The Winner Effect: The Neuroscience of Success and Failureby Ian H. Robertson
What makes a winner? Why do some people succeed both in life and in business, and others fail? Why do a few individuals end up supremely powerful, while many remain powerless?
The "winner effect" is a term used in biology to describe how an animal that has won a few fights against weak opponents is much more likely to win later bouts/i>/i>/i>
What makes a winner? Why do some people succeed both in life and in business, and others fail? Why do a few individuals end up supremely powerful, while many remain powerless?
The "winner effect" is a term used in biology to describe how an animal that has won a few fights against weak opponents is much more likely to win later bouts against stronger contenders. As Ian Robertson reveals, it applies to humans, too. Success changes the chemistry of the brain, making you more focused, smarter, more confident, and more aggressive. The effect is as strong as any drug. And the more you win, the more you will go on to win. But the downside is that winning can become physically addictive.
By understanding what the mental and physical changes are that take place in the brain of a "winner," how they happen, and why they affect some people more than others, Robertson answers the question of why some people attain and then handle success better than others. He explains what makes a winneror a loserand how we can use the answers to these questions to understand better the behavior of our business colleagues, family, friends, and ourselves.
“A book that will help you understand what makes winners, and what paths to avoid when you get power.” MindYourDecisions.com
“Fascinating.” The Sunday Times (UK)
“Compelling stories combine with cutting-edge science to show why coming first is not the same as being a real winner -- engrossing.” Oliver James, author of They F*** You Up
“Like a masterful detective, Dr. Robertson provides a captivating and insightful journey into understanding the mystery of the effects of power on human behavior and thinking.” Mike Hawkins, award-winning author of Activating Your Ambition: A Guide to Coaching the Best Out of Yourself and Others
“He tells a compelling, vivid and instructive story of how we are empowered and how we are disempowered and how we succeed and how we fail. I really enjoyed it -- it is a must read.” Raymond Tallis, author of Aping Mankind
“A fascinating topic dealt with in a fascinating way. … I love the book.” Matt Cooper, author of How Ireland Really Went Bust
“What does it take to be a winner; to be successful and achieve at an optimal level? Professor Robertson has masterfully synthesized cutting edge social, cognitive, and developmental psychology, as well as neuroscience with fascinating stories of notable people in the public eye to answer this question. Thoroughly researched and engagingly written by an international scholar, once you begin reading this book it will be difficult to put down. Whatever your profession, this remarkable book will most assuredly resonate with you.” John B. Arden, PhD, author of Rewire Your Brain
“Utterly fascinating.” Publishers Weekly
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Read an Excerpt
The Winner Effect
The Mystery of Picasso's Son
Are we born to win?
Holding hands with their father, a six-year-old girl and her eight-year-old brother arrive at the mansion's gates. They ring the bell and wait, smelling the eucalyptus scent released by the rain that is falling steadily. It takes a long time before the concierge appears, peering out and demanding if they have an appointment. Their father stammers that they have.
'I'll see if the Master will receive you,' the old man says. They wait and wait.
'You'd better wait in the car,' the father mutters, but they stay. The concierge appears again, looking slightly shamefaced.
'The Master can't see you today. He's working.'
They trudge back to the car in silent humiliation. Again and again over the years they repeat this journey. Sometimes the Master sees them and sometimes he doesn't.
But on the next weekend he is available. Their father shoos the girl and boy into their grandfather's living room, urging them forward to embrace shyly the bright-eyed old man. A slight awkwardness soon passes and the children forget themselves, cautiously pleased as their grandpa folds animals and birds out of paper for them. Their father relaxes into the familymoment too, absent-mindedly taking out a file to smooth a cracked fingernail. Suddenly the older man jumps up, snapping, 'It's ridiculous to use a nail file. Do what I do: file them against a corner of a wall.'
And from that moment on and for the rest of his life, the thirty-something Paulo Picasso did exactly that, just as he had adopted many of his father Pablo Picasso's other habits - eating fish with his hands was another such idiosyncrasy. As she was to recall in her 2001 memoir, Picasso: My Grandfather, watching these and countless similar interactions between the two made Paulo's little daughter Marina 'sick with shame'.1
Paulo - the frightened-looking, dressed-up three-year-old in his father's famous 1924 painting Paul as Harlequin - led a feckless life of drifting and heavy drinking. He could never hold down a job or even forge a life independent of his domineering, neglectful father. Paulo could not provide for his family, and his two children grew up supervised by social workers; his son Pablito would kill himself when he was twenty-four by drinking bleach two days after Pablo Picasso's funeral in 1973.
Paulo Picasso never seemed able to escape the shadow of his father, graduating from weekly supplicant - beggar almost - to part-time driver, and eventually, once his own family finally disintegrated, to live-in secretary and chauffeur to a father who never bothered to conceal his contempt for his son's lack of direction. Marina Picasso remembers one visit when Pablo Picasso took his son into a neighbouring room; she and her brother listened as their grandfather shouted, 'You're incapable of looking after your children! You are incapable of making a living! You're mediocre and will always be mediocre. You are wasting my time. I am El Rey, the King. And you - you are my thing!'2
Paulo did indeed become his 'thing' - but not for long. He died at the age of fifty-four, on 5 June 1975, just two years afterhis father died, after protracted family legal battles which left him an inheritance of five-sixteenths of Pablo Picasso's enormous fortune. Paulo's sad life could not have been in greater contrast with that of his famous father.
Does this story represent a more general point about the children of successful parents?
Here, then, is the question for this chapter: why was the success of Pablo Picasso, one of the most renowned artists in the world, so completely absent in the life of his son?
Take a moment to consider your own success, or lack of it, in your life so far. What do you believe is the reason for that? If you are in a position of power or powerlessness, to what do you attribute your current status? These are questions which Paulo Picasso very likely asked himself, as do most of us from time to time. But as you will see in this chapter, how we answer these questions in our own minds has fundamental effects on whether or not we become winners.
A very commonly held response to the above questions is that we are in some way born to win or to lose. This is the common-sense notion that becoming a winner - whether political, artistic, business or in any other domain - is a matter of breeding. For thousands of years the odds of success have indeed been stacked in favour of the privileged few by genes and well-arranged marriages, a production line for high-performing humans modelled on the racehorse stud and European royalty. In fact, whether they like it or not, a few billion of the earth's population still live by this notion and regard those of us who don't as loopy. This book will challenge their assumptions.
While such an idea might seem dated in first world countries with their egalitarian ethos, we still put a huge premium - consciously or unconsciously - on the 'bred' factors of height, gender and race. As a 2005 survey of Fortune 500companies has shown, we still make our powerful CEOs overwhelmingly tall, male and white.3 And as another piece of research indicates, IQ is a particularly important consideration for the selection of executives, with the strong underlying assumption being made by many that intelligence, ability and genius are bred, not earned. Yet here is the puzzle: if winning has so much to do with breeding, why do so many people who were born with so many advantageous genes - Paulo Picasso included - fall by the wayside in the race to lead a successful, or even happy, life?
Or was Paulo's failure an anomaly? Research by Morten Bennedsen and his colleagues at the University of Copenhagen in 2007 indicates that it was not. Bennedsen looked at businesses founded by entrepreneurs successful enough to have achieved limited company status. What happened when the founder of the business handed over control to a son or daughter, compared with when the chief executive was appointed from outside the family, he asked? 4
If people are born to win, then the children of winners should also be more successful than others. Not necessarily so. Bennedsen scrutinised the handovers to new CEOs in over 5,000 companies and what he found was dramatic: where the succession was to a family member rather than an outsider, the profitability of the company dropped by at least 4 per cent around the time of the succession - and plunged even more for bigger firms in high-growth industries.
Being born to successful parents does not guarantee success. But business and art are quite different worlds and Pablo Picasso was clearly not a typical parent, so is there really anything in common between Paulo Picasso and the heirs of family businesses? There is, and the link lies in the psychology of success.
