The Future of Aptitude Testing

Jonah Lehrer highlights a new study about the neuroscience of effort, perseverance, and why we temporarily give up in the face of bordem.

The first thing Treadway and colleagues discovered is that subjects showing greater dopaminergic activity in the left striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex were more willing to work hard in exchange for greater rewards. These differences were especially striking when the probability of a payout was low. Although the odds are actually getting the money were minuscule, these subjects found a way to stay motivated.


The scientists also discovered a surprising inverse relationship between dopamine activity in the insula and the willingness to exert effort. In short, an excited insula appears to make us lazier. While the precise function of the insula remains unclear – it is activated in all sorts of different fMRI studies – the Vanderbilt scientists argue that, at least in this case, the insula appears to representing “response costs,” or the pain of having to suffer through an unpleasant task.

My guess is that at some point in the future these kind of fMRI tests will fill the ever-growing space that sits at the nexus of aptitude testing and learning disability identification. For example, a mother might be warned that even though her 3rd grader is a smart, straight-A student, tests show he abandons uninteresting tasks extremely quickly, and therefore he may struggle in high school or college.

As more people begin to accept the fact that intelligence is more nurture than nature (i.e. motivation to learn rather than IQ), these kind of tests could even play a part in college admission or job applications. All things being equal, why would I not want the applicant whose brain is more likely to release the chemicals that make a person willing to put in effort. People might see that as part of a scary, anti-privacy, anti-freedom society, but it would probably allow for more accurate predictions of future success, and it would be helpful for parents to know if motivational deficiencies could cause their children to struggle when they reach a more strenuous academic environment.

One Response to The Future of Aptitude Testing

  1. taemojitsu says:

    According to Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, German Chief of Army Command from 1930 to 1933,

    “Those who are clever and industrious are fitted for the high staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are stupid and lazy. The man who is clever and lazy is fit for the very highest commands. He has the temperament and the requisite nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is stupid and industrious must be removed immediately.”

    It has economic implications as well.

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