Have you ever heard people say that someone is just naturally talented? Or that someone else has worked really hard to get good at something? The idea of whether someone has natural talent starts to form in our minds when we’re just kids. But does the amount of effort that we perceive someone puts in really matter? It might.
A recent study by Chia-Jung Tsay, the Bruce and Janice Ellig Professor in Management at the Wisconsin School of Business, in collaboration with colleagues based at Harvard University and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, found that children as young as five years old start to believe that people who are naturally talented at something are better to learn from than people who have to work hard to be good. This belief can shape how kids behave and make decisions later on in life.
The broader implications are that the preference for “talented naturals” over “hard workers” can have negative effects on individuals’ perceptions of success, motivation, and effort, and can lead to people missing out on opportunities to get better and be successful.
“Given the value we place on achievement, how we actually assess and perceive achievements matters,” says Tsay. “Our research implies an early-emerging hidden bias towards individuals with apparently innate abilities.”
In the study, children in mainland China were read a story and shown a picture of someone who was either naturally talented or had worked hard to get good at something. Then, the children were asked which person they would rather play with or give a prize to. Most of the kids chose the person who was naturally talented.
The study, published in Child Development, explores the social and psychological effects of how individuals view pathways to success and how that affects their behavior and choices.
The study consisted of several experiments that showed that:
- The preference for a “natural” over a “hard worker” extends to adults as well.
- Individuals are willing to overlook the actual abilities and skills of an individual, in favor of the label of “natural.”
- The preference for the “natural” can shape individuals’ perceptions of success, leading them to view those who are naturally talented as more successful, even if they do not actually perform better.
- The preference for the “natural” can lead individuals to view those who are naturally talented as being warmer and more competent, even if they perform equally well as the “hard worker.”
The study’s findings have important implications for both individuals and society. The preference for the “natural” can lead individuals to overlook the hard work and effort that goes into achieving success. In addition, this preference can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy, where those who are seen as “naturals” receive more opportunities and support, while those who are seen as “hard workers” are overlooked and receive less support.
“It’s important for parents and teachers to help kids understand that achievement stems from many factors, including both natural talent and hard work,” says Tsay. “And even if someone has innate abilities, they likely will still need to put in the effort to attain higher achievement.”