In 1996 Suniya Luthar of the Teachers College of Columbia University and Karen D'Avanzo of Yale University studied two groups of fifteen- to sixteen-year-olds in two very different high schools in the north-east of the United States.5 One school was in a poor inner-city area, with a very low average income, 13 per cent of pupils were white and one in five families received food stamps. The other was a wealthy suburban school with one of the highest average incomes in the country, where 82 per cent of the pupils were white and virtually none received food stamps. Yet the researchers discovered that the richer adolescents were much more anxious and depressed, and used more cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana and other illegal drugs than their more economically impoverished peers (a discovery that has been replicated in other studies inside and outside the USA6). How can this be? Can we find a clue to Paulo Picasso's lack of success in this study?
On the face of it, Pablo Picasso's wealth, fame and extraordinary talent were so far removed from the bankers and lawyers in a US suburb that it may seem absurd even to consider comparing their families. And whatever happened to Paulo Picasso was not down to his having too much money. He survived as an adult on whimsically administered dole-outs from his father, who was his casual employer for most of his life, and these left him and his family poor until near the end of his life. But Paulo lived in the shadow of his father's extreme wealth, fame and genius - and as I will show later in the chapter, such shadows can become grimly tangible influences on the lives on whom they fall.
Suniya Luthar probed her data in subsequent studies7 to find out why children of rich, successful parents might be unhappier than poorer pupils. She came up with a conclusion which resonated with an observation made about the economics of success by the economist Staffan Linder.8 Linder observed thatsuccessful people's time is valuable and the higher their earnings the more each hour is worth. The economic logic for financially successful parents, then, is to maximise the family income by working long hours and contract out mundane household and childcare activities to lower-paid employees and services. This aligned with Luthar's observation: the rich, born-to-win children spent more time either on their own or with adults other than their parents than the poorer children and they therefore also felt less emotionally close to their parents. Paulo Picasso found it hard enough to get an appointment to see his father, let alone spend 'quality time' with him.
Michael Kimmelman interviewed Picasso's former wife Françoise Gilot and his three surviving children for the New York Times in 1996 at the time of the opening of a major Picasso exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He wrote on the basis of these conversations: 'Picasso, tellingly, didn't depict his children when they were adolescents or young adults. Adoring toddlers were one thing, teenagers another, and in his art, as in his life, he lavished attention on the former but had not much time for the latter.'9 But older children are as needful of parental attention as toddlers, and Paulo Picasso had to wait in the rain for it - leaving him distanced from his father in much the same way as many of Luthar's children of the wealthy were emotionally estranged from theirs.
It is not, Luthar argues, that the well-off parents in her study were being selfish or deliberately neglectful. On the contrary, if you asked them why they were working so hard and for such long hours, most would say it was for their children. After all, with the parents having achieved so much themselves, how could they wish for less for their offspring?
But Pablo Picasso was not an overworking, driven Manhattan lawyer. He was a neglectful father, narcissistically preoccupiedwith his own genius, who bequeathed a legacy of misery and suicides across the wreckage of his many families. Luthar's research did not throw up such yawning gaps between the success of suburban parents and their children as were apparent between Pablo and Paulo. Something else must have come into play.
The severed ear
In 1606 the famous painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio went on the run from a death sentence in Rome. The fact that he was renowned and had wealthy patrons could not protect him. Trouble followed him during his long flight from Naples to Malta to Sicily and then back again to Naples. Then, one night as he came out of his favourite and famously seedy bar-cum-brothel close to the port - the Osteria del Cerriglio - he was set upon by a group of men who hacked at his face with their swords.10
The attack was so savage that news was sent to Rome of his death - Caravaggio was as famous as he was notorious in his lifetime. Nor was the attack a random one - there was logic and symbolism to the violence of Italy in that era, and Caravaggio's facial disfigurement was known as a sfregio. This attack on the face symbolised revenge for an insult to the honour and reputation inflicted on the person who had ordered the attack - retaliation for symbolic 'loss of face' by real facial butchery. The art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon suggests that this person was Giovanni Roero, Conte della Vezza, whom Caravaggio had sufficiently insulted while in Malta to warrant this savage retaliation in the back streets of Naples.11
Caravaggio never recovered his health and strength after theattack. He left Naples by boat, believing himself pardoned for a murder committed on a Rome tennis court. But when his boat arrived at the tiny harbour of Palo, on the coast near Rome, he was thrown into Palo's fortress. Whether the fortress's captain was ignorant of the recent pardon, or whether Caravaggio's scarred face led to his being mistaken for another fugitive knight reputedly on the papal wanted list at that time, no one knows.
No matter the reason for his arrest, Caravaggio was seized and locked up in the bleak castle whose squat grey ramparts still bulge over the Tyrrhenian Sea thirty miles north-west of Rome. By the time one of the most famous painters of his era had talked or bought his way out of the dungeon, the boat on which he had arrived had left, carrying away a roll of his last paintings.
Caravaggio was desperate. Four years earlier he had fled Rome and in Malta was knighted in return for painting the Beheading of St John for the Cathedral in Valletta, where it still hangs. Scarcely knighted, he was ceremonially defrocked, probably for brawling. As his doomed circular journey from Rome to Rome via Malta, Naples and Sicily progressed, his paintings becoming ever more bleak and his imbroglios ever more convoluted.
But he still had friends in high places and once the news of his demise had been corrected, a pardon of sorts arrived from Rome, with the promise that he could return to his adopted city unhindered. Cardinal Scipione Borghese, who was then busy accumulating the art collection that today fills Rome's Borghese Gallery, had wangled the forgiveness - but for a price: a roll of Caravaggio's paintings for his collection. Without the pictures, the painter's safe return to Rome and escape from the gallows was not assured.
Now he was on his way back. Somehow or other the desperate artist, sick and weak from his injuries, managed to traverse the sixty miles of bandit-infested malarial swamp which lay betweenPalo and the boat's final destination before returning to Naples, Porto Ercole, where he hoped to catch up with the felucca and his paintings. But the boat had already sailed for Naples when he reached Porto Ercole. He collapsed on the beach there, was carried to a hospice by monks and died on 18 July 1610. Hearing the news of the painter's death, Scipione Borghese anxiously tried to retrieve his booty, which by then had been returned to Naples in the felucca. In the end he only managed to lay his hands on a single painting - one of St John the Baptist - which hangs in Villa Borghese in Rome to this day.
If only the captain of Palo's fortress had not been so zealous, what bleakly wonderful pictures that scarred thirty-nine-year-old genius might still have painted. But what does the story of Caravaggio's tumultuous life have to do with whether or not people are born to succeed?
On 11 November 1973, a receptionist at the Rome newspaper Il Messagero picked up an envelope that bulged strangely. Curious, she opened it to find a crudely typed and misspelled ransom letter, a lock of long brown hair and ... a severed ear.12 Postmarked Naples 22 October, it had taken three weeks to arrive; the sender clearly had not had recent experience with Italian 'express' post.
John Paul Getty III's mother Gail Harris identified the hair as belonging to her seventeen-year-old son but she could not be sure of the provenance of the now decomposed ear, which had been neatly removed from its head with a razor blade or scalpel. She had already received ransom demands for $17 million, but until the arrival of the bulging envelope the police and press had assumed that Getty was party to his own faked kidnapping. Known as 'the golden hippie' by the Italian press, he had dropped out of school and sold jewellery in Piazza Navonain central Rome, taken part in left-wing demonstrations and poured obloquy on the greed of his wealthy family.
Once forensics established that the ear had been removed from a living body rather than a corpse, the urgency grew. The boy's father, Paul Getty Jr, who could barely pay alimony to his estranged wife Gail, let alone find a $17-million ransom, had received little of his billionaire father John Paul Getty's fortune because of his own weakness for the hedonist delights of the 1960s.
