Intelligence vs. Motivation

Meta-analyses incepted in the early 1980:ies have led to a scientifically robust picture on the ability of tests and other methods in predicting performance at work. According to the early meta-analyses, cognitive ability tests and structured interviews occupy a shoulder-to-shoulder position as the two strongest predictor methods. Personality tests measuring traits, motivations, attitudes and interests have been seen as following one step behind the two superpredictors.

However, meta-analyses conducted in the new millennium have yielded significantly lower average prediction coefficients for cognitive ability tests, particularly those based on data from Northern European populations. One recent meta-analysis not only reiterates the finding of lower predictiveness of intelligence but shows equal predictive power for motivation measured both as an enduring characteristic of personality and as a temporary state of mind (Van Iddekinge et al., 2018).

The particular meta-analytic results mean that intellectual abilities have lost their leading predictor position (a par with structured interview) while personality and motivational factors have stepped in to compete for the position of best predictor. The researchers go on to suggest that motivation’s tie position with cognitive abilities holds only until the first job, whereafter motivation takes the lead position in predicting work performance. In other words, it suffices to be ”intelligent enough”, what thereon determines success is motivation.

Regardless of the predictive capability of intelligence and motivation, far more important is their functional difference. Whereas intelligence operates in a context-free manner, motivation and motives are essentially dependent on the context. Motives or desires to act in a certain way are so-called latent variables, required to become aroused, activated by environmental incentives (”I became motivated”).

A classical example is seen in Kurt Lewin’s early experiments where different leadership styles led to team climates with incentives to behave in particular ways. The fact that incentives in leadership, climate or culture arouse people’s motivation to perform opens up developmental options that don’t exist with the context-free intelligence.

Leading and encouraging motivation marks as the quintessential opportunity in organizations. More so if motivation seems to be more important than academic intelligence as the meta-analyis shows.

Petteri Niitamo, PhD

Petteri Niitamo, PhD, has written books on motivation, job interview and assessment methods. He attended the PhD program on personality psychology at UC Berkeley in 1986-1989. In 1993-2002 he worked as chief of the Psychological assessment unit at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and has served as an adjunct professor of competencies and psychometrics at Aalto University in 2004-2012.

Van Iddekinge, C.H., Aguinis, H., Mackey, J.D., & DeOrtentiis, P.S. (2018). A Meta-Analysis of the Interactive, Additive, and Relative Effects of Cognitive Ability and Motivation on Performance. Journal of Management Vol. 44 No. 1, Jan., 249–279.
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