Natural talent preferred

A new Yale study reports that people think more highly of naturally talented people than those who have to work hard to succeed.

The researchers found that people across all age groups exhibit a bias for those who succeed naturally over those who succeed through hard work, biological intervention like steroids or monetary incentives like bribes. The study has implications for helping people improve self-esteem and increase motivation, said study lead author and Yale research scientist Kristi Lockhart.

“It struck me as fascinating that there might be such a bias for the natural, when rationally or even normatively it’s not clear that that would be accurate or true,” said study author and Yale professor of psychology Frank Keil. “There are many cases when effort or medical interventions would cause greater performance levels than any kind of natural proclivity.”

The study, which surveyed 168 children and 90 adults, presented subjects with six different stories about talent. Each story featured two young characters: one who possessed a positive trait, like cheerfulness or intelligence, at an early age, and one who did not. The same characters were then described at a later age as both having that same quality to the exact same extent, but the latter character had attained it either through hard work, monetary bribe, or medicine.

The researchers found that at all ages, participants believed that the naturally gifted individual was more talented and preferred to have him or her as a friend.

Lockhart said she was inspired to conduct this study when she heard a talk given several years ago by the writer Malcolm Gladwell in which he discussed how society prefers natural talent over acquired talents, exemplified by college admissions officers valuing a high SAT score over a high GPA.

Although the idea of meritocracy is part of America’s identity, Lockhart said she was not surprised by the results because children are often praised for being smart or artistic or athletic, rather than for trying their hardest.

“There are studies that show that, particularly in the U.S., parents tend to believe their children’s intellectual ability is the result of fixed characteristics,” Lockhart said. “We value effort and think you definitely have to work hard, but believe there has to be something there to work with.”

Lockhart said believing natural talent is more valuable than acquired talent leads to “self-handicapping,” a mindset where people believe they cannot significantly improve and should therefore not bother trying. The “self-handicapping” phenomenon has been cited as a factor in decreased motivation in middle school students.

“It’s good to know that this is happening,” Keil said. “If you notice that such an irrational bias is present, you might think of ways to counter it in schools and the like. There could be all sorts of interesting follow-ups to this study.”

The article was published in the September edition of the journal Developmental Psychology.

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