Newsweek Magazine and the Daily Beast recently compiled a list of “31 Ways to Get Smarter –Faster in 2012,” offering an eclectic, “how-to” regimen of some commonly-accepted and other newly discovered ways to improve memory, analytical reasoning and overall thinking. The premise of this list is that if readers adopt some of these 31 behaviors, they can greatly improve their intelligence. The problem, however, is that many of the suggested activities probably don’t actually cause increased mental abilities. Simply observing what smart people do isn’t sufficient to conclude that those same activities somehow made those people smart. Such flawed reasoning is akin to arguing that the act of participating in the Olympics is what makes Olympians fast because we observe that all Olympic track runners are exceptionally fast. Take item number 4, “Get News from Al Jazeera,” as an example. Newsweek suggests that watching Al Jazeera English promotes open-mindedness simply because viewers were more open-minded than those of other news outlets. The more likely story is that more open-minded people choose to watch Al Jazeera just like the fastest runners self-select into the Olympics.
Several other items on the list are backed by “scientific” studies (most of which are unfortunately not cited). While these studies might give the list an air of truth, most studies involving complex outcomes (like improved intelligence) are plagued by the same problem as above: correlation does not equal causation.
For example, one of the few cited studies, the so-called Stanford Marshmallow Experiment, supports item 28, “Delay Gratification.” This experiment demonstrated that 4 to 6 year-olds who waited 15 minutes to eat a marshmallow in hopes of receiving an additional marshmallow generally scored higher on the SAT than those who ate the marshmallow more quickly. The theory linking delayed gratification and intelligence is that those with greater self-control are better able to focus on learning and intelligence-building in the short-term. One problem with this acclaimed behavioral experiment, however, is that most four year-olds don’t really understand instructions related to units of time. Therefore, instead of capturing how well a child delays gratification, the study is really measuring how well that child grasps the meaning of 15 minutes. It should not surprise us that precocious toddlers who understood time better and earlier than their peers were probably naturally more intelligent and therefore were already predisposed to perform well on intelligence tests years in the future.