Grandfather J. Paul Getty had already refused to pay the ransom, saying that he had fourteen other grandchildren, and even after the ear was sliced off, it took the entreaties of his daughter-in-law to extract from him part of the reduced $3-million ransom - the remaining portion being lent to the boy's father at 4 per cent interest. John Paul Getty III was finally released after the reduced ransom was paid five months after his kidnap. A truck driver noticed him on the autostrada south of Naples, standing shivering and traumatised in a rain storm, his long brown hair hanging damply over the bloodied rump of gristle that was all that remained of his ear.13
John Paul Getty III's son Balthazar Getty didn't particularly like his suite, the best in the hotel, the luxuriously appointed nineteen-room La Posta Vecchia overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. But if it was good enough for Naomi Campbell and Sean Connery, then maybe he - an actor whose sum success to date was to play a gas-station attendant in Natural Born Killers and bit parts in a number of TV shows such as Hawaii-Five-O - should hang out there too, fashion model wife and new baby in tow.
The hotel had been built in 1640 as a seaside retreat for the Orsini family, who in 1693 had sold it to the Odeschalchi family. They had held on to it until 1960, when J. Paul Getty Snr, Balthazar's great-grandfather, had bought it for $ 566,000from Prince Ladislao Odeschalchi, and spent a fraction of his vast fortune restoring it to grandeur and luxury.
During its rebuilding, basement ruins were discovered of a Roman villa which archaeologists concluded could well have been the remains of a home of Julius Caesar. This news suited its purchaser John Paul Getty Snr, who remarked, 'I feel no qualms or reticence about likening Getty Oil Company to an empire, and myself to a Caesar.'14 The discovery fitted in nicely with his world view: he told friends that he believed he was the reincarnation of a roman emperor.
But it was enough for J. Paul Getty Snr that his spiritual and proprietorial linkage to Julius Caesar had been established: he only ever spent seventeen nights at La Posta Vecchia. The paranoid magnate had iron bars installed across the sea-view windows and reputedly spent each Mediterranean night locked in his bedroom with a loaded shotgun by his side.
Across the boundary wall of La Posta Vecchia loomed another building, of the history of which, it is reasonable to assume, Balthazar Getty would have been unaware, as he would not seem to be a man inclined to read ('Anything I want to know, I just ask,' he said when he was asked if had read the many books on the Getty dynasty.)15 The building that cast its shadow over the hotel's swimming pool and lush garden was the very fortress of Palo in which Caravaggio's fatal last imprisonment had taken place and which the Odeschalchi family had kept when it sold La Posta Vecchia to Balthazar's great-grandfather in 1960. It cast an eerie atmosphere of doom and transient luxury over the lush gardens of the hotel.
Each of the three most recent generations of Gettys - Balthazar, his kidnappee father John Paul and his sixties hedonist grandfather J. Paul Jr - had been heroin users.16 On 5 February 2011, Balthazar's father John Paul died agedfifty-three at his home near London, after a long period of partial paralysis and near-blindness caused by a stroke brought on by his earlier drug abuse.17 The phenomenon of mixed-up, drug-using children of rich and successful people would not have surprised Suniya Luthar, who had observed the restlessly anxious moodiness and taste for mind-altering substances among the offspring of busy and distant parents. Whether Balthazar's dislike of his luxury suite in La Posta Vecchia was a symptom of a similar rich-kid restlessness or whether the Getty spirits or those of Caesar and Caravaggio were disturbing him, who knows?
The lives of Caravaggio and the Gettys intertwine around the grim sea fortress of Palo. Caravaggio's fame and success - artistic if not financial, because of his reckless lifestyle - flourished without the burden that a successful parent can impose on a child: in contrast to the family wealth and success of the Getty children and Paulo Picasso, he was born into a modest family which was plunged into poverty when the plague killed his grandfather and father in one night in October 1577. Was Caravaggio lucky that his father was not a great lord or a famous artist? Were Paulo Picasso and the Getty descendants cursed by the success and wealth of their parents?
If this is true, then we are faced with another puzzle: what is it about successful parents that sometimes deprives their children of the fruits of success? Does the psychology of success pass along through generations, and can it help explain the mystery of Picasso's son? It does, and it can, but to understand it fully, we have to consider one of the most important aspects of our motivation and personality.
Read through these questions and answer honestly how much they apply to you:
1. Do you prioritise getting ahead more than having a comfortable life?
2. In work, does the thought of performing about the same as others bother you?
3. If you feel like you are wasting time, does this make you feel restless and uneasy?
4. Do you always try to be the best at what you do?
5. Would you choose to work with a difficult but talented co-worker over a pleasant but less competent one?
6. Are you ambitious?
7. Does the thought of 'taking life as it comes' make you uneasy?
8. Do you plan ahead in your career?
9. Would you strongly resent being described as 'lazy'?
10. Do you feel at all 'driven'?
How many questions did you answer 'yes' to? The higher the number, the greater your level of achievement motivation is likely to be. These questions are similar to ones used in a bigger questionnaire called the Ray-Lynn AO scale devised by the Australian psychologist J. J. Ray.18
If you answered yes to many of these questions, you will recognise what I mean when I say that the motivation to achieve can feel almost like something physical impelling you. But does this feeling have any basis, outside of a fertile imagination? The answer is: yes, it does.
Kei Mizuno and colleagues at the Osaka City University in Japan wanted to see whether they could see achievement motivation at work in the brain.19 Student volunteers first filled out an academic achievement questionnaire similar to the one above. Then Mizuno and his co-researchers gave all of them a difficult learning task to do while their brain activity wasmeasured using a method called fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging).
Crucially, though, they told two randomly selected groups that they would be rewarded for their efforts in two different ways. The first group were told to do as well as they could, and that the better they did, the more money they would earn - up to a maximum of US $75. The second group, who were given an identical task, received no money at all but critically they were told that the task was an intelligence test: their only reward was a display of their performance on a feedback chart on which the higher their performance, the greater the number of squares that turned blue.
The results were remarkable. In the money-reward group, the students' level of achievement motivation on the questionnaire was not linked to the activity in a key motivational part of the brain called the putamen, which is located deep in the middle of the brain, within a structure called the striatum, and is a key part of a reward network which I will explain in a moment. But for the group to whom the task was described as an IQ test, the achievement motivation kicked in: even though there were no tangible rewards other than the blue squares, a striking relationship between putamen activity and achievement motivation emerged. The more academically driven the participants, the more this key brain centre for motivation and reward 'switched on' - but only when they thought their intelligence was being tested, not when they were simply doing it for the money.
That sense in people with a high need to achieve of being almost physically impelled to succeed is not an illusion, then: the more driven by ambition we are, the greater the level of neural activity that will be fired up deep in the brain. And the critical aspect of this drive is that it comes from inside, from intrinsic motivation; it is not triggered only by external incentives.
We are of course all motivated by a mix of internal and external motivation; the most common external motivator is money, but we also work for the approval of others or out of fear. Good managers know that keeping their staff motivated requires a judicious combination of internal and external spurs but the best managers discover how to flick the secret switch of intrinsic motivation in the brains of their key staff. Once this switch is activated, high achievement motivation people, like the IQ-motivated Japanese students - will put body and soul into their work with little thought for how much they are being paid for it. The challenge for bosses here is not to sabotage that internal drive by how they externally reward their underlings. I will explain how this can happen later in the book.
Achievement motivation, then, is a crucial ingredient for success in life, and part of the recipe for what makes a winner.
We do not know what Paulo Picasso's level of achievement motivation was. Clearly his drive to be a winner was not undercut by early wealth, so perhaps his heavy drinking was a response to a thwarted need to achieve. Academic achievement motivation is boosted by academic reward - good grades and praise from teachers, for instance - which builds a sense of competence and achievement,20 and the equivalent is almost certainly true in other domains of life where many of us work as much for the satisfaction of a job well done, or for the respect and approval of colleagues, as we do for the salary. Perhaps Paulo Picasso never received a reward for his achievements, however modest, and so any nascent ambition was snuffed out.
