Sunday, November 20, 2011

Diligence and Talent

I don't think it will surprise many non-psychologists that both talent and hard work are required to become really good at a whole range of complex tasks. Sports offer a pretty clear example on the physical side.

"You can't teach height," say basketball coaches, and "speed never has a bad day."

Do those unteachable physical traits have intellectual counterparts?

A New York Times opinion piece headline puts the affirmative case rather bluntly: Sorry, Strivers: Talent Matters

HOW do people acquire high levels of skill in science, business, music, the arts and sports? This has long been a topic of intense debate in psychology.

Research in recent decades has shown that a big part of the answer is simply practice — and a lot of it...

The details are not nearly so discouraging to strivers as the headline puts it. In one study and one task, an element that the authors identified as talent accounted what they called a moderate amount of the variance among pianists:

In fact, the total amount of practice the pianists had accumulated in their piano careers accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across participants. But working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about 7 percent, a medium-size effect). In other words, if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice, but different levels of working memory capacity, it’s likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task.

On the IQ front, the effect might be more definitive.

David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow ... and their colleagues tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. (Scores on the SAT correlate so highly with I.Q. that the psychologist Howard Gardner described it as a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage.

Also, if your best 40 yard dash time is 5 seconds or more - and almost everyone's is - you will never play cornerback in the NFL. Even a a couple more standard deviations in speed will still be too slow.