Intelligence, Mental Health, and the Battle for the 4.0

Illustration by Caroline Cao

Illustration by Caroline Cao

Walking around Washington University’s campus, you will probably see smiling students, beautiful buildings, and pristine landscaping. However, closer observation paints a different picture. A majority of student conversation is dominated by talk of grades, extracurricular activities, and the amount of sleep (or lack thereof) that a student was able to manage the night before. At many universities (and I argue this is true for most of them), there is a widespread culture of “doing the most,” or rather, seeming to be on top of everything, including achieving top marks in classes while simultaneously possessing multiple leadership positions or internships. College students have a tendency to compare themselves to others and feel inadequate when they are not tackling as much as their peers. The reality, however, is that everyone else is just as confused or stressed, but they try not to show it.

The question then becomes “why?” Why do college students feel a need to express that they have mastered what is most likely impossible? WUSTL psychology professor Dr. Timothy Bono, who researches student development and positive psychology, says that looking to others for how to act is only natural, but it has its faults: “[U]nfortunately, this social comparison often translates into things like low self-esteem or low feelings of self-worth because we start paying attention to people who have more than we do.”

Although social comparison is natural, it does not mean that it is good. Why does this problem still exist for college aged students? Haven’t we come to realize the consequences of these behaviors? Dr. Bono mentions the prevalence of social media and how constantly viewing contrived portraits of our friends has made social comparison too easy. Much of this problem may also come from stigmas imposed by society as well as the pressure that comes with finding a career. In an article for Freakonomics, Paul Kimelman describes this trend of associating high grades and genius-level status with success. He explains that although he is the CTO of the microcontroller company Luminary Micro, he was far from being a straight A student while he was in school. In the article, Kimelman brings up many interesting points about success, including questioning how to define it. Kimelman alludes to an example of the elusiveness of a good definition: “Is a straight-A student who went all the way through Harvard Business School a success if she sells insurance? If she opens a business, what determines when it is a success? A hardware store in Iowa may not cut it, but creating Home Depot presumably does.” Where is the success line drawn? And how, if success is so ambiguous, can we predict whether or not we will be successful based on similarly ambiguous measures? This example does not even mention the idea that success may be dependent on a person’s happiness and completely independent of career status.

If grades do not necessarily correlate to success, or what we traditionally picture as success, what can we use to predict our futures? What should WUSTL  students stress over if GPA is not a sufficient enough measure? A reasonable estimation may be intelligence, however even IQ measures have come under fire. It seems that intelligence alone is not a significant measure of career success, meaning some other factor is needed. Currently, a hot topic in psychology is EQ, or emotional intelligence. EQ measures a person’s ability to understand people’s feelings, empathize with them, and form solutions in how to communicate with them. Emotional intelligence is important for many careers, including those in which leading groups of people is necessary. However, EQ is also not always a significant measure on its own, considering that it does not always correlate with higher job performance and may even be manipulative in some cases. What seems to be most helpful then, is a healthy mix of the two: IQ and EQ. Dr. Bono explains, “Both are important, but they predict different things. IQ does a good job predicting academic performance, but EQ is better at predicting interpersonal skills and the ability to relate effectively to others. Both of those are important for success.” But what is the golden ratio of the two? What is best combination of intellectual ability and social skills?

We have still not answered the question about how to help college students who are grappling with the problem of success as compared to their peers. How can we cultivate both IQ and EQ in our daily lives? It is understandable that GPA plays a part in shaping our careers, and that there is a general trend that higher GPA means a more diverse selection of graduate schools or jobs right out of college. At the same time it seems that, according to Kimelman, success and recognition is possible even if straight As are not reality. And it’s significant to mention that some form of emotional intelligence is necessary in any job that involves any interaction with other people, which is arguably every career.

The main takeaway from the debates about intelligence and success? The entire concept is subjective. Different levels of both IQ and EQ are necessary for different types of jobs, and there are plenty of college graduates in the world who did not receive a 4.0 and are what most would define as successful. The nature of success is fluid and depends on the person. This is often difficult to come to terms with, especially when being on a college campus sets a certain standard for performance.

Lingering too long on this subject incites unhealthy competition, self deprecation, and lack of sleep. GPA and extracurriculars are certainly helpful, but when stressed over too much, can lead to poorer overall performance. Maybe the key to success is not denying the importance of these factors, but instead monitoring our obsession with them. Rather than obsessing over that General Chemistry test last week, we can focus on how to be content with ourselves and our achievements, while still deriving a healthy amount of inspiration from our peers. This refocusing takes some practice, but if we can learn to take this change one step at a time, such as ceasing to romanticize stress, this campus may be a more positive place. As Dr. Bono told me, it is still possible to overcome the habit of comparing oneself with others and enjoy the college experience while it lasts: “[I]t is worthwhile to pay attention to what others do so that we can learn from them, and it is natural to make comparisons as part of that, but by developing a robust set of internal standards, we have another source beyond just what’s external to us to use as a barometer for success and well-being.”


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Sarah Small is a freshman from Pittsburgh, PA. She can be reached at sarahsmall@wustl.edu


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