Outside of the fMRI scanner, in real life, however, things are not quite as simply divided between external and internal. Although, as I just mentioned, it is important for bosses, teachers and parents to distinguish between external and internal rewards,in reality we can never completely disentangle extrinsic rewards like money from intrinsic ones like job satisfaction. Almost always there will be a mix of motivations. Even in industries where financial bonuses dominate, such as investment banking and other financial services, the money rewards are seldom entirely extrinsic. They are also crucial tokens of status and success, signs of one's competence, and hence burrow deep into the achievement motivation networks in ambitious people's brains.
We know this because of our knowledge about how a part of the brain called the reward network operates. The key job of this network is to make us feel good when we do things that will help us and our genes survive - the most important being eating, drinking and having sex. The central fuel of this system is a chemical messenger called dopamine: the pleasure you get after eating a slice of cheesecake, drinking a glass of iced water on a scorching day or sinking back after an orgasm all arises from dopamine being released in the reward network.
But most of us are rewarded by other things as well: the sight of a teacher's gold star on a five-year-old's copybook will also trigger a surge of dopamine in the reward network, as will reading a glowing appraisal of your performance by a line manager at work. Animals with stimulators implanted in their reward network will keep pressing a lever which triggers rushes of dopamine-induced pleasure, to the extent that they neglect food and starve themselves. It was this reward network in the Japanese students that Kei Mizuno investigated with the supposed IQ-linked exercise in the fMRI.
Returning to the question of bonus-driven financial services, we cannot assume that all that motivates and matters to the bankers and traders is the absolute size of these external rewards. We know this because Klaus Fliessbach and his colleagues from the University of Bonn in Germany showed that the reward networkis triggered not only by what rewards you yourself are receiving, but, crucially, also by what other people like you are getting, as was demonstrated by a study which I will come back to in Chapter 5.21
It follows that if the money-motivated group of Mizuno's students had been able to see fellow students earning more than them, then the money could have been turned from a purely extrinsic reward to a mixed extrinsic-intrinsic one. That would be a more accurate reflection of real life: yes, we want to earn as much as possible, but most of all, we want to do better than our neighbours. And we definitely don't want to do worse than them. This explains why many billionaires, rich beyond reason, still work feverishly to accumulate even more billions: it is no longer the extrinsic reward value of the money that motivates them - it is the need to achieve (and usually it is also a need for power, but that is for the next chapter).
Achievement motivation, then, is certainly not just about academic achievement, nor is it manifested only in the brain. Most working people, whether they are teachers, farmers, secretaries, accountants, actors or electricians, are on a twin track of seeking both extrinsic and intrinsic reward. John Miner of the State University of New York at Buffalo and colleagues showed this in a study of high-tech industries, finding that the motivation to achieve in the directors of young companies is a strong predictor of success, forecasting both growth in profits and increases in the number of people each company employs.22
And, on the other side of the world, J. J. Ray of the University of New South Wales with Satvir Singh of the Guru Nanak Dev University in India studied 200 Punjabi farmers and found that a small farmer's level of achievement motivation predicted how productive his farm would be over the next five years.23
Intrinsic motivation - wanting to do something for the sense of competence and achievement it gives - as opposed to purelyextrinsic reward such as money, seems to burrow into our deepest ambitions. Equally, knowing that you will inherit billions of dollars can sabotage the development of such intrinsic motivation. Why is this the case?
Very few things we do are intrinsically motivating at first - except maybe such basics as sex and eating. So we learn motivation as children by doing something, such as playing a musical instrument and by gaining a sense of competence and achievement as we gradually get better at it. But most children have to be externally induced to get through the early stages until the activity becomes rewarding in itself. Usually parents and teachers encourage, cajole and/or strong-arm young children over these early periods, but without that external spur, the children may never get over the hump to where they want to do it for themselves - or, in other words, where the activity becomes intrinsically rewarding.
Knowing that your parents are fabulously wealthy can undercut these tough early stages of mastering a skill before it becomes intrinsically satisfying in itself. Why should I bother studying this stuff at university when I'm going to be rich anyway? they may think. People need the push of extrinsic motivation to get them to the point where they start to feel competent and intrinsically motivated. The age-old need to fend for yourself once you leave home provides that external kick of motivation to millions of children and adolescents throughout the world, but some offspring of the very successful just don't get that kick and so end up feeling demotivated and without direction in their lives.
Paulo Picasso may have become a feckless adult because he never got that push over the hump towards some area in which he could become self-motivated and feel competent. This was partly due to his being burdened with a great genius for a father, who had an abnormal personality and scarcely paid any attentionto him, far less pushed him towards some motivating direction in life. But even when a rich parent does find time to give that essential motivation-building attention to a child, the looming presence of to-be-inherited millions can sabotage both the unwary parents' and their offspring's commitment to the child's climb up the hump of effort to the point where motivation becomes intrinsic and the drive for achievement is internalised.
Billionaires such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates have wisely foreseen the potentially demotivating curse that a huge inheritance can bring to a child. He has said that he will give his children some money but not a meaningful percentage of his fortune.24 Gates and his wife have committed to giving away the majority of their wealth to good causes and have persuaded a number of other billionaires, including Warren Buffett and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, to do the same. 25
But is this notion of achievement motivation an open-and-shut case? Can we put Paulo Picasso's failure to achieve even modest success simply down to his father's failure to get him over the hump to self-motivated achievement? Not entirely - achievement motivation is not quite as simple as that.
Too much of a good thing
I overheard my fellow student 'Peter' one day talking to a girl. 'Peter' was talking intensely about how he wanted to make a fundamental discovery in science, one that would change the world. I had heard him say things like that before; it was as if he wanted to be another Darwin. Instead, within a year 'Peter' had dropped out of university - he seemed suddenly to have lost his motivation.
But, bright lad that he was, 'Peter' started working in a quite different domain, and within a few years he was near the top of that tree. But, on the infrequent occasions that I caught up with him, he exuded a sense of restlessness and discontent. He returned to university and completed a degree in yet another field, coming top of his class. He started working in that field, got a good job in a leading centre - but then dropped out and went back to one of his two previous areas of expertise.
'Peter' told me that when he astounded colleagues in one of his jobs by telling them he was leaving, his boss told him that 'Peter' had always seemed mildly depressed. And 'Peter' was mildly depressed, I suppose - constantly feeling that he had failed to meet the impossible target he had set himself of making a fundamental scientific breakthrough in biology.
It's not that he couldn't have done it if he had he stuck it out in one field - he was definitely intellectually capable of it. But in science, as in business, you can't plan for guaranteed success. There is a huge amount of luck attached to who ends up being a big winner, although persistence and determination can definitely reduce the odds: as the Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn once said: 'The harder I work the luckier I get.'
Keeping motivated, therefore, means enjoying the intrinsic satisfaction of mastering day-to-day challenges - like the Japanese students fired up to test their intelligence and earn purely symbolic points. If you focus only on a distant, enormous goal, then you will devalue your small everyday achievements and make them seem worthless.
That may be what happened to 'Peter' - the sense of restlessness he exuded came from the fact that his reward network was not fired up by the challenges of short- or even medium-term accomplishments because, compared with the enormous goal he had set himself, each of these was as worthless as a Lehman Brothers sharecertificate in late 2008. Little wonder he was chronically dissatisfied - every achievement was a failure in his eyes.
The eminent Harvard psychologist David McLelland studied the drive to achieve over many decades and discovered that the people who achieved most - the winners, in other words - tended to be those who, like Goldilocks, didn't like their porridge either too hot or too cold. The people who actually ended up achieving the most tended to set moderately challenging targets for themselves: that is, demanding but attainable.26 Underachievement is almost inevitable if you set your sights so low that you don't expect to win. But setting them too high, as 'Peter' did, can have similarly disabling effects.
