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The Weak Case for Grit

Where’s the evidence that grit predicts success?

It might surprise you to find out how little evidence there is to support the idea that boosting students’ “grit”—their propensity…By Jesse Singal

It might surprise you to find out how little evidence there is to support the idea that boosting students’ “grit”—their propensity to tenaciously attack difficult problems they encounter rather than give up—is a reliably effective way to improve their school performance or to close long-standing education gaps. After all, you’ve probably heard otherwise. Grit is everywhere. By the time you read this, it will have been a golden child of the world of education for well over a decade. It’s a sexy, appealing idea: grit predicts success, grit can be measured, and grit can be improved.

Grit’s popularity is largely due to the work of the concept’s inventor and chief evangelist, Angela Duckworth. A MacArthur-grant-winning social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, she has made very bold claims about the importance of grit for years, and those claims have been echoed by other big names, too. In her 2013 TED talk, which has almost 21 million views as of August 2020, she presents grit as a new way of looking at, among other things, the old problem of school achievement: “In education, the one thing we know how to measure best is IQ. But what if doing well in school and in life depends on much more than your ability to learn quickly and easily?”

She made similar claims elsewhere. “My lab has found that this measure beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations,” she told The New York Times. The cover of her bestselling 2016 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, has the sort of blurb most publicists could only dream of. “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success,” enthuses Daniel Gilbert, the Harvard psychologist, “but Duckworth is the one who found it.” The secret of success.

True Grit: In her 2013 TED Talk, Angela Duckworth explained how, in her research, grit outperformed other predictive measures of educational outcomes, like IQ, suggesting that there’s more to academic success beyond the ability to learn quickly.Ryan Lash

You can measure your grit in about three minutes simply by filling out a 10-item scale on Duckworth’s website—items like “I finish whatever I begin,” “I am diligent. I never give up,” “New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones,” and “I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.” For each one, you mark whether the statement in question is “Very much like me,” “Not like me at all,” or something in between, and when you’re done the website spits out your grit score. I got a 2.4 out of 5.0—extremely low, I was informed by the presumably unimpressed algorithm. Under the hood of these tests, two different grit “subfactors” are being measured: perseverance, or the extent to which someone doesn’t get discouraged by challenging circumstances, and consistency of interest (sometimes referred to as passion), or the extent to which someone doesn’t flit around from thing to thing.

Duckworth and her colleagues have sought to correlate individuals’ grit scales with various life outcomes and to see whether grit predicted success better than other, more established measures. In a key paper from 2014, for example, Duckworth and her colleagues took online samples of West Point cadets, high school juniors in the Chicago Public Schools, and others, and found that grit predicted “retention in the military, the workplace, school and marriage,” as the paper’s title put it.1 In her TED talk, she argued that grit is particularly important “for kids at risk for dropping out”—meaning it is relevant not just for those seeking to succeed in “super-challenging settings” (West Point, top-level spelling bees) but for less privileged or accomplished people as well.

Conscientiousness was twice as useful at predicting success as grit was.

The media have helped spread the idea that Duckworth discovered something new and exciting, if the mostly favorable coverage on NPR, in the Times, and in a host of other big-name media outlets is any indication. Her book has been a long-term bestseller. The Obama Department of Education expressed a lot of enthusiasm about grit,2 and The Sacramento Bee reported in 2015 that some schools in California were giving students a “grit” grade. Yet Duckworth doesn’t appear to have ever explicitly claimed that she had discovered a reliable way of increasing grit. At one point in her TED talk she said, “Every day, parents and teachers ask me, ‘How do I build grit in kids? What do I do to teach kids a solid work ethic? How do I keep them motivated for the long run?’ The honest answer is, I don’t know.” She gave her TED Talk in April of 2013, and five months later, at 43, she won her MacArthur grant for “clarifying the role that intellectual strengths and personality traits play in educational achievement.”

The evidence for her strongest claims about grit’s efficacy still hasn’t arrived. Almost two decades since she started her research, it has not been established that grit is a genuinely useful concept that tells us much that we didn’t already know—or that it can be boosted, anyway. As Duckworth and her colleagues acknowledge in their very first paper on grit, personality psychologists already have a concept that seems similar: conscientiousness.

