Say you've faced some serious challenges in your life. Maybe you've been on the receiving end of discrimination, say, or you were born into a family that struggled to get by. Or perhaps you've weathered a string of setbacks and your confidence is shot. Whatever the reason, you're already playing the game of life on the highest difficulty setting.
Given how tough it is to succeed in spite of these disadvantages, you want to give yourself every leg-up possible. Wouldn't it be nice, for instance, if you could instantly gift yourself with an extra 10 IQ points?
Recent science suggests you can, and better yet, claiming this bonus intelligence is dead easy.
An instant injection of extra intelligence
Science (and real-life poor people) have long known that facing daily adversity demands a lot of energy and attention. That often doesn't leave a lot of mental bandwidth for thinking things through or making thoughtful long-term plans. Researchers wanted to know if there's a way to give those facing such struggles a hand to help them better shoulder this heavy cognitive load.
To find out, a team of researchers led by scientists out of Princeton, Harvard, the University of British Columbia, and the University of Warwick set up shop at a New Jersey soup kitchen. As the down and out came in to claim a meal, the researchers asked 150 of them to tape record a positive memory of a past success or a time they did something they were proud of. Afterwards, the study subjects took a battery of problem-solving tests.
When the results of the folks who had recorded a positive memory -- an intervention known as "self-affirmation" in psychology lingo -- were compared with a control group from the same soup kitchen, they performed markedly better. The mental boost was "equivalent to a ten-point increase in IQ," according to the Association for Psychological Science write-up of the study.
The same write-up goes on to note that past research has shown similar benefits for self-affirmation for other groups that face negative stereotypes and disadvantages, like African Americans and female math students. For all these groups, the IQ boost from self-affirmation seems to come from calming worries around failure and stigma that can get in the way of clear thinking.
Try it before your next mental challenge
But whatever the mechanism, the bottom line is that if your brain is a bit frazzled from fear of failure or previous setbacks of any kind, simply taking a few minutes to think (or write) about past successes before you tackle any cognitively demanding task is likely to help your brain perform at its peak.
Given the ease of the intervention, why not give it a try? One answer is that the technique is likely to be of little value to those blessed souls who have sailed through life without a care in the world. "The same intervention did not affect the performance of wealthy participants," the researchers frankly concede, so golden children with bulletproof confidence probably shouldn't bother.
But for the rest of us, 10 IQ points is certainly worth a few minutes of happy reflection.