the M&M’s magically gave them the intelligence to figure out the answers; they must have already possessed it. So in fact, they weren’t low-IQ at all. Their IQs were about average.”

The irony, though, is that for these children, the first and lower IQ score is the relevant one – because it’s a measure of such things as motivation, determination, diligence and conscientiousness.

Further confirmation, therefore, that character counts – but, then, anyone who didn’t believe that already really must be thick.

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