February 13, 2011

The word 'talent'

The word 'talent' is used a lot but I'd rather not use it a lot. One reason I am not fond of using the term is that it is often unclear what is meant by it. When it is used, I think people usually mean one of the following two things by it: either high performance (for example wonderful guitar playing) or natural ability. Oxford English Dictionary defines it as the latter, namely as "natural endowment; natural ability". The conventional view among psychologists, educators, managers, and parents has been, for a long time, (and it still is, I guess) that talents, in the sense of natural abilities exist (and that individuals differ a lot in these talents) and that talents are great predictors of future achievement. Therefore it is often advised to identify your talents and to pursue those activities for which we have talents.

But a host of research that has been done in the last few decades has created serious doubts about the degree to which talent (in the sense of natural abilities) actually exist and even more serious doubts about the degree to which early differences in performance are good predictors of top performance. I'll briefly refer to some relevant publications:
  1. Intelligence and how to get it (by Richard Nisbett): This book shows the evidence for the statement that intelligence is something you can acquire: 1) There is no fixed value for the heritability of intelligence. Environment can play a major role in differences in intelligences between individuals and groups, 2) Heritability places no limits whatsoever on modifiability of intelligence -for anybody. Intelligence is developable and schools can make children smarter, for instance by using computer-assisted teaching and certain types of cooperative learning. 3) Genes play no role at all in race differences in IQ, environment differences do. 4) Believing that intelligence is under your control is a great start of developing intelligence, 5) Certain habits and values in cultures can be highly beneficial for learning and developing intelligence, 6) Parents can do a lot to increase the intelligence and academic achievement of children (both biological and didactic factors matter. 
  2. What is intelligence? (by James R. Flynn). This book is about the so-called 'Flynn effect' which refers to the steady rise of the average IQ test scores over generations. It is an effect seen in most parts of the world, although at greatly varying rates. It is named after James R. Flynn, who documented it extensively. This increase has been continuous and roughly linear from the earliest days of testing to the present. The rise in intelligence is so rapid that it disproves the idea that genetic factors limit the development of IQ.
  3. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (by Carol Dweck). Carol Dweck has shown through her research that people who see intelligence as unchangeable (a so-called fixed mindset) develop a tendency to focus on proving that they have that characteristic instead of focusing on the process of learning. This disregard of the learning process hinders them in the development of their learning and in their performance. This means that the wrong convictions about intelligence can make smart people dumb! But there is an alternative mindset. When people view intelligence as a potential that can be developed (a growth mindset) this leads to the tendency to put effort into learning and performing and into developing strategies that enhance learning and long term accomplishments. Message: it pays off to help children and students invest in a view of intelligence as something that can be developed.
  4. Whistling Vivaldi (by Claude Steele). Social psychologists Claude Steele, Joshua Aronson and others have discovered the phenomenon of 'stereotype vulnerability', which is the tendency to expect, perceive, and be influenced by negative stereotypes about one’s social category (ethnic group, gender, age category, etc.). Steele and Aronson showed in several experiments that black students performed more poorly on standardized tests than white students when their race was emphasized. When race was not emphasized, however, black students performed better and equivalently with white students. The results showed that performance in academic contexts can be harmed by the awareness that one's behavior might be viewed through the lens of racial stereotypes. These experiments have been followed with several other social categories with comparable results. 
  5. Anders Ericsson is one of the leading experts on expertise development. He has demonstrated through research that building top expertise is more than anything else a matter of long and repeated deliberate practice. Deliberate practice stretches you. If you'll be able to do deliberate practice, you'll benefit by becoming better. Especially if you'll be able to keep it up for extremely long periods of time. The amazing thing is that this statement is valid for a wide range of domains of top performance (music, sport, science, chess, you name it). Deliberate practice is something very specific. There are at least three key elements to deliberate practice: 1) Setting specific goals, 2) Obtaining immediate feedback, 3) Concentrating as much on technique as on outcome. Much research has shown that top performance in a wide array of fields is always based on an extreme amount of deliberate practice, as a rule of thumb researchers estimate a figure of 10000 hours. The effect of deliberate practice is cumulative. You can compare it with a road you're traveling on. Any distance you have travelled on that road counts. So, if you have started at an early age, this will lead to an advantage over someone who started later. There are several books which have described Ericsson's work, such as Talent is overrated (2008), The Talent Code (2009) and The Genius in All of Us (2010. 
  6. Social psychologists Ap Dijksterhuis and Ad van Knippenberg did an interesting series of experiments involving priming. Priming means that subjects are subtly and often unconsciously activated to feel, do, or think in a certain way before performing a task. Dijksterhuis and Van Knippenberg wrote an article in which they described 4 experiments described which showed that priming the stereotype of professors or the trait 'intelligent' enhanced participants' performance on a scale measuring general knowledge. Also, priming the stereotype of soccer hooligans or the trait 'stupid' reduced participants' performance on a general knowledge scale. Apparently, we can surprisingly easily be brought into an intelligent state of mind. 
  7. The Brain That Changes Itself ( by Norman Doidge) is about neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the process of how the brain continuously changes as a consequence of experiences. Neuroplasticity goes so far that it is possible for the brain to relocate brain activity associated to a certain function from one area to another, for instance in the case of brain damage. The brain can physically 'rewire' itself through adulthood, albeit in a more limited way in comparison to the process that occurs during childhood. Neuroplasticity is something which we can consciously influence. Whatever we focus our attention on has its consequences in terms of how the brain changes. That is why it may be wise to make deliberate choices about what you focus your attention on. Neuroplasticity research shows our characteristics are less carved in stone than we tend to think. Dysfunctions are often less definitive than we have long thought. We can consciously keep on developing our brain and our functioning in general. And we do. Everything we do and think shapes how we further develop. Every time we consciously focus our attention, we change structurally.
  8. Research by Tracey L. Shors and colleagues shows that thousands of new cells are generated in the adult brain every day (neurogenesis), particularly in the hippocampus, a structure involved in learning and memory. Within a couple of weeks, most of those neurons will die, unless the animal is challenged to learn something new. Learning -especially that involving a great deal of effort (effortful learning) - can keep these new neurons alive. Although the neurons do not seem to be necessary of learning, they may play a role in predicting the future based on past experience. Enhancing neurogenesis might therefore help slow cognitive decline and keep healthy brains fit. 
Not only have we systematically overestimated the degree to which it is certain that there is such a thing as natural talent, we have certainly overestimated the importance of early individual differences -whether this was caused by difference in talent or by other factors- between individuals for becoming top achievers. Research by Anders Ericsson has shown that while some students (the presumed talented ones) learn much faster in the beginning but as deliberated practice went on for years this 'talented' factor became less and less important. Eventually, it was the amount of practice and the quality of practice which explained performance differences between individuals, not the speed with which they learned in the beginning. You might say talent does not cause excellence but is the result of good and long practice. But then again, why should we use the term 'talent' to describe this? Why not just call this top performance, for instance? And that explains the second reason I don't like to use the term 'talent' a lot.

