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Passion Is Linked To Greater Academic Achievement — But In Some Cultures More Than Others

Large group of happy college students celebrating their graduation day outdoors while throwing their caps up in the air.

By Emily Reynolds

“Passion” is a word that often crops up on job descriptions and in interviews; articles proliferate online explaining how to adequately express your passion to potential employers. On the whole, passionate people — those who have a strong interest in a particular topic, who are confident in themselves and who dedicate themselves to what they’re doing — are thought of in a positive light, and considered likely to achieve their goals.

But when it comes to predicting achievement, how important is passion really? According to Xingyu Li from Stanford University and colleagues, writing in PNAS, passion may be less important in certain cultures — and the fact that passion is often seen as the key to achievement may reflect a “distinctly Western model of motivation”.

The chief factor explored in the study was how individualistic a society was: in individualistic cultures, the team argues, people are more motivated by pursuing paths related to their passions, while those in collectivistic cultures are more likely to see themselves as part of an interdependent network, often fulfilling obligations to others rather than focusing on their own interests.

Data was gathered from a large international survey focusing on education, which included over 1.2 million participants from nearly sixty different countries. The survey measured academic achievement in maths, science and reading during several closed-book tests, and the team also examined the individualism or collectivism of each culture.

Passion itself is hard to measure across cultures — some participant languages, including Mandarin, have no direct translation for the word as understood in the Western world. Instead, passion was measured through self-report answers on various different factors: passionate students were those who were strongly and independently motivated and who showed high levels of enjoyment, interest and efficacy.

In science subjects, passion was positively correlated with academic achievement: those with higher levels of enjoyment, interest and efficacy also had higher test scores. But the strength of this correlation wasn’t the same across cultures: those in individualistic societies such as the US, Australia, and the UK showed a stronger link between passion and achievement than did those in more collectivistic societies such as Colombia or Thailand.

These results were also mirrored in achievement in both mathematics and in reading — again, high-achieving participants from more individualistic societies were also more likely to have high levels of passion, whilst high-achieving participants from collectivistic societies were not.

In order to check whether any other cultural differences could predict the link between passion and achievement, the team also looked at eight further factors that vary between cultures, including how likely people are to avoid uncertainty, whether they value simple survival over self-expression, and how indulgent they are. However, only differences in individualism vs. collectivism could explain the association between passion and achievement across cultures.

It’s clear from the results that passion isn’t the only thing that motivates people to achieve their goals — indeed, the team also found that parental support was a crucial factor in achievement in collectivistic societies. And these findings could help with the development of educational support programmes that cater to a wider range of individuals. Rather than developing support that focuses solely on self-regulation and passion, for example, institutions could take a wider view of what motivates students to do well.

It’s also important to note that one type of motivation is no better than another. Although motivation from others could be seen as more extrinsic, the team writes, it “need not feel like coercive pressure from the outside”: rather than feeling overbearing, such motivation can be a source of “empowerment, persistence and resilience”. While for many students passion is key, it’s certainly worth considering the other factors that might make people tick.

Passion matters but not equally everywhere: Predicting achievement from interest, enjoyment, and efficacy in 59 societies

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest