The naturalness bias - operating implicitly and across domains and costly

What do we value more in other people's performance: hard work or talent? And what does it matter what the answer is to this question?

The naturalness bias in music appreciation

Researchers Tsay & Banaji (2011) found evidence for a naturalness bias which is the tendency to prefer supposed 'naturals' over 'strivers'. Even though expert musicians stated that they found hard work more important than talent they implicitly preferred talent over hard work. Tsay and Banaji demonstrated this by presenting more than 100 professionally trained musicians with two profiles of two professional musicians, and a sample musical clip to listen to from each musician.

The participants were then asked questions about how talented and successful they perceived the performer to be, and how willing they might be to hire this person. In fact, both clips were the same musical excerpt, and the profiles differed only in their mention of whether the musician had natural or learned talent. The results ultimately showed two effects: “We found even in experts and ostensibly professionally trained musicians, most of them could not tell that the recordings were the same. And on average, people seemed to prefer the ‘naturally’ talented individual, even when they said they believed hard work was more important than natural talent.”

The naturalness bias in a work setting

Tsay (2015) extended this work by investigating whether the natural bias also applies in other domains. In a preliminary survey (N=67) she found that while music was seen as a field in which natural talent is a stronger contributor than striving, entrepreneurship was seen as field in which striving and hard work is more important than talent. She then did three studies to test the existence and impact of the naturalness bias in the field of entrepreneurship.

In study 1a (N=212) she had participants rate a fictional business proposal made by an entrepreneur. When participants were made to believe that this proposal was based on natural talent both the entrepreneur and the proposal were rated higher than when they were made to believe the same proposal was based on hard work. This demonstrated that the existence of the naturalness bias in this field too. This bias was also found in participants with more expertise in entrepreneurship.

In study 1b (N=383) a similar finding was found. In addition to this participants were asked to describe how they came to their judgments. While they implicitly had preferred talent over hard work, they mentioned hard work more often as a factor influencing their judgment.

In study 2 (N=294) a selection decision process was simulated. Participants had to choose entrepreneurs from 18 pairs of target individuals who differed on five attributes, four of which were presented as more objective indicators of performance. In addition to this, a fifth attribute was mentioned which was whether the person was a natural or a striver (hard worker). While participants had said that they did not necessarily see talent as better than hard work, their choices suggest that they did. They were even willing to select the supposed talented individual at the cost of sacrificing some objective quality.

The naturalness bias thus appears to exist across domains, operates at an implicit level, and leads to sacrificing objective qualifications.


Research has shown hat people make different attributions of failure and success depending on their mindsets (read more). People with fixed mindsets tend to attribute failure and success to stable personal characteristics (this is called an ability attribution). People with growth mindsets tend to make effort attributions. This research by Tsay into the naturalness bias shows that ability attributions in assessing other people and their performance are common and that they can be costly.  Also, it implies that opportunists may exploit this bias by subtly suggesting their performance is not based on hard work but on talent.

Knowing about the existence and costs of the naturalness bias may be a beginning of protecting ourselves against it.