The Truth About Grit

A new meta-analysis explores the mystery of grit and what it really means

Posted Jun 29, 2016

Col. G. Stonehill: Cogburn. How did you light on that greasy vagabond?

Mattie Ross: They say he has grit. I wanted a man with grit.  True Grit, 1969

Is there really such a thing as grit?

Though the word seems to be used often enough, particularly in relation to the 1969 Western classic "True Grit" starring John Wayne and Kim Darby (not to mention the 2010 remake), is it something that can be studied by psychologists?  As it happens, the answer is yes.

There are different definitions for grit but the one that seems to be used most often is "perseverance and passion for long-term goals."  According to psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth, author of the popular book, Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance and a MacArthur "genius" award winner, grit is a often-ignored psychological trait that can help explain why some individuals succeed when others with equal or greater ability do not. She also defines grit as "not just resilience in the face of failure, but also having deep commitments that you remain loyal to over many years" and argues that it can be a better predictor of  long-term success than cognitive ability.  

While Duckworth and other researchers have developed a series of psychometric scales measuring grit in children and adults,  it is also important to understand recent research into grit and how it can mean different things to different people.    Researchers have identified two main components of grit:  "perseverance of effort" and "consistency of effort."  On Angela Duckworth's Grit Scale, perseverance and consistency are measured as subscale scores along with the overall grit score. 

Perseverance of effort (or perseverance for short) refers to the tendency to work hard even in the face of setbacks while consistency of effort means sticking to a specific goal, for years if necessary, without changing to a new goal that might seem more attainable.   Both perseverance and consistency are vital elements of the drive to succeed.  

According to Malcolm Gladwell's famous 10,000-hour rule, true success only comes to people who are willing to put in a great many hours to become good at something they value.  Whether it involves learning a new instrument, a new language, or developing a craft, being able to deal with setbacks and stay focused on goals no matter how distant they seem.  Hence the importance of perseverance and consistency in success.

But is grit really something that can be measured by psychologists?   A new review article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology examines the available research literature on grit and takes a critical look at what has been learned so far.   A team of researchers led by Marcus Crede of Iowa State University  conducted a meta-analysis of previous studies to examine  the concept of grit and whether it is as useful as other researchers have suggested.  

One problem that Crede and his co-authors noted in their paper is that grit is very similar to other psychological traits that researchers have been studying for decades.   One of these traits is conscientiousness, which is also included in the five major dimensions of the Big Five personality model.  Other traits include industriousness, achievement need, or self-control.  

By comparing grit to these other traits, Crede et al suggests that the concept of grit may simply be an example of "old wine in new bottles" with nothing substantially new being added.  Many of the Big Five personality tests measuring conscientiousness, for example, use items that are almost identical to items on the Grit Scale and the correlations between grit and conscientiousness reported in many studies tend to be extremely high. 

So, is grit the same as conscientiousness?   It's hard to say at this point.  Much like conscientiousness, people seem to become "grittier" as they grow older and more mature. There is also a strong correlation between grit and other traits such as psychological well-being,  optimism, life satisfaction.  People scoring high on grit are also much less likely to commit suicide.  And, of course, grit is also strongly related to academic performance and lifetime career success.  

In their meta-analysis combining data from more than five hundred research studies and 66,807 research participants,  Crede et. al. found that perseverance on its own tends to be a much better predictor of performance than either consistency or the overall grit score measured by Duckworth's Grit Scale.  As for the total grit score, the relationship between grit and academic performance is often modest at best.  On the other hand, factors such as cognitive ability, having good study habits, and good academic adjustment tend to be much better at predicting how well someone will do academically.   As expected, they also found that grit is very highly correlated with conscientiousness and self-control.

But the results also showed some positive findings as well.  People scoring high in grit were less likely to drop out of college.  Even compared to more traditional predictors such as cognitive ability and grades in predicting, grit scores proved to be just as useful in predicting who would stay in school.  Looking at perseverance alone however, its value in predicting academic success was better than total grit or conscientiousness scores.

Assuming that grit continues to hold up as a separate trait in its own right, what are the practical implications of grit research?  Considering the value that grit, or at least perseverance seems to have, might it be possible to develop training programs to help people become, well, "grittier?" 

There have been positive results with treatment programs for boosting industriousness and self-control, but it will probably be important to understand grit better before developing new training programs that may, or may not, be worth the investment in time and effort.  As Crede et al. point out, future research into grit will probably depend on better ways of measuring grit and how important it really is for future success.

In the meantime, spare a thought for the role that grit has played in your own life.  And remember these words by John Ortberg :  "Grit is what separates fruitful lives from aimlessness."

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