Why Grit Is Not the Answer

A senior scientist challenges the latest buzzword with new research.

Posted May 11, 2016

VIA Institute/DepositPhotos
Source: VIA Institute/DepositPhotos

Special Guest Blogger: Robert McGrath, Ph.D., Senior Scientist, VIA Institute on Character

No doubt about it, grit is in.

The concept of grit captured the public’s attention in 2011 with a New York Times Magazine article, “What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?” in which journalist Paul Tough suggested grit may be the key to success.

Tough followed it up with his best-selling book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. The discussion has been re-energized with the recent publication of researcher Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. The result has been a rush to target perseverance and passion as goals in school systems across the country.

The Greeks would have been horrified.

For the ancient Athenians, social contribution and personal flourishing were both wrapped up in the concept of virtue. A fundamental principle of their beliefs was that virtues represented a seamless whole. To be virtuous required excellence in all the virtues, not just one, an idea that has been called the reciprocity of the virtues. As moral philosopher, Susan Wolf put it, “To have one virtue is to have them all.”

These days we’re more likely to talk about skills or competencies than virtues, but I believe the principle still holds: character education that focuses on only one element of character creates an illusion of good character. The idea that we can focus on one component of the good life and think we are doing well is at best wrongheaded, and at worst dangerous.

As a Senior Scientist for the VIA Institute on Character, I do research on the VIA Classification model of 24 character strengths and 6 overarching virtues. The six virtues – Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence – were drawn from moral traditions and provide the hierarchical structure for the 24 character strengths. Earlier this year, when I presented my thoughts on the six virtues at the UPenn Positive Psychology Center, Marty Seligman admitted he thought what he and Chris Peterson published on virtue was a half-baked idea; I responded, “No, it was a brilliant idea!” I think we’re both right. Here's why:

The six virtues themselves ultimately may not prove the best choice as a framework for the strengths, but in developing the virtues, Peterson and Seligman introduced some game-changing ideas. Where most of their predecessors in virtue theory focused on what the virtues are, with the common result being a hodgepodge of candidates, they struggled first with the question of what a virtue is. They argued for an essentialist position on virtues, that virtues ideally would be necessary and sufficient contributors to personal, interpersonal, and social well-being. They also suggested virtues could emerge as latent variables underlying manifest elements of good character. These two ideas have inspired my recent work on virtues.

That work has identified three key virtues – Caring, Self-Control, and Inquisitiveness (McGrath, 2015). These three can be found in every virtue tradition I know of, from Socrates to present day thinking.

My colleagues and I found these three in factor analyses of 12 adult data sets and three samples involving youth (Greenberg et al., 2016; McGrath & Walker, 2016). Caring, Self-Control, and Inquisitiveness also recur with amazing regularity in discussions of character education (e.g., National Research Council, 2012). The site character.org frequently mentions “head, heart, and hands.” Thomas Lickona and Michael Josephson, two leaders in the character education community, have both been quoted as suggesting good character is “the moral awareness and strength to know the good, love the good, and do the good.” And in case anyone thinks I’m implying Duckworth herself is fixated on grit, she and her colleagues have research in the works on the importance of all three factors in education (Park et al., 2016).

One of the big problems in our educational system is the tendency to lurch from one fad to another; whole books have been written about the simplistic solutions we’ve attempted to fix education (Elder & Paul, 2007). Grit is a better target for non-academic education than some we’ve seen before—most of us are old enough to remember the self-esteem craze--but maybe it’s just one of the keys to strength.

Caring both thoughtfully and emotionally about our relationships with others; opening ourselves up to new information and the possibility we are wrong; becoming better at delaying gratification and acting on our prospections about the future. Each of these is an essential ingredient for us to create a good life and a good society.

They should be targets for the students we teach….targets for the educational system that teaches them…and targets for the society that raises them.


Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York: Scribner.

Elder, L., & Paul, R. (2007). A critical thinker’s guide to educational fads. Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

Greenberg, M. J., McGrath, R. E., & Hall-Simmonds, A. (2016). The three virtues: Replication and correlates. Manuscript in preparation.

McGrath, R. E. (2015). Integrating psychological and cultural perspectives on virtue: The hierarchical structure of character strengths. Journal of Positive Psychology, 10, 407-424.

McGrath, R. E., & Walker, D. I. (2016). Factor structure of character strengths in youth: Consistency across ages and measures. Manuscript under review.

National Research Council. (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Park, D., Tsukayama, E., Goodwin, G. P., Patrick, S., & Duckworth, A. L. (2016). A tripartite taxonomy of character: Evidence for intrapersonal, interpersonal, and intellectual competencies in children. Manuscript under review.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. New York: Oxford University Press and Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Tough, P. (2011, September 18). What if the secret to success is failure? The New York Times Magazine, MM38.

Tough, P. (2012). How children succeed: Grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Wolf, S. (2007). Moral psychology and the unity of the virtues. Ratio, 20, 145-167.

About Dr. Robert McGrath

Dr. McGrath, Senior Scientist, VIA Institute on Character, received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Auburn University and is currently a Professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in the School of Psychology. He directs Integrated Care for the Underserved of Northeastern New Jersey, a program offering free brief behavioral interventions to low-income primary care patients. Dr. McGrath also maintains an active research program in methodology, measurement and professional issues. He has authored over 250 publications and presentations, including several books on research methodology, and is a contributor to APA Books’ multi-volume reference The Handbook of Research Methods in Psychology