Coined by psychologist Angela Duckworth a decade ago, “grit” is defined as perseverance and commitment to long-term goals. Since Duckworth’s hugely popular TED Talk, grit has graced the pages of newspapers and magazines across the nation. The U.S. Department ofEducation even recommended we begin teaching grit in schools.
But a new systematic review written by a psychologist at Iowa State University calls into question what we know about grit. In researching grit, his team reviewed 88 independent studies which involved more than 66,000 participants. Their findings call into question whether grit is a trait that helps to predict success, and whether it can be improved through practice.
First, it’s important to understand that grit is made up of two separate components: 1) the perseverance to keep working toward a goal despite the obstacles encountered; and 2) the pursuit of a single goal or passion.
The systematic review finds evidence that the first component of grit — perseverance — is closely related to conscientiousness, one of five main personality traits. Conscientiousness includes behaviors such as organization, self-control, thoughtfulness and goal-directed behavior. In fact, many questions that measure conscientiousness align with items on Duckworth’s “Grit Scale.”
Why does that matter? Psychologists define conscientiousness as a trait determined bygenetics and environment, not a skill that one can practice. It can change over time, but cannot be taught. That means it’s fruitless to spend money on education programs designed specifically to promote conscientiousness.
And conscientiousness seems to be more closely related to academic success than grit. A separate study by researchers at Yale University found that school outcomes are predicted by conscientiousness and emotional regulation, but not by grit. And the new review found the relationship between grit and academic success “only modest,” compared to other factors such as standardized test scores and school attendance.
But what about the second component of grit, the pursuit of a single goal? According to the systematic review, when the questions about consistency are analyzed alone, they don’t tend to predict success. Essentially, the review concludes that one needn’t be single-minded in pursuit of a goal in order to be successful.
In addition, the review author points out a likely popular misunderstanding in the results ofthe most famous study on grit. In the study, Duckworth posed questions from her Grit Scale to new cadets at the West Point military academy. The study concluded that cadets who registered above-average levels of grit are 99 percent more likely to finish the basic training than cadets with average levels of grit. But the new review points out that 95 percent of all cadets make it through basic training, while 98 percent with high grit scores make it through — only a three percent difference. The odds of completing the training did improve to 99 percent and the change was statistically significant, but the actual improvement is smaller than many people understood.
What does all of this mean for the concept of grit? While it’s useful to focus on perseverance toward a goal, grit is not likely to be the magic bullet that it’s been billed as in popular media.