The Creativity Debate

Talent or Practice – What Matters More?

A variety of perspectives on the origins of greatness.

Intelligence Matters for Success, Like it or Not

Zach Hambrick

David Z. (Zach) Hambrick is Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University. Dr. Hambrick’s research focuses on individual differences in basic cognitive abilities and capacities and their role in skilled performance. Dr. Hambrick received his Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology (2000). His work has appeared in Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied,  Cognitive Psychology, and Memory & Cognition, among other scholarly journals. Dr. Hambrick was the 2000 recipient of the James McKeen Cattell Award for Best Dissertation in Psychology from the New York Academy of Sciences, and is a consulting editor for Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. His research has been funded by the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research.

How do people become great at what they do? What separates the best from the rest in music, science, art, sports, and so on? This question has been a topic of intense debate in psychology for as long as psychology has been a field. Francis Galton surveyed genealogical records of hundreds of scientists, artists, musicians, writers and other eminent individuals and discovered that they tended to be biologically related. Galton therefore concluded that “genius” is hereditary.

The debate rages on. Research in cognitive psychology has no left no doubt that expert performance is, in fact, largely predicated on acquired characteristics—knowledge and skills that are acquired through experience and represent adaptations to the unique demands of a domain. The Florida State psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has termed the form of experience that is most relevant to improving performance “deliberate practice.” In a seminal study, Ericsson and colleagues Ralf Krampe and Clemens Tesch-Römer found that elite violinists had accumulated more than 10,000 hours of deliberate practice by the age of 20—thousands of hours more than less accomplished groups.

The deliberate practice view has attracted a great deal of attention in the scientific community, and beyond. In his bestselling book “Outliers,” for example, the writer Malcolm Gladwell describes 10,000 hours as the “magic number” of greatness. At the same time, a vast and venerable literature documents the importance of basic abilities for success in a wide variety of complex tasks. Especially relevant, general intelligence—which is known to be substantially heritable—is the single best predictor of job performance across a wide range of occupations. Indeed, Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow found that, even within the top 1%, general intellectual ability predicts success in science.

As a colleague and I commented in a recent New York Times Op-Ed (“Sorry, Strivers. Talent Matters”), it would be nice if general abilities were unimportant for success in complex domains, because they turn out to be highly stable across the lifespan. (They also turn out to be substantially heritable.) But it just isn’t so, and when we overlook or ignore patently relevant evidence in theoretical accounts of expert performance we delude ourselves and set back the science of expert performance.

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