Also read: 25 Quotes about Expertise and Expert Performance


  1. I'll be the devil's advocate again.
    What if "talent" allows a certain person the ability to derive more from the deliberate practice? Maybe more in terms of psychological pleasure. Maybe a certain physiological condition could influence practice in physical areas allowing again for a better use of the practice.

    What if the equalization that Anders Ericsson occurred within different degrees of talent?

    Ideally, a researcher should be able to take a group of random individuals and monitor them for a long time as a group in deliberate practice.

    For example, if we take piano. At start let's say we have 100 kids going for a 5 years study. Some of them will show fast learning in the initial phase and will get caught by the rest of the group during those 5 years BUT if at the end of those 5 years you only have like 20% of the kids still in study and all of them are equivalent in ability... wouldn't be a reasonable assumption to say that those 80 that dropped out might have been lacking talent (or something similar)?

  2. I'll be the devil's advocate again.

    *** What if "talent" allows a certain person the ability to derive more from the deliberate practice?

    --> interesting hypothesis but I think there is no evidence for this. I am very skeptical that the ability to be able to practice deliberately should be a matter of talent? Why should it? What evidence is there for that? If there is evidence, I'd love to know but I'd predict there is no evidence to be found for this

    ***What if the equalization that Anders Ericsson occurred within different degrees of talent? Ideally, a researcher should be able to take a group of random individuals and monitor them for a long time as a group in deliberate practice. For example, if we take piano. At start let's say we have 100 kids going for a 5 years study. Some of them will show fast learning in the initial phase and will get caught by the rest of the group during those 5 years BUT if at the end of those 5 years you only have like 20% of the kids still in study and all of them are equivalent in ability... wouldn't be a reasonable assumption to say that those 80 that dropped out might have been lacking talent (or something similar)?

