Hold That Thought: Professor Receives Award to Study Intelligence

Sherry Zhou
By Sherry Zhou October 25, 2009 16:18

Assistant Professor of Psychology Jeremy Gray was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) to investigate how self control, emotions, and intelligence may be connected.

The idea of intelligence has proved eternally fascinating to scientists and non-scientists alike. Typically seen as a product of pure cognitive power, intelligence can also be viewed from a reasoning or emotional standpoint. The latter form of intelligence, incorporating self-control as well as cognitive horse-power, is becoming increasingly popular among psychology researchers.

Jeremy Gray, Assistant Professor of Psychol­ogy, is one of these researchers. Gray received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE) to further his research on the link among emotion, self-control, and intelligence.

The PECASE is the most distinguished award given to young scientists and engineers by the United States government. Chosen by the National Science Foundation as one of 456 candidates, Gray was awarded the PECASE due to his outstanding leadership in cognitive research.

The PECASE provides support for Gray’s current research on the relationship between intelligence and self-control. “I’m really inter­ested in the extent to which cognitive intelligence in the usual sense actually depends on affective processes, including self-control and emotional regulation,” Gray said. Many times, intelligent behavior requires an ability to restrain oneself.

This concept, called delay discounting, depends on a person’s degree of impulsivity. “The ability to delay gratification is critical for succeeding in anything that takes us sustained effort,” Gray said. “It is not seen as intelligence in the usual sense, but it definitely supports intelligent behavior.” A person with lower discounting can delay gratifica­tion and only weakly devalues the future. Over 26 studies have linked lower levels of discounting to higher intelligence. While these correlation stud­ies provide strong evidence linking emotion and intelligence, it remains unknown how these two qualities are tied.

The connection between discounting and intelligence presents the main mystery Gray is attempting to solve. One of the first hypotheses Gray investigated tied lower discounting with a better short-term or working memory. A more robust working memory allows people to remem­ber the value of an object across different time periods and provide an accurate estimate of the object’s projected worth in the future. This abil­ity to simulate different situations in time might allow people to practice stronger self-control and develop greater intelligence.

After a year and a half of gathering data and testing over 100 individuals’ memory and intelli­gence, Gray found that stronger working memory does correlate with self-control and many indica­tors of intelligence. However, this finding still fails to account completely for the relationship between discounting and intelligence. “We know that working memory is part of what contributes to intelligence, but there could potentially be parts of working memory that are unrelated to intel­ligence,” Gray says.

Another prediction on the relationship between intelligence and self-control is that lower discount­ing provides a certain type of mindset. People place greater emphasis on values and farsighted­ness. These characteristics then translate into values that assist in the development of intelli­gence. When a person is studying dry foundational information for a subject, they have to know this will build the basis for more interesting knowledge later on. This type of farsightedness helps people continue learning, even if it does not seem inter­esting in the beginning.

While results from these studies will certainly prove interesting in terms of creating a more comprehensive understanding of intelligence, it also has long-term practical applications. Strug­gling students might have the opportunity to improve their academic capabilities through training sessions. Programs could be developed that teach self-control in order to promote better performances in classes and beyond.

Sherry Zhou
By Sherry Zhou October 25, 2009 16:18