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.