Conscientiousness is a component of the popular “OCEAN” model of personality, according to which we all have “big five” rather self-explanatory measurable traits: openness (to experience), conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. This model has left a large mark on personality psychology, in part because it raises useful questions that researchers have subsequently investigated, ranging from the extent to which variation in these traits is caused by nature versus nurture—one 2015 meta-analysis estimated the answer is about 40 percent genetics, 60 percent environment3—to whether and to what extent various traits correlate with success in work, relationships, and other settings.

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Duckworth seemed to realize early that grit bore certain similarities with—and was in a sense “competing” with—conscientiousness. If grit turned out to predict school performance, but only a third as much as conscientiousness (for example), it might be seen as unimportant. She and her colleagues theorized in their first 2007 paper that their new construct was measuring something a bit different: “Grit overlaps with achievement aspects of conscientiousness but differs in its emphasis on long-term stamina rather than short-term intensity.”4 And indeed, some of the items on the grit scale, like “I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete,” are clearly geared at capturing an element of long-term single-mindedness that, in the view of Duckworth and her colleagues, conscientiousness doesn’t.

As it turns out, there was never much in the literature to support either of the two ideas that launched grit on its way: that it was more useful than conscientiousness and that it seriously outperformed “traditional” measures of cognitive or, in the context of military training, physical performance. It is difficult to justify Duckworth’s statement that grit “beats the pants” off older, more established measures. Many of the examples she gives consisted of studies in which the predictive usefulness of grit wasn’t compared with its most obvious competitor, conscientiousness, in which grit simply didn’t perform as well as traditional measures, or both.

Which leaves the concept where, exactly? The most comprehensive answer came in the form of a 2017 meta-analysis published by Marcus Crede and his colleagues titled “Much Ado About Grit.”5 Crede is a reform-minded psychologist who has a keen sense of how statistics can be misused to prop up half-baked ideas. He’s made it his mission to critique what he views as questionable findings in his field and has a particularly keen interest in education and workplace performance.

Both grit and conscientiousness seem to be measuring the same underlying concept, argue Crede and his coauthors. Therefore, they suggest, grit’s popularity might be the result of the jangle fallacy in which people believe that two things that are actually the same are different simply because they have different names. That is, if Duckworth had published research showing that conscientiousness can, to a certain extent, predict academic success, other researchers would have rolled their eyes and said, “Of course, we already knew that.” But by presenting a seemingly new concept with a catchy name, Duckworth might have gotten a great deal of mileage out of an idea that had been part of the literature all along (which is not to suggest that this was some sort of intentional obfuscation on her part). NPR reported in 2016 that Duckworth, responding to this critique, said “she would prefer to think of grit as ‘a member of the conscientiousness family,’ but one with independent predictive powers.”

While grit might be useful in certain very specific domains, it is not a particularly helpful concept for predicting who will succeed.

As for the question of grit’s malleability, there isn’t much evidence of reliable, scalable interventions for increasing conscientiousness or grit. That isn’t to say conscientiousness remains immutable across the life span. “Happily, many studies show that conscientiousness does change with age,” Brent Roberts, a leading personality psychologist and director of the Center for Social and Behavioral Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told me in an email. “And, not only does it change, but typically for the better—it goes up … Of course, changing slowly, incrementally, through life experiences is nice, but may provide little solace to the parent of a teenager who remains ‘unmotivated.’” (Sure enough, one of Duckworth’s key early papers includes a chart showing average grit differences by age that exhibits this general pattern.)

When I emailed Duckworth about the apparent lack of evidence that grit or conscientiousness is easily malleable, she said she didn’t think such traits could be changed “overnight” but was more hopeful about longer-run efforts, and she suggested I speak to Roberts for more information. But neither Duckworth, Roberts, nor anyone else I contacted has been able to point me to a single study that demonstrates the sort of result that would instill confidence that grit is a sufficiently malleable attribute in educational settings to have earned so much attention in recent years, especially in light of the fact that its correlation with school performance is not particularly impressive in the first place.

