Why IQ and Hard Work Doesn’t Translate to Academic Performance

Reader’s note: This is the first part of our 3-part series on cognitive dissonance. Through this series, we wish to illustrate what cognitive dissonance is, where in our daily lives cognitive dissonances may arise, and how we can resolve them in ways that help us resolve our long-term interests.

We know that hard work makes up part of the equation for performing academically. So it isn’t just about intelligence. But it isn’t just about hard work either!

Performing well academically oftentimes has to do with one’s willingness to confront cognitive dissonance. What is it?

Here is one way to think of cognitive dissonance: It is a psychological state of discomfort, and it occurs when beliefs about who we are or want and what we do are in conflict. When a person who desires good health continues to smoke despite understanding the detriments smoking does to one’s health, there is cognitive dissonance – the act of smoking is in conflict with the desire for good health!

When a dissonance arises, it acts as a motivation for us to change behaviors. This motivation stems from our desire to remove this state of discomfort. The smoker may be driven to quit smoking following this feeling of discomfort.

Yet, changing behaviors is difficult, and there are always ways to overcome dissonances other than doing this difficult thing. For one, the smoker is able to keep her habit of smoking by rationalizing her dissonance. This is easily done by thinking, “Ah, my uncle smoked all his life and was never struck by any smoking-related diseases!” Or, “I am not that unlucky!” She may even manage to persuade herself that “Good health is not as important as enjoying life!”

Similarly, in the academic setting, some of us can be resistant to changing behaviors. Most students have had coveted for good results at some point during their academic sojourn, be it as a passing fantasy or an enduring goal.

However, in order to achieve good results, sacrifices have to be made. These sacrifices do not simply require a one-off behavioral change but a long-term habit-formation. A lifestyle change, one may say. This can be demanding, and in order to avoid having to make the change, students may choose to resolve the dissonance between their desire for good results and bad habits through unhelpful rationalization processes instead.

When I was younger, I used to think that “Hard work and diligence will get me there!” After all, “The universe rewards the sincere.” So even though there was all the hoo-ha about studying smart and “learning” rather than “rote memorizing”, I insisted on expecting good grades simply because I sat down seven hours a day to do extra work. For me, it was more difficult to put myself out there, be resourceful, and learn different ways of learning and preparing for exams, than to sit before a desk.

As I grew older, I realized that these rationalizations become acts of self-sabotage when they do not serve us in achieving our current goals. We don’t want that. Goals are there to be attained! So, how should one deal with cognitive dissonances in ways that serve our goals? Where else in life can cognitive dissonance arise?

Zi Hui is studying at the National University of Singapore. She has an enduring passion for the human condition, and for how knowledge of it can give clues to how one can best facilitate in life. She majors in Philosophy and Psychology.