Children of very successful parents can find it very hard to get into ambition's Goldilocks zone. If your parents are geniuses, how do you avoid the shadow of their level of achievement? How can you set goals for yourself that don't look trivial and paltry compared with their great work? Even with a parent more attentive than Pablo Picasso, it is hard for the child of the very successful to make their own mark, and feel a sense of intrinsic accomplishment and competence at achievements which are more modest than those of their parent.
Paulo Picasso was not a winner in life. He presided over a suffering family and died a heavy drinker at fifty-four. Here was a family whose possible success in life was blighted by the withering shadow cast by the genius of the great painter.
Have we then solved the mystery of Picasso's son? Was he compelled to lose in life because his own achievements would always look meagre against the towering accomplishments of his father?
Perhaps this is part of the story - but if so, then all children of winners would end up as failures, and that simply is not the case. Something else must come into play as well. One possibility isthat fame messes up families and that the disturbance of normal family relationships snuffs out the possibility of becoming a winner. Again there is something to this argument - certainly Pablo Picasso's multiple, complex families generated huge problems which reverberate to this day. But there are many successful people who have grown up in broken families, none more prominent than US President Barack Obama, whose Kenyan father abandoned his mother when the future president was a toddler. No, family fracture cannot entirely explain the mystery either.
What else could it be?
Hiding the ladder
Julius Caesar became absolute dictator of Rome in 47 BC, at the age of fifty-three. In spite of dictatorship being regarded in Roman law as a temporary position, Caesar went on to appoint himself dictator for life three years later, the event being commemorated with a statue to himself with the inscription 'The unvanquished demi-god'. He did not last long in that role: famously, on the Ides of March of that year, 44 BC, he was stabbed to death by a group of republican conspirators.
Sitting alone with his shotgun behind the barred windows of La Posta Vecchia, nibbling, it is said, on polenta and figs, J. Paul Getty not only said that he was like an emperor, he claimed that he was an emperor, the reincarnation of Hadrian, no less, the brilliant conqueror who built Hadrian's Wall in England and the Pantheon in Rome.
Ancient Rome was wary of living emperors who believed they were gods, as Julius Caesar found to his cost. They were right to be wary as it is the fate of emperors everywhere to fallinto the trap of considering themselves as appointed by gods if not being gods themselves. In the miserable luxury of his lonely villa, would we be surprised if J. Paul Getty felt himself to be so special and all-powerful that he would have concluded that gods must be involved?
Marina Picasso recalls in her memoir how she, her brother Pablito and their father Paulo would make a weekly journey to La Californie, Pablo Picasso's sprawling house near Cannes, to seek cash for the family. But only sometimes were they admitted. Marina recalls being told on these occasions: 'The Sun cannot be disturbed.' It seems that the great artist was considered by his entourage as a god-like figure, if not a god himself - for what is the sun if not the essential, eternal source of energy for the world? Pablo himself, when contemplating his genius, more modestly referred to himself as El Rey - the King.
With a sun-god for a father, how could any son or daughter do anything but accept their insignificant place in such a solar system? Is this, then, the answer to the mystery of Pablo Picasso's son? Do children of 'emperors' feel crushed into insignificance by the seemingly god-given magnificence of a parent's achievements? For some - yes, but some children of life's significant winners do well, too, if not at quite the same levels as their parents. Lachlan Murdoch, son of the media emperor Rupert Murdoch, would be one example, as would Hans Einstein, son of Albert Einstein, who became an eminent hydraulic engineer. Both of these sons had rancorous and difficult relationships with their fathers but this did not eviscerate their lives in the way that Paulo Picasso's seems to have been.
Perhaps, then, it is something to do with how the child of the winner thinks about their parent's success? Clinical Psychologist Dr Fiona O'Doherty of the Beacon Hospital in Dublin has studied the phenomenon of underachievement in the children ofhighly successful parents.27 She observed: 'Think of it this way: the child sees a parent high in the tree of success and wonders how he got there. The parent knows he has climbed up a difficult ladder, with many small steps, some of them luck, some perseverance and others to do with skill and application. But something happens to some successful people - they hide the ladder. By this I mean that, in the self-satisfaction of their success, they seek to be admired for their greatness and do not wish to see this "greatness" tarnished by the true picture of a thousand small steps up a shaky ladder.'
And what better way to hide the ladder can there be than to consider your achievements as god-given, or worse, that they can be explained only by your own god-like status? That is the delusion that many emperors, such as Julius Caesar, have fostered - witness Caesar's statue to the 'unvanquished god', J. Paul Getty's belief that he was a reincarnation of Hadrian, and Pablo Picasso calling himself 'the King'. So was Paulo Picasso doomed to failure because it seemed that his father's success emerged from god-given genius and was therefore, for him, unattainable? Perhaps, but it begs a question: why do some parents 'hide the ladder'?
'Terry' was, like 'Peter', another student at my university. 'Terry' did not look much different from the rest of us, but somehow everyone seemed to know and recognise him as he strolled around campus looking thoughtful. 'Terry' was a postgraduate student, but you never saw him in the library - he didn't seem to have to study. Everyone said it was because he was so bright.
Yet 'Terry' didn't do particularly well in the end - he did not end up as a high-flying professor, not even as a jobbing associate professor. 'Terry' went through life being ... well, bright; he limped along fine but he didn't 'win' in any conventional sense of the word. So what happened? After all, wasn't 'Terry' born towin, with all his brightness? What happened that someone with so much promise did not succeed?
Before trying to unravel the reasons for 'Terry's destiny, let's consider 'Tony'. 'Tony' was a sixteen-year-old boy referred to a clinic where I was an intern clinical psychologist. He was a healthy-looking lad, strong and handsome, but with a somewhat hunted look. 'Tony' seemed pale and preoccupied and his eyes did not shine as they should, given his background and advantages, which were so much better than those of most of the children I saw in the clinic.
'Tony's model parents were also a little pale and definitely worried: after all, hadn't they come all the way here to bring their only son to a London psychology clinic? But what was the problem? Well, 'Tony' wasn't doing well at school, and he was morose and unmotivated. 'Tony' didn't take much part in the interview, sitting quietly, looking disengaged and rather sad.
I was, to be frank, at a bit at a loss with this case and unsure what to do. Indeed, was there anything that I could do? That was until his father let it slip out ... but before I reveal what he said, let me ask you to take a trip back to your own childhood.
Think back to when you were at school. Read these questions and choose the answer under each question which best fits how you might have responded, to the best of your recollection.
1. When you find it hard to do arithmetic or mathematics, is it.
a. because you didn't study the subject hard enough?
b. because the problems were too hard?
2. When you do well on a test, is it
a. because you studied well for it?
b. because the test was easy?
3. When you get a better result in a test than you expected, is it
a. because you tried harder?
b. because someone helped you ?
4. If you solve a problem quickly, is it
a. because you focused on it carefully?
b. because it was an easy problem?
5. When you forget something that the teacher told you, is it
a. because you didn't try hard enough to memorise it?
b. because the teacher was bad at explaining it?
6. Suppose someone doesn't think you are very bright, then
a. can you make him change his mind if you try?
b. some people will think you're not bright no matter what you do?
What did you, the child, answer? More of the a or more of the b alternatives? These questions are similar to those that Virginia Crandall and her colleagues from the Fels Research Institute in Ohio devised in 1965 to probe how children thought about their academic achievements.28 But it was not until thirteen years later that the importance of these questions emerged. It is worth taking time to focus on the details of this research as it gives a powerful insight into our own childhood psychological make-up.
