Let’s dial down the hype about grit – new paper finds no association with creative achievement

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Duckworth’s book is a best-seller

By Alex Fradera

In 2007, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth authored a paper on a trait she called “grit” which went on to arrest the attention of anyone interested in the secrets of success. TED talks and a 2016 book followed, wherein Duckworth explained how a combination of passion for a topic, and perseverance in the face of difficulties – the two facets of grit – were the recipe for achievement, a claim borne out by studies within schools and across the lifespan.

In recent years, however, researchers have become more critical of the scope and relevance of the concept. Now an article published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, suggests grit gives surprisingly little insight into the world of creative success.

On first glance, grit seems a must for creatives. Countless artistic professionals associate their success with a passion for their chosen art form, and describe the necessity of perseverance in the face of obstacles and discouragement. But the value of grit isn’t backed by the three new studies from a team led by Magdalena Grohman at the University of Texas.

They used Duckworth’s publicly available “grit scale” (which taps passion and perseverance); a personality questionnaire measuring the Big Five traits; and a self-report measure of creativity, the Creative Achievement Questionnaire, which captures public achievement in ten different creative domains such as music or dance, with participants scoring higher if they’ve done things like played in a band or made an original composition.

In an initial survey of 131 university students (two thirds women, average age 19), their creative achievement scores correlated with their scores on the personality measure of Openness to Experience, but showed no significant relationship with either facet of grit.

A second larger study (325 students), with more comprehensive measures of grit and personality, found Openness again correlated with creativity, both on the Creative Achievement Questionnaire and on a measure of everyday creativity capturing frequency of activities such as writing or being a member of a camera club. But again, grit showed no correlation with either creative measure.

This seems surprising, but consider something: the first survey found the “passion” facet of grit (among other things, high scorers say that are not distracted by new ideas and projects) correlated negatively with scores on Openness to Experience. Given that higher Openness is associated strongly with greater creativity, both here and in the wider literature, the negative correlation with grit should give us pause for thought.

Grohman’s team were ahead of us, highlighting that Duckworth defines passion primarily as a commitment to one thing at the expense of others (another example: on the grit scale, passionate people score lower on the item “I become interested in new pursuits every few months”). Openness, as the name suggests, is all about becoming interested in new and different things. Moreover, there is no emotional element in the passion facet of grit as conceptualised by Duckworth: no measure of excitement, joy or elation by participating in the activity. Her notion of passion is less like the fiery, explorative artist, and more like a nerdy completionist devoting their time to finding that last sticker for their 1986 Panini sticker book. And that characterisation simply seems to miss the mark of what we mean by creative passion.

If this sounds unfair, consider Grohman and her colleague’s final study, where they asked high school students to rate classmates’ creativity, in terms of who produced the most original assignments. Their teachers were also asked to rate the students’ persistence and passion, in whatever way they understood those terms, and both these scores correlated with higher student creativity. The students’ self-reported perseverance (as measured by Duckworth’s grit questionnaire) also correlated weakly with their creativity, but this association disappeared once the researchers took account of differences in personality scores.

The fact that teacher-rated passion and teacher-rated persistence correlated with creativity (even after accounting for personality), but that scores on the grit scale did not, suggests that passion is indeed relevant to creativity, but not as conceptualised by Duckworth’s notion of grit.

It’s worth noting that these were student samples rather than professional creatives, so further work would need to be done there too, but given the conceptual tension between passion and Openness, it seems plausible to expect similar patterns to emerge.

Where does this leave grit? Well, with a recent meta-analysis suggesting that grit has only modest associations with performance, and is strongly associated with the incumbent personality predictor of success, trait Conscientiousness (also true in this study, with correlations between .54 and.65), it seems appropriate to dial down the grit hype and treat this construct like any other psychological measure – of potential interest, but unlikely to be the breakthrough that changes society.

The Role of Passion and Persistence in Creativity

Image: via PeskyLibrarians/Flickr

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

7 thoughts on “Let’s dial down the hype about grit – new paper finds no association with creative achievement”

  1. Duckworth likely falls into the same category as many pop-psychology authors: the desire to make a quick buck exceeds the desire to actually try to advance psychology.

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    1. I don’t at all agree – Duckworth is clearly doing solid work and developing an evidence base for the claims. My position is simply that we (ie the scientific community and surrounding apparatus) have to continue to scrutinise such claims and update our confidence in them based on the evidence – and since Grit attained its visibility, there has been some disappointing or underwhelming evidence for its applicability in the areas people were hoping for.

      I haven’t read the book, so I can’t directly comment on that, but I can’t fault any innovator for hoping that their discovery has the potential to change the world. As I see it, the fault lies with our susceptibility for the Next Big Thing. I hope that the Digest provides an example of how it’s possible to address new findings in science in a balanced and informed fashion.

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  2. I disagree. Grit (passion + persistence) are critical components of the lived experience (phenomenon) of creativity. This study does not define creativity in phenomenon-based terms and uses evaluation and judgement in the assessment which has been shown to kill creativity in research over the past fifty years. Engagement in creative process over time is the only path to creativity and creative self-efficacy which should be the major focus of researchers. These researchers did not ask the participants how they implicitly define creativity, nor did they explicitly define the construct. Using participants only 19 years old is ridiculous for looking at creative achievement. Forced choice answers give the researchers a biased view of their so-called results. Openness to experience means more than changing from one project to another. It is being open to ideas that may not seem connected but often inform other projects. This can not be properly showing in forced choice responses.

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  3. I don’t really understand this article. The claim that grit does not correlate with creativity seems irrelevant given that Duckworth’s paper doesn’t claim that it does? The meta-analysis showing a weak correlation with performance seems much more relevant.

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    1. The meta-analysis is definitely relevant, which is why I included it once I came across it in doing extra research on this article. Whether or not Duckworth’s original paper made that specific claim, it’s important to investigate the generalisability of grit, particularly in domains that intuitively you might expect it to apply; given the lay associations between concepts like perseverance and particularly passion with creative success, the fact that it doesn’t not only shows the limits of its applicability, but also suggests that there may be misplaced terminology.

      For example, were I to open a hothouse for young aspirational artists, and wanted to select my first cohort to maximise success, I might be very drawn to a tool that promised to accurately measure passion, and has a track record of predicting success in performance based on that accurate measure of passion. So it’s important that we have studies out there that show that this may be misleading, and that Grit passion may not align with creative success.

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