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Update | Spring/Summer 2023

Chia-Jung Tsay Explains Why We Prefer ‘Naturals’ over ‘Strivers’

Chris Malina

Photography by Paul L. Newby II

Chia Jung Tsay

From a young age, pianist Chia-Jung Tsay wondered why her fellow musicians were going to such great lengths to conceal their warmups before big performances and competitions.

“The practice room windows were often covered with newspaper,” says Tsay, who holds graduate degrees in music performance and a PhD in organizational behavior and social psychology. “If there was a hook on the windowed door, people would hang clothing or even folding chairs to block the view.”

That behavior was a clue that judges and audiences might actually prefer the naturally gifted performers—the ones who didn’t need the hours of practice before concerts—and it’s something Tsay would later investigate as a social scientist.

Now, as an associate professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business, she’s further exploring the psychological processes that influence decision making about performance—including the so-called “naturalness bias”—and how it plays out in business.

Bringing this preference for naturals to the surface, however, takes work, especially when people frequently claim to prefer the strivers. Qualities like grit, tenacity, and hard work tend to be seen as valuable, and after all, who doesn’t love an underdog story?

“However, there’s a distinct difference between what people explicitly say is important and valuable to an area of achievement and what they do,” says Tsay, who joined WSB in 2021 as the Bruce and Janice Ellig Professor in Management. “People indicate they very much favor hard work and striving, but their choices seem to reveal this preference for the naturally gifted instead.”

To illustrate that discrepancy, Tsay first conducted a study in which participants were presented with biographies of two classical musicians: one described as a naturally-gifted pianist and another as someone who honed her skills over the years. Participants were then asked to listen to clips of each before evaluating both musicians on a variety of factors.

“People indicate they very much favor hard work and striving, but their choices seem to reveal this preference for the naturally gifted instead.”

— Chia-Jung Tsay

The results came back with an overwhelming preference for the natural’s performance—even though both clips of music actually came from the same performer.

Later, Tsay investigated the implications of her previous findings in a very different industry and tested perceptions of entrepreneurs. Participants were asked to listen to the same startup pitch, delivered by a speaker who was described as a natural to some participants and a hard worker to others—and similar results ensued.

“On average, people would see the business proposition attributed to the natural as more likely to succeed,” says Tsay. “They were also more willing to invest in that idea.”

While Tsay points out that there’s nothing wrong with appreciating natural talent, she says it’s important to understand the contradiction illustrated by the research and the consequences it can have—especially in human resources, where things like hiring decisions can be subtly influenced by unconscious biases.

“It’s not just about fairness to candidates, which is important, but there could also be an impact on organizations as well,” she says. “Without realizing it, hiring managers are potentially losing out on people who may be more qualified on the metrics that an organization cares about.”

Going forward, Tsay continues to conduct studies aimed at further understanding and unpacking naturalness bias. Since first exploring the topic more than 10 years ago, new avenues of research have opened up—especially when it comes to equity and inclusion.

“I’m continuing to use this lens to think about less conscious influences on perceptions of performance or perceptions of achievement to look at the implications for different genders and racial minorities,” she says. “Once there is that awareness, we can potentially create the conditions where we’re less vulnerable to the factors that we wouldn’t consciously say should affect our judgment.”