Grit: What is Known, Unknown, and Off the Mark?

The supposed benefits of grit in 109 countries across 6 continents.

Posted Mar 27, 2018

This is the second in a series of blog posts about grit (read the first - here).

Our recent exploration of the Gal Gadot (attention-grabbing, beloved, celebrity) of personality traits – grit - addresses issues raised at the presidential plenary of the 2018 conference of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, s titled “Toward a More Broadly Generalizable Science of Psychology: Issues, Challenges, and Opportunities”. The five speakers (Drs. Lynne Cooper, Steven Heine, Veronica Benet-Martinez, Yuichi Shoda, and Richard Lucas) focused on the need for scientists to examine psychological constructs in multiple cultural contexts beginning with the measurement stage. They pointed to a lack of diversity in samples studied and the constraints of generalizability with the wide use of Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) respondents

Our latest research on grit used a sample of 7,617 participants from 109 countries from 6 of 7 continents. This is not your grandfather’s study of college students or your latest study of Amazon MTurkers.

Disabato, D.J., Goodman, F.R. & Kashdan, T.B. (in press). Is grit relevant to well-being and strengths? Evidence across the globe for separating perseverance of effort and consistency of interests. Journal of Personality

Before we describe our findings, it is worth mentioning how long the journey has been from conception to publication. Our first submission of this paper was on January 31, 2015, and we have sat patiently for over 2 years of peer review before finally (finally!) getting this work published. This is the problem of trying to publish in a top-tier journal, waiting for 6 months to get a rejection, and then submit it to the next top-tier journal, waiting 6 months to get a rejection, only to resubmit it to a journal that pushes us through several rounds of intense, helpful revisions. Slow science + the peer review process is essentially a multi-year Kafka-esque journey through the intellectual equivalent of sequential Spartan Races, Tough Mudders, and Savage Races. Psychologists have unearthed a vast range of tools, tactics, and strategies that adults can use to manage internal stress and navigate their social environment. You are going to need almost all of them to be a scientist conducting and disseminating scientific work.

A tidal wave of research articles, books, blog posts, and government funding initiatives suggest that one of these superpowers is grit. We offer the latest study of grit to the mix.

What we found is this – when it comes to predicting well-being (such as life satisfaction, subjective happiness, depressive symptom severity) and personality strengths (such as curiosity), the value of grit is not nearly as straightforward as predicting achievement and ambition. In a nutshell:

What works about grit is the dimension called perseverance. Perseverance has been a long-term staple in the field of personality. It is a part of one of the most widely studied dimensions of personality – conscientiousness.

How does the perseverance dimension of grit and well-being relate to each other in different world regions? 

.24 in Southern Europe

.25 in the Former USSR

.30 in Oceania

.32 in Anglo Nations

.35 in East and South Asia,

.36 in both Latin America and Southeastern Asia.

Now as for the new part about grit, concerning the pursuit of long-term goals with passion, does this add value? The correlation with subjective well-being outcomes ranges from

.13 in Southern Europe

.13 in East and South Asia

.13 in Oceania

.17 in the Former USSR

.17 in Anglo Nations

.22 in Latin America

.25 in Southeastern Asia.

And what happens when we switch the outcome to how these dimensions of grit are related to personality strengths? The differences are every more startling. Whereas the grit perseverance dimension is correlated with personality strengths from .37 to .54 around the globe, the grit consistency of interests dimension is correlated with personality strengths from -.04 to .06 around the globe.

When it comes to the relevance of grit to well-being, what works about grit is not new, and what is new about grit does not work. To understand grit better, let’s take a detour and pay homage to one of my mentors and his psychological science that paved the way… 

I had no early talents for science. I had public speaking anxiety throughout my young adult years. I did not want to be a psychologist. My childhood role models were athletes (Don Mattingly), musicians (Fugazi), and mavericks such as Phillip K. Dick and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Following a family tradition to join the financial world, my first adult job was working on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. And yet, here I am, with a clinical psychology Ph.D. in 2004, in love with conducting research to understand the link between emotional disorders and well-being, improving the measurement of both, and refining naturalistic interventions where there can be therapy without therapists. And much of my time is spent giving presentations to large groups about science, around the world. I offer this brief set of autobiographical details as a typical serpentine road across a 20-year time span. How can we best predict what leads people to uncover what matters most to them? How can we best predict who will overcome adversity to become stronger and clearer in their mission? How can we enable children, teenagers, and adults to stay on task and do what matters most to them, while encouraging sufficient flexibility to switch courses when beneficial outcomes are best found elsewhere? Hope, as defined and operationalized by Dr. Rick Snyder, surpasses nearly every individual difference to capture variability in healthy life trajectories.

Hope is about energetically pursuing one’s goals and being able to generate multiple strategies to devote effort and make progress. 

People differ from one another on virtually any psychological dimension. As of this writing, there is a cultural push to increase mindfulness, be gritty, steer toward an ultimate purpose in life, foster emotional intelligence training in the workplace, and create more opportunities for introverts. Each of these individual differences distinguishes how someone generally feels, thinks, and behaves. With hundreds of individual difference variables, scientists and practitioners can be paralyzed about what to measure and more importantly, what to invest in as a strategy for improving vitality, social connections, meaningful contributions, and long-term happiness and well-being.

If we are interested in knowing which military recruits are likely to complete basic training, which college men are less likely to engage in high-risk sex, which adults are going to start and sustain a practice of physical exercise, and what best predicts superior academic, athletic, and work performance, I offer a suggestion. Instead of the latest in vogue concept of grit, consider a nearly 30-year old body of research on hope. Hope research, spearheaded by the late, Dr. Rick Snyder and expanded by one of his disciples, the late, Dr. Shane Lopez (among dozens of other scientists). I had the fortune of long-standing friendships with both of them, inspiring me to join the crusade of studying and enhancing hope in the world.

