Part of the strength of the widely endorsed Big Five model of personality is its efficient explanatory power – in the traits of Extraversion, Neuroticism, Openness, Agreeableness and Conscientiousness, it removes the redundancy of more fine-grained approaches and manages to capture the most meaningful variance in our habits of thought and behaviour.
So what to make then of the popular proposal that what marks out high achievers from the rest is that they rank highly on another trait labelled as “Grit”?
Is the recognition of Grit, and the development of a scale to measure it, a breakthrough in our understanding of the psychology of success? Or is it a reinvention of the wheel, a redundant addition to the taxonomy of personality psychology?
In 2016, the US-based authors of a meta-analysis on the topic concluded “that Grit as currently measured is simply a repackaging of Conscientiousness”. Now a different research team, based in Germany and Switzerland, has taken a more intricate look at the links between Grit and Conscientiousness, this time including a focus on their respective facets (or sub-traits). Writing in the European Journal of Personality, Fabian Schmidt and his colleagues conclude that “Grit represents yet another contribution to the common problem of redundant labelling of constructs in personality psychology.”
Schmidt’s team asked two samples of hundreds of participants (one made up of school pupils, average age 15; the other a diverse group of adults, average age 32) to complete: a German version of the original brief Grit scale, which consists of 4 items tapping perseverance in the face of adversity, and 4 tapping focus and consistency of interests; and a German version of the 48 Conscientiousness items from the NEO-PIR (a well-established and validated scale based on the Big Five model).
The researchers then used advanced statistical techniques to see how much variance in participants’ answers on one of the scales overlapped with the variance in their answers on the other – to oversimplify, this provided a measure of redundancy or whether the two scales were essentially measuring the same constructs or not – and, unlike in prior research, this included making detailed comparisons between the global traits (Grit and Conscientiousness) and their respective facets (perseverance and consistency in the case of Grit; and competence, order, dutifulness, achievement striving, self-discipline and deliberation in the case of Conscientiousness).
The researchers found the perseverance facet of Grit (which past studies have suggested is responsible for most of the links between Grit and later success) shared 95 per cent of its variance with trait Conscientiousness and with its “pro-active” facets – that is, all those sub-traits that pertain to being industrious and driven. The global Grit trait (incorporating both its facets) similarly shared a large amount of variance with Conscientiousness and with its pro-active facets.
In other words, Grit, and especially its perseverance facet, are really just tapping into the pro-active aspects of Conscientiousness that are to do with being industrious and achievement focused (as opposed to the inhibitive aspects, which are more about orderliness and self-control). “Claiming that grit is just proactive Conscientiousness or industriousness … would stand in accordance with our findings,” the researchers said. Put differently, the findings suggest that proponents of Grit are falling for the jangle fallacy – mistakenly believing they are measuring something different because they have given a new name to an existing concept.
The story was a little more complicated for the consistency facet of Grit, which is to do with staying focused on one or only a few interests. Past research has shown that this facet is far less relevant to, or predictive of, future success than perseverance. Here it shared 69 per cent of its variance with Conscientiousness, suggesting that it overlapped with this trait but was also measuring something else besides. However, it remains for future research to establish whether consistency should ideally be incorporated into the Big Five model as an extra Conscientiousness facet (after all, the existing Conscientiousness facets also display their own unique variance suggesting they measure Conscientiousness plus a little of something else) or whether it is actually better placed elsewhere, as a facet associated with low Neuroticism, for example, or even low Openness.
Schmidt and his team concluded that perseverance, the facet of Grit that has received most attention because of its links with success and achievement, is a redundant concept. It is really just another word for industriousness, which is already a well-researched and recognised aspect of the pro-active side of Conscientiousness.
“To waive the use of some of the redundant labels would enhance the clarity and consistency of research in personality psychology,” they said. On a more positive note, they added that the 4 items of the brief Grit scale that tap perseverance seem to provide an incredibly concise measure of industriousness or pro-active Conscientiousness, making the Grit scale possibly “one of the most economic ways currently available” to measure these important constructs.