Do recent publications prove Anders Ericsson and colleagues wrong about the importance of deliberate practice? No.
I have written much about deliberate practice. Researchers have demonstrated there is a lack of evidence for the claim that natural ability is the main factor behind top performance. They have found out that what is crucial instead is the amount of time the individual has practiced and the specific way in which he or she has practiced (read more about deliberate practice here and here). Recently, two articles were published on the relative importance of deliberate practice and 'talent' for achieving high levels of performance. First, there was Deliberate Practice Is Necessary but Not Sufficient to Explain Individual Differences in Piano Sight-Reading Skill by E. Meinz and D. Hambrick. Second, there was Deliberate Practice: Necessary But Not Sufficient by G. Campitelli and F. Gobet. Do these articles shed a new light on how important deliberate practice is? Do they call for a return to the idea that innate abilities are, in the end, more important? Did these authors prove Anders Ericsson et al. wrong? No. I'll explain why.
Two new articles: deliberate practice necessary but not enough?
The authors of the first article report they found that deliberate practice accounted for nearly half of the total variance in piano sight-reading performance but that there was an incremental positive effect of working memory capacity (WMC). They go on to say that and there was no evidence that deliberate practice reduced this effect and that WMC is highly general, stable, and heritable, and that these results thus call into question the view that expert performance is solely a reflection of deliberate practice. The authors of the second article report on the basis of a survey of chess players that there is strong evidence that abundant deliberate practice is necessary (but not sufficient). The authors also review evidence showing that other factors play a role in chess skill: general cognitive abilities, sensitive period, handedness, and season of birth.
Here are some comments by me:
- Deliberate practice is supported: As blogger Cal Newport points out here the first paper actually emphasizes the necessity of deliberate practice for high achievement. The research shows that the impact of deliberate practice is much stronger than the impact of working memory which only yields only a minor improvement for an already well-practiced player (the authors found that this memory capacity accounts for less than 7% of a player’s ability at this task.).
- Working memory turns out to be malleable: In addition to this, Ben Healey, in a comment to the Carl Newport's post, justly points out that the authors claim that working memory is highly general, stable, and heritable stands to debate: "there is evidence emerging that this might not be the case. For instance, a recent controlled trial by Jeaggi et. al. found that an n-back training exercise can improve working memory capacity."
- Misrepresentation of the literature: The second article states that "The claim of the DP [deliberate practice] framework is that such behavior is both necessary and sufficient in order to achieve high levels of expert performance." This is surprising statement. They do not support this statement with a specific reference and I think I know why. Nowhere in the literature have I ever encountered the claim by Anders Ericsson that deliberate practice is sufficient to achieve high levels of expert performance. On the contrary, on several occasions, he acknowledged the likelihood of other personal and environmental determinants. What Campitelli and Gobet do here seems to be a strawman argument, an argument based on misrepresentation of an opponent's position. (Readers, if I am wrong and you can find actually find examples of Ericsson having said that deliberate practice is sufficient, please send it to me and I will publish it here).
- Methodical weaknesses: A weakness of the first article is that most of the musicians in the study were not yet skilled sight readers. It is generally acknowledged that performance of beginners in any performance domain correlates with already present abilities. Once an expert level is achieved, however, basic abilities no longer correlate significantly with performance. My understanding from the literature is that acquired skills overtake abilities as competence grows. The second article suffers from several other weaknesses among which: 1) the authors do not define deliberate practice accurately enough, 2) they use anonymous self-reports which make it impossible to establish whether deliberate practice was actually used and to which extent, 3) they do mention several factors which correlate with high achievement but do not convincingly demonstrate that deliberate practice was not a mediating factor.
Conclusion: Some people have suggested to me on the basis of these articles 1) that deliberate practice is actually not so important and that Anders Ericsson and his colleagues have overstated their case for deliberate practice, and 2) that talent is actually still a major determinant of high achievement. But these articles do not justify these arguments. Sure, much future research is needed to better understand which factors affect skill and knowledge development. The deliberate practice framework will surely be refined. But the importance of deliberate practice still stands firmly, as does the statement that talent is overrated.