Creative Commons Zero license via MaxPixel
Source: Creative Commons Zero license via MaxPixel

I am a scientist and also someone who believes in transmitting science beyond the boundaries of my field.  I have written over 150 research papers and chapters in my career that are aimed at the cognitive science community.  I have a commitment to pushing my field forward.  At the same time, I have written about 1,000 blog entries for various venues, been part of a radio show and podcast, done countless interviews for reporters, and have written several books aimed at non-scientists.

So, clearly I believe that it is important for scientists to popularize the work in our field.

At the same time, I think that there are real dangers in popularizing science.  One danger comes from oversimplifying core concepts where people may come to believe they understand a key concept better than they actually do.  A potentially bigger danger comes from overhyping new science.

The scientific process is slow.  Even when it is done well, science crawls along. In psychology, a study is done that uncovers an interesting finding.  That study may have taken months or even a year to complete.  That study is replicated and extended.  If the work is interesting, other labs take it up and extend it.  The field looks for the circumstances and contexts in which the finding holds and those where it doesn’t.

In general, it takes about 15 years of consistent study by a field before a new finding is well understood.  After 15 years, there are enough replications that scientists agree that there is a real phenomenon.  After that time, the field understands a lot about how strong the finding is and the circumstances in which you do and don’t get it.

When scientists want to make recommendations for how people might live their lives differently based on studies, then, we ought to wait about 15 years before giving those recommendations.  Otherwise, we run the risk of giving bad advice that we have to walk back later.  Having to take back our advice can undermine the public’s faith in the science.

That brings us to grit.

Grit is a construct studied by Angela Duckworth and her colleagues.  Grit is a trait marked by a combination of perseverance and willingness to stick with something.  The idea is that those people who work hard and don’t give up are more likely to succeed in a variety of domains than people who do not put in the work or who flit too quickly from topic-to-topic. 

The research is intriguing and deserves the amount of attention it has gotten in the research literature.  It has also been the basis of popular science writing by Duckworth including a best-selling book and a TED talk.

There have been a number of papers in the psychology literature that have made clear that the concept of grit is still being understood by the scientific community.  For example, Marcus Crede, Michael Tynan, and Peter Harms have a paper in the September, 2017 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looking across many studies of grit and its relationship both to other personality characteristics and to achievement.  The technical name for a paper that looks across many studies like this is a meta-analysis.

This analysis suggests that the measure of grit seems most strongly associated with the personality characteristic of conscientiousness (which is a good measure of how people persist in an activity).  In these studies, conscientiousness is a better measure of academic performance in college and high school than grit.  In addition, the aspect of grit focused on people’s tendency to stick with a single topic does not predict performance that well above and beyond conscientiousness. 

That is, the power of grit seems to be driven primarily by conscientiousness.  In addition, this analysis suggests that grit has a smaller impact on academic performance than other factors like overall cognitive ability and people’s study habits. 

As the authors of this study point out, being focused on a single topic or area is not always a good thing. For creative pursuits and new business ventures, it is often valuable for people to determine when a particular avenue is not working and then to switch projects rather than continuing to put effort into a failing venture.

The potential problem here is that a number of schools have begun to look at ways to teach grit to students with the expectation that it will improve their academic performance.  It is hard to change personality characteristics (like conscientiousness) just with educational interventions.  If the active ingredient in grit is something that is hard to teach, then these interventions may fail.  Until the science is settled, it is hard to know what to recommend to people interested in improving education.

Ultimately, the work on grit is scientifically quite interesting, but it is a cautionary tale for problems that can arise when you use new research as the basis of recommendations. 

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Check out the Two Guys on Your Head book Brain Briefs.

And my books Smart Thinking, Smart Change and Habits of Leadership

Listen to my radio show on KUT radio in Austin Two Guys on Your Head and follow 2GoYH on Twitter and on Facebook.  The show is available on iTunes and Stitcher.

References

Crede, M., Tynan, M.C., & Harms, P.D. (2017). Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 113(3), 492-511.

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