Are Virtuosos Born or Bred? New Paper Renews Debate Over Practice

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For the past 20 years, some psychologists have made an appealing argument: that it's possible to achieve success or expertise in your craft by putting in lots of practice time. It's a nice idea: work hard enough and you have a shot at becoming, say, a great violinist. But this is an active debate among psychologists, and a new statistical analysis of 88 studies suggests that the exact opposite is true: that success mostly reflects other factors, like innate talent.

The new meta-analysis finds that practice only accounts for only about 12 percent of performance differences across all areas of expertise. For games like chess and scrabble, practice mattered the most (26 percent). In music, it was less important (21 percent). In sports, it accounted for 18 percent and in education, four percent.

This week's podcast features a debate over the findings of the new meta-analysis. Our guests are:

  • Dr. Brooke Macnamara, a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University and one of the three co-authors of the analysis. The paper appears in the current issue of the journal Psychological Science.
  • Dr. Anders Ericsson, a psychologist at Florida State University. He authored a pivotal 1993 study which found that made a strong case for the importance of practice in determining success. It has been featured in best-selling books such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and David Shenk’s The Genius in All of Us.

Segment Highlights:

Macnamara:

"We concluded that deliberate practice is undeniably important – it's just not as important as proponents of the deliberate practice view have claimed." (Deliberate practice is high-quality practice, and often refers to one-on-one lessons in which a teacher pushes a student continually.) "Basic cognitive abilities, other types of experience such as competition experience, the age at which a person begins their training, and personality factors are all likely to play a role above and beyond deliberate practice alone."

Ericsson:

"When I looked at the studies that Dr. Macnamara included, virtually none of them had training that was individually supervised by a teacher. It's interesting that our original study, when they analyzed it, they found that 80 percent of the variance was explainable by practice, but they decided to throw out that observation because they claim that it was an outlier."

Macnamara:

"We actually did not throw out the 1993 study. It came out as a statistical outlier so we curbed it down a bit. Even if we look only at the studies where Dr. Ericsson is an author, the overall amount of variance comes out to about 10 percent."

Weigh in: How much do you find practice matters in achieving success? How much do other factors play a role? Listen to the segment above and share your comments below.