When Crede and his colleagues ran the numbers, they found that while grit did not predict academic performance once conscientiousness was taken into account, the perseverance of effort subfactor actually did provide an incremental boost. This means that part of the grit scale could, in fact, offer a slight improvement over traditional conscientiousness in predicting academic performance.

In 2018, Todd Kashdan and his colleagues published a Journal of Personality study of an online sample of thousands of people from around the world, finding that while “perseverance of effort was moderately to strongly related to subjective well-being, beliefs about well-being, and personality strengths … consistency of interests had weak or negative correlations with these outcomes.”6 This stark divide between the grit scale’s two subscores constitutes an interesting twist in the story and could open up some new research avenues. In light of all the other problems with grit, however, it doesn’t really change the overall situation.

It may be unfair to poor kids to focus on grit.

In July 2020, an important study was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science that sought to fill in some of the gaps in the grit literature. The researchers, Chen Zissman and Yoav Ganzach, of Tel Aviv University and Ariel University in Israel, examined a large, representative sample of Americans and found that “intelligence contributes 48–90 times more than grit to educational success and 13 times more to job-market success.”7 Conscientiousness, meanwhile, was twice as useful at predicting success as grit was.

This study, Ganzach told me in an email, was the first to analyze grit among a representative sample. All told, it bolsters the case that while grit might be useful in certain very specific domains, it is not, broadly speaking, a particularly helpful concept for predicting who will succeed and who will not—or at least it doesn’t beat the tools we already have at our disposal.

So an obvious question pops up: Is this the thing for schools to focus on? It’s not as if school administrators are lacking for other options. As Crede and his colleagues point out in their meta-analysis, “Study skills and study habits, adjustment to college, and class attendance are … far more strongly related to academic performance and retention than grit, and there is sound evidence that interventions can improve students’ standing on these constructs (especially for study skills and habits)”—evidence we lack for grit. That stuff is just a lot less exciting. If you give a talk titled “Study Skills Are Important and Improvable,” there will be some empty seats.

All of this offers a strong reason to be skeptical of the claim that grit instruction—or any sort of similar effort, really—could make much of a dent in the massive problem that is American educational inequality. But I’d go a step further: It may be unfair to poor kids to focus on grit. Doing so reflects a blinkered understanding of how inequality operates and perpetuates itself.

It could be that the grit hype caught on because of its seductive promise to spare us a great deal of trouble. A serious effort to make life less unfair for neglected kids would likely require enacting bigger, more ambitious redistributive social programs—social programs that are very unlikely to be enacted given the state of 21st-century American politics. Grit, by contrast, is a quick fix.


Jesse Singal is a contributing writer at New York Magazine, cohost of the podcast Blocked and Reported, and author of The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills.

Excerpted from The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills, by Jesse Singal, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Jesse Singal. All rights reserved.


References

1. Eskreis-Winkler, L., Shulman, E.P., Beal, S.A., & Duckworth, A.L. The grit effect: predicting retention in the military, the workplace, school and marriage. Frontiers in Psychology 5 (2014).

2. Smith, T. Does teaching kids to get ‘gritty’ help them get ahead? NPR (2014).

3. Vukasovíc, T. & Bratko, D. Heritability of personality: A meta-analysis of behavior genetic studies. Psychological Bulletin 141, 769-785 (2015).

4. Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, 1087-1101 (2007). 

5. Credé, M., Tynan, M.C., & Harms, P.D. Much ado about grit: A meta-analytic synthesis of the grit literature. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 113, 492-511 (2017).

6. Disabato, D.J., Goodman, F.R., & Kashdan, T.B. Is grit relevant to well-being and strength? Evidence across the globe for separating perseverance of effort and consistency of interests. Journal of Personality 87 (2018).

7. Zisman, C. & Ganzach, Y. In a representative sample grit has a negligible effect on educational and economic success compared to intelligence. Social Psychological and Personality Science 12 (2020).


Lead image: MJgraphics / Shutterstock

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