    ---> this is not something which we should decide on on the basis of a thought experiment. It is an empirical matter. Have your read the research? Have you seen that this is what actually happened?

  3. 1. This is the same point I was trying to make. There is no evidence for this or... better said... against it. (not that I know of). In my view, it would function as taste. You like Bach and you derive more pleasure from listening to it. You thus get to listen to more Bach and better understand it. Anyway, if anything, talent or predisposition, would be a complex mixture. Maybe some genetic determinism with some tons of environment influence. Have you read "The Element" by Ken Robinson?

    2. I agree, it should be a matter of empirical study! I have not read any research on this. However, this is something that should be easily falsifiable (it would take maybe a long time).

    As I said, I was playing the devil's advocate role, the "what if?" role. :)

  4. Hi Peter,

    1. Yes, I have read the Element (and found it interesting). With respect to genetic determinism and presupposed talents of dispositions I argue for a strategy of great sparcity. The last few decade have made us much more skeptical about bot the extent to which genetic determinism exists and the important genetic factors have. Many things once thought to be highly genetically determined are not anymore seen so. For instance intelligence. I can't fully summarize Nisbett's book here but there is so much research in there which create much doubt about the causal influence of genes. Also, even if some things are genetically caused, this says little to nothing about changeability. Overall, I argue for placing the burdon of proof on those who suggest there is probably or may be some natural endowment at work. I suggest that they should show evidence and not expect others to disprove their hypothesis.

    2. Hopefully Anders Ericsson will publish a book later this year (I think I hear somewhere that he may). If he does I plan to pay lots of detailed attention to his research. I hope to interview him for instance. One thing I can safely say: don't underestimate the sophistication of his research. I think his research is among the very best social science research of the last few decades (I am not sure what is it worth that I think so ;) but I do think so).

  5. I think two very different questions often get confused because of historical stereotypes about talent and the traditional nature/nurture model.

    The first question is whether there is such a thing as stable hereditary talent. I think this has been effectively deconstructed, if you use the archaic notion of "hereditary" as meaning that early indicators of ability predict mature outcomes in anything but a weak to moderate statistical sense. I might have my grandmother's eyes, and some of a remote uncle's mannerisms, but our lives have taken very different trajectories as a result of the many things that have little or nothing to do with "genes." Close observation of twin data, once used the prima facie case for "heredity" has since shown the opposite, that we do inherit all sorts of things through protein expression and developemental timing in ranges of environments, some of them very specific, but whose influence on outcomes is very difficult to
    establish in anything but a weak to moderate statistical sense.

    The second question is whether any remaining concept of "hereditary talent" such as might survive the extreme and perhaps anachronisitic form of the above question is compatible with the findings that seem to show measures of mature abilities to be the result a dynamic developmental process that can't be characterized by early testing procedures.

    From my perspective, the sources references by Coert seem to support the deconstruction of the traditional model of heredity, but this should not at all be news to those who follow biology. From my reading, the interactionist framework has been fairly standard for at least a decade and maybe two in both psychology and biology, even if it has not filtered out as effectively to popular media.

    The second question is the more interesting one, which leads us to wonder whether there is anything at all stable or "hereditary" about ability. It seems pretty likely that there is, and that it falls into two categories:

    1. Stable patterns in motivation
    2. Stable patterns in learning ability

    The trick to this, in my opinion, is recognizing that we should not be looking for "genes for" interests or learning abilities, as much as the specific conditions under which these things arise.

    For example my own suspicion is that it is very likely that in humans many abilities are the result of our constructing environments for ourselves in line with our resources, many of which we inherit in various ways (not nearly all of them genetic). I think this "niche construction" model is probably one of the more plausible interactionist models in line with the existing evidence from various sources.

    Identifying our "hard" constraints of course makes sense, but these are relatively few and usually can be gotten around in various ways. That seems to me to be more a political and technological question than a scientific one.

    The more important scientific work I think is determining what makes people vary in learning curves and what makes them vary in motivation to learn. Human beings are not hard-wired behavior engines, as far as most of the abilities we care deeply about, we are learning engines. And my thought is that we (collectively and individually) construct the environment for our own learning, and provide our own opportunities and constraints within that.

    So I don't buy either the idea that we have hardwired talents or the idea that we can do anything that stellar performers do simply by working hard at it for a long time.

  6. Hi Todd, I SO much like these essay like comments by you. May I have your permission to post this as a guest post?


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