In 1978 Carol Diener and Carol Dweck of the University of Illinois used Crandall's questionnaire in a study of how children approach difficult problems.29 They gave seventy eleven-year-olds a series of cards, on each of which were two figures, and they had to choose which figure was the correct solution to a puzzle which they had to deduce by trial and error over a sequence of cards. Each figure was composed of: an outside shape whichcould be a square or triangle; an inside shape which could be a dot or a star; and the figures could also be either red or blue. So, a child might decide that the 'rule' that determined the right answer was 'triangle', and would consistently choose the triangle answer, irrespective of what the colour and the inside shapes were. It's similar to those problem-solving puzzles that many IQ tests use. On here you can see a picture of typical problems (with red and blue replaced by white and grey in the figure).
In the first row of the figure, if you decided that shape was the rule, then you might guess that the triangle was the correct shape. If that was the correct answer, then you would say 'left' for the first card, 'left' for the second, 'right' for the third and 'left' for the fourth. If on the other hand, you decided that colour was the rule to focus on, and that 'grey' was the correct answer (using grey and white instead of the red and blue of the original study), then you would say 'right' for the first, 'right' for the second, 'right' for the third and 'left' for the fourth. Finally, if you guessed that the dot/star was the key rule, and that 'star' correct choice, then you would say 'left', 'right', 'right', 'right'.
The children were trained to do the problems by the researcher giving them feedback after every card, and if necessary they were given a hint like: 'The correct answer is one of the two shapes, either the triangle or the square. See if you can figure out the right answer. The same answer is right for this whole deck of cards.' In the end all the children could complete the test by discovering the rule and the correct answer within the rule through trial and error by being told right or wrong after each answer. But then things got tricky.
Next the children were given a fresh set of twenty similar cards, but this time they were only told 'right' or 'wrong' after every fourth answer - so they did not receive any feedback for three-quarters of the cards, yet they still had to find the right answer. A twenty-card sequence was long enough for them to try out various different guesses about what the correct rule could be. All the children, it is important to remember, had learned successfully how to do this task in training - there were none who had been simply unable to do it. The only difference now was that they had to persevere with much less feedback, and guide themselves to the right solution over the twenty cards.
There are effective and ineffective strategies for solving problems like this. Julie sees the first card in the figure - a white triangle with a star in the middle on the left and a grey square with a dot in the middle on the right. She has to choose either the left or the right shape as the correct answer. If she thinks that colour is the rule dictating what is right or wrong, she may guess that grey is the correct answer and will always choose the shape that is grey. If she is told that she is wrong, as for very many things in life, she doesn't know why she is wrong. Maybe the rule is colour, and she has simply chosen the wrong colour. If that is the case, then she might try white in the next trial, or alternatively she could test the idea that it is the big shape that is the rule, and might point to the grey square on the next card. Failing that, she might focus her attention on the dot in the middle, and try to get correct answers by choosing on the basis of what the small shape is. Children who show effective problem-solving strategies try out ideas in this way until they start being told that they are correct.
Ineffective strategies, on the other hand, were ones which could never lead to a correct answer. For instance, James always chose white irrespective of feedback, Mary just alternated between left and right no matter what the feedback was, or Jack always picked the figure on the left.
Now think back to yourself as a child, and your answers to the six questions above. Were you more inclined to choose thea or the b answers? In the study, based on a bigger set of similar questions, if you had answered a a lot, Diener and Dweck would have classified you as 'mastery-oriented', while if you had tended to go for more of the b answers, they would have described you as 'helpless'. Which were you? - Whether you were an a-or b-answer child had a huge effect on how you would have performed for Diener and Dweck.
After 'failure' - i.e., being told an answer was wrong - children who gave more a answers switched more often to an effective strategy for solving the problem, while the b-answer - more 'helpless' - children acted like rabbits in the headlights and never improved their strategy. On the contrary, most of them worsened, moving to another ineffective strategy such as always sticking to the same shape, or just alternating left and right without taking heed of the feedback.
Remember, these 'mastery-oriented' and 'helpless' children had solved the tasks equally well during training - they were of the same mental ability; what distinguished them from one another was their response to failure. Asked after the end of the test why they thought they had had trouble with the problems, no less than half the b-answer children said, 'because I'm not smart enough'. How many of the a-answer children said this? None! Again, remember that there was no difference in how smart the two groups actually were.
And what did the a-answer, 'mastery-oriented' kids say when, after the test, they were asked, 'Why do you think you had trouble with the problems?' About a quarter said it was because they hadn't tried hard enough, a fifth put it down to bad luck, another fifth to the test being harder than the training one and another fifth said it was because the researchers had been unfair. None of them said it was because they weren't smart enough, unlike the b-answer children.
In a second study, the children were asked to speak out loud as they tried to solve the problems and again there were dramatic differences. More than half the 'mastery-oriented' children said things to themselves that could actually help them solve the problems, such as: 'The harder it gets, the harder I need to try' or 'I should slow down and try to figure this out.' The vast majority of the 'mastery-oriented' children said so-called 'self-monitoring' things to themselves such as 'I'm not concentrating', while none of them said demoralising things such as 'I give up', as several of the 'helpless' group did. The rabbit-in-the-headlights behaviour of the equally smart but 'helpless' children led them to say things to themselves which were irrelevant and actually stopped them from solving the problem.
In a second piece of research two years later30 Diener and Dweck gave the same test to 'helpless' and 'mastery-oriented' children, but stopped half of them after they had just failed an item and half of them after they had just passed an item, to ask them some questions about how they thought they were doing. 'Helpless' children under-estimated how many successes they had had so far, and didn't see these successes as evidence of their ability - nor did they expect themselves to be successful in future problems. Failure left the 'mastery-oriented' children undaunted and optimistic about future performance.
But do these reactions to success and failure in classroom tests actually matter, and if so, can parents do anything about it? As we will see, they most certainly do, and yes, usually they can.
Here are a few more questions for you to answer. Assess how much you agree or disagree with each.
1. People have a more or less fixed quota of intelligence and can't change it much.
2. No matter how much you learn, you can't really change your intelligence.
3. People can work to improve their intelligence.
4. No matter how intelligent you already are, you can always improve it.
You will see that these questions have a lot in common with those the children solving the IQ-like problems answered. Dweck had narrowed down Crandall's questionnaire to this main issue - people's theory or belief about their intelligence. Using a few questions similar to the four above, she wanted to know how helpless people felt about their intellectual performance, versus how much mastery they felt they had over it. Another way of putting it is that some people saw their intelligence as an entity - a thing over which they had little or no control. Others, on the other hand, saw their intelligence in incremental terms. This entity-incremental distinction was very similar to the distinctions made by helpless and masterful children in the study by Diener and Dweck that I've just described.
Lisa Blackwell from Columbia University teamed up with Dweck and others to see whether these theories that people held about their own intelligence had any wider impact on their lives.31 They followed almost 400 twelve- to thirteen-year-olds who were just embarking on their junior high school career. When Blackwell compared the progress of those children who saw their intelligence as a 'thing' with that of those who saw it as something 'incremental', she discovered something astonishing.
In September of the seventh grade, the two groups scored similarly on standard mathematics tests. By the spring of eighth grade, the children who believed that their intelligence was a'thing' over which they had no control - irrespective of how intelligent they actually were - showed no change in their grades. The children who thought intelligence was something you could do something about, on the other hand, steadily increased their grades in mathematics.
This was true even with children who scored quite low in the mathematics test in their seventh grade - if they had an incremental theory of intelligence, they improved their test scores; on the other hand, even high-scoring children who believed intelligence to be a fixed entity flat-lined in their grades.
And that brings me back to what 'Tony's father had told me in the clinic that suddenly made me understand 'Tony's morose lack of motivation. His father said, 'The thing is, one day at an exhibition in our town, there was this Mensa stall, and "Tony" did an intelligence test - they told us he had a very high IQ and should come back for more testing.' Ah!
Mensa is the organisation for people who score in the top 2 per cent of certain IQ tests. If you are accepted into Mensa, you choose to label yourself, very publicly, as having a high IQ. And as for 'Terry', the postgraduate, guess what organisation he belonged to - Mensa. How do I, who only knew him because of his constant bright presence across university affairs, know this? Because if you hadn't heard how bright he was, he would make sure he casually mentioned his membership of Mensa.
