Episode #9 of the course Introduction to positive psychology by Psychology Insights Online
Welcome back! The famous inventor Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” As the owner of over 1,000 patents, Edison was well known for his tenaciousness. It goes without saying that most of us are not as productive as Edison. What is it that made him unique? Why is it that some people will work hard to overcome any obstacle in their path, yet others will give up in the face of even the smallest bit of adversity? The focus of this lecture is the concept of grit.
Angela Duckworth is a highly accomplished Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania. She is well known for her research on grit and self-control. According to Dr. Duckworth, grit is a trait that is comprised of both the passion and perseverance needed to achieve long-term goals (Duckworth et al., 2007). Essentially, this means that grit is a consistent and enduring characteristic of a person; it does not fluctuate from one situation to the next. Importantly, grit is also considered a separate and unique trait, meaning it is different from other personality traits such as those measured by the Big Five traits.
In addition, Duckworth also differentiates grit from skill or luck. It is possible that someone will have a lot of skill in a particular domain, but that will only get them so far. Thinking of professional athletes, it is clear that they all have a high skillset, yet those who work hard and persevere are more likely to achieve a higher level of success, win championships, etc. There are many stories of promising athletes who did not live up to their potential because their work ethic may have not matched their innate ability.
Now that we have defined grit, let’s look at the relationship between grit and achievement. Does grit predict later success? Well, the evidence for this is actually mixed. Early studies on grit conducted by Duckworth and her colleagues (e.g., Duckworth & Quinn, 2009) found that higher grit is correlated with academic success, even more than other factors such as intelligence (IQ) or scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
However, a recent meta-analysis (Crede et al., 2017) and systematic review (Crede, 2018) have cast some doubt on the influence of grit. First, these studies suggest that grit is highly correlated with the personality trait conscientiousness, meaning it is possible that conscientiousness is actually playing a bigger role in later success. Second, studies on grit haven’t been able to comprehensively compare levels of grit in successful people with those who are unsuccessful. Third, this could be a case of the proverbial chicken-and-egg. Which came first, did grit lead to success or did early success lead to more grit? Finally, the authors suggest that while grit is a predictor of outcomes for success, it is not a statically strong predictor. That is, other factors like cognitive ability may actually be better predictors of things like academic performance. At this point, it is safe to say that the jury is still out on whether grit is a weak or a strong predictor of later success.
Given the strong interest in and potential of grit, many researchers and clinicians have also explored whether or not grit can be enhanced through educational interventions. In other words, is it possible to teach children how to have more grit? In a study by Alan et al. (2019), elementary school children were provided a school intervention that was designed to enhance grit. Then, they measured the performance on a math test 2.5 years later, and compared this performance with that of other kids who did not take part in the intervention. It was found that those who received the grit intervention saw notable improvement in their math performance. Similarly, grit-focused interventions have also been found to improve academic performance in older kids as well (Schmidt et al., 2019). These studies (and several others) offer a glimpse into the potential for these programs to improve life outcomes for kids who may lack perseverance.
That brings us to the end of this lecture on grit. By the way, if you are curious about your own degree of grit, you can find a short grit scale on Angela Duckworth’s website. Tomorrow, we will be moving on to the final lecture in this course on positive psychology. For the last lecture, we will be discussing wisdom. See you tomorrow!
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
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