Essentially, Rick Snyder created an elegant formula:

Hope = Agency thoughts x Pathways thoughts

Having the motivation to pursue a well-defined goal, known as agency, is a starting point. For that energy to be dedicated to a goal, one must be able to formulate pragmatic routes to reach them and produce alternative courses in case there are obstacles or blockage (pathways). When a goal is particularly meaningful or central to a person's life, such as aligning with core values or a purpose in life, this generates more intense and powerful agency and pathway thoughts.

The reason this formula is elegant is that such a small number of hope related concepts are needed to capture a complex psychological phenomenon that is implicit or explicit in nearly every facet of well-being. Using experimental, longitudinal, experience-sampling, and intervention approaches, researchers have found hope to be a robust predictor of well-being, in all its forms: satisfying the basic need for belonging, competence, or autonomy, happiness, meaning and purpose in life, self-acceptance, personal growth, positive relations with others, or mental and physical health

Rick Snyder was, and is, the exemplar of hope. In 2004, my first talk as a psychologist was part of a symposium at the American Psychological Association titled Gratitude and hope: Emotional pillars of positive psychology. Rick Snyder spoke on hope as social commerce. He detailed how agency and pathway thinking pulls us toward other people, as allies to support goals and whose goals we can support. I spoke after him, nervously flipping through PowerPoint slides that were heavily laden with 10 bullet points of information. When I thanked the audience and returned to my seat next to Rick, he put an arm around me and whispered: nobody is going to be able to distinguish who the lone graduate student is from the professors; welcome to the club!  In that moment, Rick enveloped me in his hope. He transferred hope to me. Many readers never met Rick. He is an unsung hero. Not just because of the profound research he conducted but because of his humility and generativity. Some of his mentorship was direct, such as Shane Lopez, who became the leading thinker of hope in the 21st century - creating interventions for children and older adults. Much of his mentorship was indirect, including consumers of his seminal articles and books. These consumers followed his blueprint for predicting and instilling healthy life trajectories in counseling clients, patients in hospitals, athletes in training, children in schools, workers in organizations, and human beings navigating the shoals of everyday life.

Hope should be receiving significantly more attention from scientists, practitioners, and policymakers. But this is not the case. The word hope might have been poorly chosen. Open the Oxford English Dictionary and hope is a synonym for optimism. But Rick Snyder’s theory of hope is far more comprehensive than the layperson’s usage. Optimism is about outcome expectancies. Someone believes that desirable goal-related outcomes are highly probable. An optimistic person believes positive events that occur can be attributed to internal, stable, and global forces. Choose either of these definitions of optimism. Neither definition captures the psychological flexibility of the highly hopeful person who regardless of their expectations, is ready and willing to find a way to work around internal and external obstructions.

Another reason that hope is not being given sufficient attention is an unfortunate bias towards the new. Hope continues to outperform against cognitive, physical, emotional, and environmental factors in predicting success and fulfillment. But researchers have fallen in love with newer terms coined by psychologists. Take grit, which is operationalized as the passion and perseverance for long-term goals. If this appears to be a piece of the hope construct, that’s because it is. Recent research has found that only the perseverance dimension of grit predicts performance and well-being, whereas the unique dimension of long-term consistency of interests has nearly zero predictive power. What is effective (perseverance of effort, aka agency and pathways) is not new, and what is new (consistency of interests) is not effective. Take distress tolerance, operationalized as the ability to endure uncomfortable thoughts and feelings in order for problem-solving skills and goal-related pursuits to take place. If this appears to be a piece of the hope construct, that’s because it is. To me, these new strands of research only provide further evidence for the longevity of hope theory. I find it unfortunate that this new work is artificially divorcing itself from 30 years of research. It is hard enough to keep abreast of recent scientific findings. When different terms are used for the same phenomena, science moves horizontally stagnant instead of vertically forward.

We should not abandon rich psychological constructs that can predict a large amount of variance in a wide array of domains, settings, and populations. It is my hope that the current and next generation of thinkers pay careful attention to a body of evidence that is too compelling to ignore. Rick Snyder and Shane Lopez laid the groundwork for great potential discoveries. Let us continue to build on the strongest, hopeful shoulders of the past.

Grit has become one of the most popular constructs in today’s media, highlighting the need for researchers, therapists, teachers and schools, business leaders and organizations, athletic coaches and teams, consultants, and coaches, to understand the constituent parts. Our findings suggest grit researchers interested in studying well-being and strengths should report separate results for perseverance of effort and consistency of interests due to substantial prediction differences between the two facets. Depending on the research question and culture of participants, grit may or may not be meaningful. The action appears to be with perseverance, which means that maybe there is more to be gained by returning to some of the older ideas in psychology that continue to show the greatest value in predicting success and fulfillment. Take a close look at the concept of hope. Newer isn’t better. Our goal is to better understand and help humanity – and if ideas from 20 years ago are where the action is, let’s return to the past and reinvigorate what works.

            For more on the research we presented, download:

Disabato, D.J., Goodman, F.R. & Kashdan, T.B. (in press). Is grit relevant to well-being and strengths? Evidence across the globe for separating perseverance of effort and consistency of interests. Journal of Personality

            For a comprehensive review of what Rick Snyder accomplished:

Snyder, C. R. (2002). Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 249-275.

and read the 2017 Handbook of Hope edited by Drs. Matthew Gallagher and Shane Lopez (part of this blog post is the forward to this book).