Schoolboy 'Tony' was of slightly above average intelligence - I know because I gave him the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, which is a very comprehensive, time-consuming face-to-face test that probes ability across a lot of different mental functions - but he wasn't by any means a super-intelligent boy. The test he did at the Mensa booth was a paper and pencil puzzle test parts of which may have had some similarities with Diener and Dweck's shapes test described above. His parents were toldthat this was just a screening test, and he should come back for testing that would properly establish their son's IQ, but all they heard was that their son was 'highly intelligent' and he did not go back as advised by the people at the Mensa booth. The trouble was, though he was moderately intelligent, he wasn't of exceptional IQ - and even if he had been, as we have seen, for many people it is not a good idea to be 'branded' in this way.
The consequences of this for 'Tony' were profound. The thing about IQ is that those academic psychologists who are most enthusiastic about it are, in the main, convinced that it is largely genetically inherited - in other words, an entity or endowed. And as Dweck's research has shown, once you start believing that your intelligence is endowed, you will tend to cope badly with failure compared with those who believe it's something incremental that can be worked on.
'Tony' continually disappointed his parents - and himself - by his totally reasonable but average performance at school. His parents' expectations for him built his supposed IQ into an entity - a basic feature of himself like his height, gender and looks. But what had become a fundamental aspect of his self-perception - 'I'm super-bright' - was bruised and battered every single day by the reality of his school performance and his disappointed parents' reaction to it. No wonder the poor lad looked so morose.
'Terry' was known for being bright, but if you asked other students how they knew this - had he written a ground-breaking academic paper or book, for instance? - a frown would come over the face of the person telling you and they would mutter something like, 'But he's in Mensa.' 'Terry' actually didn't achieve much because putting his vaunted IQ to the test was a huge risk. What if his hypothetical book didn't sweep the internationalstage? It would not just be a failure for his book - it would be a failure of a core feature of his self!
Martin Covington of the University of California at Berkeley has shown that people like 'Terry' who see their performance as a manifestation of this entity called intelligence tend to focus on 'performance' goals.32 And the other name for this type of goal is an 'ego-goal'. For 'Tony' and 'Terry', their performance wasn't just a skill, like how well they played tennis - it was a central outcrop of their egos. Once intellect comes to be seen in this way, performance becomes a total risk - and it is the entire self-esteem that is being risked. No wonder 'Terry' shied away from ever putting his sparkling brightness to any real test. People like 'Terry' are constantly focused on beating others - on being first. It is the outcome they are concerned with, understandably enough, because every outcome is a public test of their ego. And if they cannot be sure of beating others, they shy away from the contest.
My successful fellow students who were not cursed by such entity-inspired ego-goals weren't performance-focused - they were 'learning-focused', in Covington's terms. Their goals came from the challenge of mastering the difficult problems they faced - they were the a-answer children who muttered to themselves, 'I'm not concentrating enough,' rather than something like, 'I'm no good at this.' When the tester said 'wrong' to them, as in Diener's study, they would have taken a deep breath and focused harder, maybe even with a glint in their eye.
'Terry' and 'Tony', on the other hand, would have been the b-answer 'helpless' schoolchildren in Diener's study: once the tester said 'wrong' to them, their hearts would have raced, their minds would have fogged over and the terrible, fearful thought would have welled up in their minds, 'Maybe I'm not smart!' 'Terry' might have responded randomly and then toldthe teacher that he was in Mensa; 'Tony' would probably have become even more morose and agonised over yet another blow to his fragile ego.
And had 'Terry' and 'Tony' been around for a brain-imaging study carried out by Jennifer Mangels and her colleagues at Columbia University,33 we would have seen this ego-vulnerability at work in their brains. Electrical brain recordings were taken from two groups of students - one a b-answer, entity theory of intelligence group, and the other an a-answer, incremental theory of intelligence group.
One of the tests that we often give in my laboratory involves listening to a series of simple sounds and pressing a button when an occasional slightly different sound is heard. As we record your brain waves, that target sound will cause a big wave of brain activity towards the back of the brain - neuroscientists call that wave the 'P3b'. But from time to time we might sneak in a completely 'oddball' sound - like a strange crunching noise; in response to this sound, a different surge of activity courses through the brain, called the 'P3a wave'. This wave signifies a sort of 'Hold on, what the hell was that?' brain response, and it happens particularly in the front of the brain.
Mangels and her colleagues gave the Columbia undergraduates a general knowledge test - 'What is the capital of Australia?' would be the sort of question posed - while they were hooked up to an EEG machine measuring the brain's electrical activity, and compared the two groups. And what happened when the students received feedback that a particular answer was wrong? The entity group showed a much bigger P3a wave, front-of-the-brain response than the incremental group - showing that for them this failure feedback was a real 'What the hell was that?' event. Here we could see the threat to their egos, acting out in brain activity.
But even more important was their response to helpful feedback - i.e., how their brains responded to the correct answer being flashed up - 'Canberra', in response to the Australia question, for instance. The incremental group's brains showed a big surge in brain activity that we know is linked to grabbing information and storing memory - encoding. This happens in the temporal lobes of the brain, along with parts of the frontal lobes.
The incremental group's brains soaked up the feedback hungrily and this paid off over the course of the general knowledge test, where they improved their scores because they were able to give the correct answer to some of the questions they didn't know the first time. But what about the entity group and their P3a-challenged egos? It seems that their brains were too caught up in the challenge to their egos produced by the 'wrong' response to fully soak up the feedback that would help them do better in the future. Their temporal-frontal memory encoding response was smaller than for the incremental group and also meant that they didn't learn as well from the feedback they got to their wrong responses.
So here we see why 'Terry' and 'Tony' did not thrive: finding out that they were wrong was such a challenge to their egos that it interfered with their brains' ability to learn from failure and improve their intellectual abilities. Yet there was nothing inevitable or 'hard-wired' about this response - it was just a belief - and beliefs can change, sometimes rapidly and easily. I told 'Tony' and his parents that while he was clever, he wasn't super-bright, but that there was no reason he couldn't achieve highly in school with hard work and perseverance. His parents were a bit crestfallen, while 'Tony' looked a little shocked, then relieved; after a short while it looked like a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.
My 'therapy' for 'Tony' was simply to teach him the alternative a-answer belief about his abilities: I taught him an incremental view of his intellectual abilities - about effort and application and seeing difficulties as challenges. I think it began to work, but as I had to move on to a different clinic as part of my training, I don't know what happened in the longer term. But there is no reason why any child who holds an 'entity' theory of his or her abilities couldn't quite easily be taught to change to a more useful and less handicapping 'incremental' theory, where they learn to see how success is a product as much of what they do as what they are. 'Entity' thoughts such as 'I'm no good at maths' or 'I am no good at sports' need to be replaced by 'incremental' thoughts such as 'I didn't like maths at school and lost interest in it' or 'I need to find a sport that suits my abilities.'
'Terry' and 'Tony' had had a curse put on them - a handicapping belief about the immutability of their intellectual abilities. This is a common curse of modern times, and one which applies much more widely beyond the domain of intelligence - it is the dead weight of 'genetic fatalism'.
The curse of genetic fatalism
The sequencing of the human genome has accelerated the spread of a core belief of our time - that much of what we are and do is coded in our genes; it is a form of biological predestination. Most geneticists are cautious about claims made about the extent to which complex behaviours and personal characteristics are determined by genes. There are only 20 - 30,000 of the things, and that is an impossibly small number to control all the glorious manifestations of human behaviour. And we evolvedgenetically in order to learn from the environment, so wise geneticists will make the case for nature with nurture, rather than for nature versus nurture.
