Pressure cooker with a simple regulator and an oval lid". (c) 2009 Hustvedt (CC BY SA 2.0) Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Smarter” May Mean “Lower Performance” in Pressured Environments

Forrest ChristianLearning, Underachievers Leave a Comment

New Scientist reported that people with verbal smarts are less likely to perform well in pressure cooker environments. The gene has also been linked to mental illness, anxiety and emotional vulnerability, which seems to reduce your ability to perform under pressure.

There are serious implications for business, not the least of which is that if you are in an industry where high verbal skills count, eschewing the normal MBA-oriented pressure cooker environment will allow you to have better performance than you hyper-competitive competitors.

According the New Scientist article (“Gene for memory and IQ gives students low grades“) researchers in Taiwan compared the scores from 779 students on a high-school entry exam with their COMT genotype. The test is very high pressure, because your performance on it determines whether you get into a prestigious school — leading inevitably to higher wages and international lifestyle — or to one of the lower schools and thereby to lower-wage lifestyles.

The [COMT] gene makes an enzyme that recycles a neurotransmitter called dopamine, and researchers have linked its different versions to differences in cognitive function. For instance, people with two copies of the Met-158 mutation tend to have a better working memory and higher verbal IQs than those with one or two copies of the Val-158 mutation.

So they should have done better on the test.

But they didn’t.

Researcher Chun-Yen Chang believes that it may have to with the other part of the gene, the part that makes you emotionally vulnerable. This would make the pressure cooker environment set off too many anxieties for you to overcome.

We’ve all known people who can do amazing things but who freeze up in tests. As long as they are not overstressed, they outperform the rest of us.

Gustave Courbet-Self Portrait (The Desperate Man) c 1843

Gustave Courbet-Self Portrait (The Desperate Man) c 1843

Nor is it all that surprising. History is full of stories of “sensitive” verbal people. They are “delicate flowers” who have great ability and skill with words but whither under high pressures. Not all writers are like this, but the story is old enough and so common that it’s not surprising that there would be an underlying genetic component to it.

Business people hate these people. They see life as an endless set of competitions to beat others — even more than making money, as I’ve discussed before. They see these folks as weak because they don’t perform. Of course, no one admits that the reason that these hyper-verbal geniuses don’t perform well is that the system is rigged to be hyper-competitive.

Even though the research has shown that hyper-competitive companies produces lower results than those with cooperative cultures.

[Of course, Mao was hyper-competitive and was wildly successful, especially at murdering people (45-72 million!). Unless you’re a Weather Underground member, do you really want to be Mao?]

What does this mean for you?

If you’re a highly verbal person, it’s likely that you suffer from the emotional problems. You’ll need to compensate rather than try to change this.

If you’re a manager whose department depends on strong output from highly verbal people, you will get better performance from a nurturing rather than competitive environment. You won’t like it, and you’ll probably not do it (since, as I noted, executives would rather beat someone than make more money), so I guess I don’t need to go into how to do it.

If by some chance you are a Warren Buffet type, who divorces his ego from his business, then you can make more money by creating an environment that works for the personalities of the people producing the work.

I’ll end with some speculation. Remember that this is verbal intelligence and not logical or mathematical. These are writers, not engineers or physicists. Miraca Gross reported that her small sample of hyper-IQ Aussie kids were emotionally overperceptive. They understood that their peers rejected or disliked them, and this created crises in their self-perception. Perhaps these early experiences of being completely misunderstood and yet having to find some way to survive emotionally gave strong practice to emotional sensitive skills. Because they didn’t have a sense of belonging, of being “normal”, they grew up with no emotional foundation in their social life. These high pressure environments are even worse for them because they have nothing to go back on.

Or it could be that Dweck has their number, and they think they are smart, therefore are terrified that if they really take the test they will show that they aren’t. This would invalidate the main reason for their self-image. If it was about working hard, then they would not fear the test as much. Because verbal output is more subjective than logical output (harder to judge an essay than a math answer) they may have less knowledge of what leads to success.

Or the tests could simply be skewed against verbal performance.

Regardless, these Taiwanese kids could do better by telling themselves that people who work hard succeed, rather than that they have succeeded because they are smart.

(Tip of the hat to Thinking Meat Project for the link.)

Image Credit: “Pressure cooker with a simple regulator and an oval lid“. © 2009 Hustvedt (CC BY SA 2.0) Via Wikimedia Commons.

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