you definitely need more than talent


A few days ago, we got into a discussion about the worship of talent among academics. Well, here’s 30 years of research on talent, motivation and learning, which reinforces the very basic point that talent is not enough. From a new Scientific American article on the research of Carol S. Dweck:

Our society worships talent, and many people assume that possessing superior intelligence or ability—along with confidence in that ability—is a recipe for success. In fact, however, more than 30 years of scientific investigation suggests that an overemphasis on intellect or talent leaves people vulnerable to failure, fearful of challenges and unwilling to remedy their shortcomings.

Wishful thinking? Nope. It’s based on a lot of research on watching people solve problems. Here is Dweck on her research:

Several years later I developed a broader theory of what separates the two general classes of learners—helpless versus mastery-oriented. I realized that these different types of students not only explain their failures differently, but they also hold different “theories” of intelligence. The helpless ones believe that intelligence is a fixed trait: you have only a certain amount, and that’s that. I call this a “fixed mind-set.” Mistakes crack their self-confidence because they attribute errors to a lack of ability, which they feel powerless to change. They avoid challenges because challenges make mistakes more likely and looking smart less so. Like Jonathan, such children shun effort in the belief that having to work hard means they are dumb.

The mastery-oriented children, on the other hand, think intelligence is malleable and can be developed through education and
hard work. They want to learn above all else. After all, if you believe that you can expand your intellectual skills, you want to do just that. Because slipups stem from a lack of effort, not ability, they can be remedied by more effort. Challenges are energizing rather than intimidating; they offer opportunities to learn. Students with such a growth mind-set, we predicted, were destined for greater academic success and were quite likely to outperform their counterparts.

We validated these expectations in a study published in early 2007. Psychologists Lisa Blackwell of Columbia University and Kali H. Trzes niewski of Stanford University and I monitored 373 students for two years during the transition to junior high school, when the work gets more difficult and the grading more stringent, to determine how their mind-sets might affect their math grades. At the beginning of seventh grade, we assessed the students’ mind-sets by asking them to agree or disagree with statements such as “Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t really change.” We then assessed their beliefs about other aspects of learning and looked to see what happened to their grades.

As we had predicted, the students with a growth mind-set felt that learning was a more important goal in school than getting good grades. In addition, they held hard work in high regard, believing that the more you labored at something, the better you would become at it. They understood that even geniuses have to work hard for their great accomplishments. Confronted by a setback such as a disappointing test grade, students with a growth mind-set said they would study harder or try a different strategy for mastering the material.

The students who held a fixed mind-set, however, were concerned about looking smart with little regard for learning. They had negative views of effort, believing that having to work hard at something was a sign of low ability. They thought that a person with talent or intelligence did not need to work hard to do well. Attributing a bad grade to their own lack of ability, those with a fixed mind-set said that they would study less in the future, try never to take that subject again and consider cheating on future tests.

Such divergent outlooks had a dramatic impact on performance. At the start of junior high, the math achievement test scores of the students with a growth mind-set were comparable to those of students who displayed a fixed mind-set. But as the work became more difficult, the students with a growth mind-set showed greater persistence. As a result, their math grades overtook those of the other students by the end of the first semester—and the gap between the two groups continued to widen during the two years we followed them.

Along with Columbia psychologist Heidi Grant, I found a similar relation between mind-set and achievement in a 2003 study of 128 Columbia freshman premed students who were enrolled in a challenging general chemistry course. Although all the students cared about grades, the ones who earned the best grades were those who placed a high premium on learning rather than on showing that they were smart in chemistry. The focus on learning strategies, effort and persistence paid off for these students.

And these findings probably apply to academia as well, because academia is about problem solving, just at a harder level. My message to academia: doctor, take your own medicine!

In our last discussion, “L” raised the issue of a talent for spotting academic trends and if that is a good thing. I’ll keep it brief. First, “trend spotters” are necessary in academia because science is often incremental work. It’s actually rare for people to invent entirely new paradigms, so the people who jump on trends serve a bigger (if unoriginal) purpose by filling in the gaps of prior theories. Second, I think it would be bad to put too much value on “trend spotting” for the reaons L mentioned. Fortunately, there are ways for science to avoid this problem – by having multiple journals, phd programs, multiple disciplines. In short, competition between different research communities. Diversity with respect for prior work seems to be a good strategy for preventing ossification.


Written by fabiorojas

December 6, 2007 at 5:29 am

Posted in academia, fabio, psychology

4 Responses

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  1. A theory of intelligence is not intelligence. Perhaps intelligent people possess the superior theory of intelligence.



    December 6, 2007 at 1:00 pm

  2. Stevphel: Have you heard of Occam’s razor? Yes, maybe, intelligence has second order effects, but until I see concrete evidence, I’d stick with the obvious conclusion that what you believe about your ability has a pretty simple and obvious effect on how you employ your ability.


    Fabio Rojas

    December 6, 2007 at 6:32 pm

  3. yes, I have heard of occam’s razor, do you know what a syllogism is? :-)



    December 7, 2007 at 1:33 am

  4. […] Update: Fabio strengthens his arguments with a reference to some research findings on talent, motivation and…. […]


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