But there are psychologists and psychiatrists who, for many different reasons, choose to greatly exaggerate how things like psychological problems, personality and intelligence are influenced by genes. Yes, there are genetic contributions to many of these, but in very few of them are genes the only or even main determining factor. But the problem with believing that genes call the shots where intelligence, personality and psychological problems are concerned, is that it leaves you, as the human actor in this drama, helpless. There is nothing you can do about the genes, but if you choose to believe eminent academics that your behaviour is largely genetically determined, then that belief is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We saw how 'Terry' and 'Tony' were disabled by an 'entity' notion of their intellectual abilities, and how a genetically fatalist belief can actually interfere with a child's learning if and when they come across even a minor setback or failure. Whatever we do, we should not praise a child for being 'bright', but rather for their effort, perseverance or ingenuity, otherwise we risk imposing the curse of genetic fatalism on them.
Rather than praise them for being bright, we should praise them for 'grit'. Angela Duckworth and her colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania discovered that the quality of 'stickability' and perseverance was a highly significant factor in Ivy League undergraduate exam performance and even spelling ability in seven- to fifteen-year-old children.34 Their measure of 'grit' had two elements - consistency of interests over time and perseverance of effort. The sort of consistency questions were similar to this: 'I find it hard to follow up on projects which last for more than a few months.' Examples of the perseverance questionswere similar to this: 'Whatever I start I usually complete, I work hard or I don't get discouraged by setbacks.' Children and adults who were high on these grit items were more likely to be winners than those with less grit.
In short, the curse of genetic fatalism undermines grit, and grit is one of the most important ingredients in life - not just in academic achievement, but in work, relationships and coping with stress and illness.
Science is getting close to having a brain-imaging method for detecting a type of pathology in the brain that is closely linked to Alzheimer's Disease - deposits called amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles. It will not be long before, if we have worries about our memory, we will be referred for scans which will tell us whether we have one of these key elements of Alzheimer's Disease. Hopefully this will then allow scientists to develop new treatments which can halt the disease early on and stop it in its tracks before too much damage is done to the brain. The problem is that at the moment there is no treatment with big beneficial effects and so being given the diagnosis is a pretty depressing experience.
But are things as simple as that? David Bennett and colleagues at Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago followed a group of older people, having measured their memory and cognitive abilities while alive.35 After their eventual death, they measured the amount of Alzheimer's-type damage to their brains. Now, we might expect that their memory and mental abilities while alive might be linked to the amount of pathology in their brains. They were - but not for everyone.
In older people who were relatively isolated, namely who had the smallest number of family and close friends whom they saw at least once a month, those with more pathology in their brainshad had poorer mental function while alive. But this was not true for those who had the richest social networks of friends and family - in them there was no relationship between the 'gunk' in their brains and their mental abilities while alive.
What seems to be happening is that the mental challenge, stimulation and morale that comes from having friends and family around us allows the brain to keep functioning pretty well in spite of the pathology. The brain is hugely plastic, at any age, and the Alzheimer's pathology may have less effect on a brain which is stimulated and hence better connected by a rich social network. It's not that having friends and family around cured the Alzheimer's Disease - certainly not - but they allow people to function better mentally in spite of the changes in the brain.
If I had been one of the first people to receive the new brain-imaging test for early Alzheimer's Disease, before any pharmacological treatment had been developed for it, there would have been a terrible temptation to succumb to the depressing and fatalistic curse that my fate is sealed and there is nothing I could do about it. But that is not necessarily the case. Even where our abilities are very strongly influenced by our biology - as in Alzheimer's Disease - our brains are too complex for it ever to be a cut-and-dried case justifying our mentally shutting up shop and giving up.
So fatalism - genetic or biological - can cripple us and in many cases is not scientifically justified. But lots of people handicap themselves by assuming that their personality and behaviour are 'entities' which are largely outside their control. And if we believe they're outside of our control, for sure we won't be able to control them.
Carol Dweck,36 for instance, has shown that children who suffer a rejection by other children in a new school are muchmore likely to withdraw into themselves and avoid trying again if they think that the failure was because of something inside them: if they think 'I'm no good at getting on with other kids' (an 'entity' theory) rather than 'They're a real clique - I should try someone else' (an incremental theory), then they can go into a spiral of social rejection. And they can end up being consistently unpopular because they avoid doing the things that could make them accepted - all because they are handicapped by a helplessness-inducing fatalism about the essentially immutable nature of their abilities and characteristics.
Genetic fatalists, in short, believe that they have a fixed 'dose' of attributes - intelligence, ability, personality, self-control, happiness and this belief or 'attribution' automatically undermines any attempts they might make to change or improve themselves; hence it sabotages their ability to win. Being the son of the 'Sun' Pablo Picasso is profoundly disabling, because how could a 'Sun-genius' be anything other than born, not made? For Paulo, his father's success had nothing to do with apparently irrelevant facts such as that Pablo's father was an art teacher and that when he was a child he did little else but draw and paint - thousands and thousands of hours of obsessed, focused practice.
Being the son or grandson of the reincarnation of Hadrian must have been equally disabling for the Gettys. What hope is there of ever succeeding in your own right if the great man considered the possibility that his successes might have been an outcrop of supernatural forces?
As Anders Ericsson at Florida State University has argued, genius only begins after 10,000 hours of practice.37 Of course there are some inherited and environmental advantages for most high performers, but without practice and perseverance you will never get a genius - whether it be a Mozart, a Rostropovich, anEinstein or a Picasso. These 10,000 hours are the rungs of the ladder that some 'geniuses' draw up behind them, 'hiding the ladder', in Fiona O'Doherty's terms, and hence crippling their children.
Earlier I asked the question, why do successful parents often hide the ladder? The first answer is that they attribute their success to something inside themselves - an entity, in other words. They contemplate their sparkling success in the world and can only assume that they have been born geniuses - in other words, by believing in genetic (or god-given) fatalism, they have no choice but to hide the ladder - because in their eyes there was no ladder helping them to their greatness.
The curse of the parental ego
But there is a second reason why some parents 'hide the ladder' - something to which fathers are more susceptible than mothers. This concerns the distorting effect that success can have on the ego, inflating the self-importance of the parent to the point that he cannot bear the thought that luck or brute effort might have played a part in his dizzying climb to success. No, for such egos, the last thing they need to hear is that such success is potentially open to their offspring through such mundane recipes as hard work and looking for the lucky break: for an ego which has come to believe that their genius is an 'entity', to preserve that ego means denying the ladder of mundane effort and attributing success to genes or gods.
The seductive delusion of god-given genius is the psychological fate that binds together Pablo Picasso and J. Paul Getty. It is a terrible curse to have a god for a father.
But why does success breed such egos? As this chapter has shown, winners are certainly not necessarily born, so that raises the question as to whether success is an outcrop of circumstance - of chance events that shape our fates. That brings us to the Puzzle of the Changeling Fish.
THE WINNER EFFECT. Copyright © 2012 by Ian Robertson. All rights reserved.
Meet the Author
"Ian Robertson is a rare combination: a cutting edge neuroscientist whose important research is done in great depth and with careful detail, who also has the ability to step back, take risks, and explore the big picture, with a vivid, clear, engaging style, and enviable energy." Norman Doidge, author of the New York Times bestseller The Brain that Changes Itself
A neuroscientist and trained clinical psychologist, Ian Robertson is an international expert on neuropsychology. Currently Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin, and formerly Fellow of Hughes Hall, University of Cambridge, he holds visiting professorships at University College London and Bangor University in the United Kingdom, and is a visiting scientist at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto, Canada. He is a member of the Royal Irish Academy and has published over 250 scientific articles in leading journals. He is also author and editor of ten scientific books, including the leading international textbook on cognitive rehabilitation, and three books for the general reader including Mind Sculpture: Your Brain's Untapped Potential. He is a regular keynote speaker at conferences on brain function throughout the world. He lives in Dublin, Ireland.
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