Is there an ancestor effect?

by on December 22, 2010 at 1:14 am in Education, Science | Permalink

An initial study involved 80 undergrads spending five minutes thinking about either their fifteenth century ancestors, their great-grandparents or a recent shopping trip. Afterwards, those students in the two ancestor conditions were more confident about their likely performance in future exams, an effect that seemed to be mediated by their feeling more in control of their lives.

Three further studies showed that thinking or writing about their recent or distant ancestors led students to actually perform better on a range of intelligence tests, including verbal and spatial tasks (in one test, students who thought about their distant ancestors scored an average of 14 out of 16, compared with an average of 10 out of 16 among controls). The ancestor benefit was mediated partly by students attempting more answers – what the researchers called having a 'promotion orientation'.

The full account is here.  I would like to see this replicated, and subject to more variation, but in the meantime it's an interesting idea.

Jacqueline December 21, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Who even knows who their 15th century ancestors were?

Allegra December 22, 2010 at 12:00 am

It could be that, in ordinary people, the task requires more extrapolation, more imagination, and is more demanding on the memory than a recent shopping trip. Thus, Prince Charles, thinking about his ancestors, would not benefit, precisely because he has thought about them often and knows a great deal about them.

RD December 22, 2010 at 12:25 am

Sounds stupid.

John Mansfield December 22, 2010 at 3:19 am

Turning the hearts of the children to their fathers will save the earth from the curse—the curse of low test scores. Three cheers for Elijah!

Jimbo December 22, 2010 at 6:27 am

Sometimes when I'm feeling down, I think of my European ancestors exploiting the natives, raping the land, and destroying cultures. Who wouldn't get a warm fuzzy feeling thinking about these things?

I am actually curious to see if there are ethnic disparities in the ancestor effect, or if there is a correlation between ancestor effect improvements and knowledge of history.

Do people with a "proud" cultural or ethnic history (history of civilization, great artistic wonders, scientific advancements, and other cultural status symbols. I understand the term "proud" is socially determined) have a greater ancestor effect? Based on the frequent use by social movements, governments, and political parties of propaganda that recalls "the good ol' days", I would guess the answer is yes.

IVV December 23, 2010 at 4:56 am

Bah, my 15th century ancestors were on the run from each other:

On one side, there were Hessian roofers, a group of British who were going to flee Oliver Cromwell in a century, Irish vagabonds, and a big portion of Alsatians trying to ignore which kingdom laid claim to their lands at any given moment.

On the other side, there were Moors defecting to Christianity for their safety, members of the Aztec and Tarascan Empires ready to take a chance with something new, and the French.

My families never showed much national pride or loyalty, on any side.

So, yeah, my ancestors fled my ancestors to avoid fighting my ancestors, but ended up exploiting my ancestors anyway.

TAG Heuer December 29, 2010 at 7:23 pm

On the other side, there were Moors defecting to Christianity for their safety, members of the Aztec and Tarascan Empires ready to take a chance with something new, and the French.

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