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Sunday, November 20, 2011

Talent vs. Striving in NYT

In an article titled "Sorry Strivers, Talent Matters," David Hambrick and Elizabeth Meinz, Associate Professors of Psychology, take issue with the notion (proposed by K. Anders Ericsson and spread by Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers," David Brooks in "The Social Animal", and Geoff Colvin in "Talent is Overrated") that if you're above a certain intelligence level (120 IQ), talent does not matter so much -- you can achieve mastery by putting in 10,000 hours of practice (which seems to be the requirement for mastery in most fields).

Here is the first of their two reasons for saying so (their second is their own work, which is obviously the reason they are writing this in the first place):

"Exhibit A is a landmark study of intellectually precocious youths directed by the Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They and their colleagues tracked the educational and occupational accomplishments of more than 2,000 people who as part of a youth talent search scored in the top 1 percent on the SAT by the age of 13. (Scores on the SAT correlate so highly with I.Q. that the psychologist Howard Gardner described it as a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.) The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage."

I'm happy to report that the Ericcsson/Gladwell point remains fully intact, and if anything, this result supports the "pro-striver" side of the debate.  

Let's take this paragraph apart piece by piece.  "(Scores on the SAT correlate so highly with I.Q. that the psychologist Howard Gardner described it as a “thinly disguised” intelligence test.)"  Very clever, they are using a quote from multiple-intelligences guru Howard Gardner (who presumably would be in the pro-striver crowd) against the pro-striver position.  And I will even admit that it's probably true, there is a correlation.  But let's see what they do next:

"The remarkable finding of their study is that, compared with the participants who were “only” in the 99.1 percentile for intellectual ability at age 12, those who were in the 99.9 percentile — the profoundly gifted — were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work. A high level of intellectual ability gives you an enormous real-world advantage."

Labeling the SAT-score 99.9 percentile as "profoundly gifted" should qualify as scientific malpractice.  If you've taken the SAT, you know five things:

1.  You can improve your score by studying (striving)

2.  There are no advanced concepts -- no calculus, no trigonometry.   You just need to be a bit clever in applying some very basic math, none of which is beyond the grasp of a 120 IQ twelve year old.

3.  If you're in the 95th percentile or above, the questions were almost certainly written by someone dumber than you.  On reading comprehension, you need to be thinking about what that person would see as the "right" answer, as opposed to what a more nuanced analysis might yield (see next post).

4.  If you don't know all of the SAT words that are in the study guides, you are at risk of losing some points on the vocabulary.

5.  A large number of the SAT words in the study guides are simply not encountered by normal twelve-year-olds or even high schoolers.  The most efficient way of learning them is to simply focus on them and learn them.

I would be willing to admit that any kid who scores 99.9% on the SAT WITHOUT preparing for it probably is "profoundly gifted."  But also probably very lucky (see no. 3 above).  There is no suggestion that the kids in the cited study didn't study, and it's almost certain that many of them did, especially the ones in the 99.9 percentile.

So this study has taken two highly artificial groups and compared them -- the 12-year-old kids who scored in the 99.1 percentile (for 12-year-olds) vs. those who scored in the 99.9 percentile.  What can we say about 12-year-olds who scored 99.9 vs. those who scored 99.1?  Clearly, they did something to remove the possibility of losing points -- they probably made absolutely certain that they knew all the vocabulary backwards and forwards, had practiced the math stuff enough to ensure they had time to go back and make sure they didn't make any careless errors, and they also dumbed down their thinking on reading comprehension enough to be sure they got all those questions right, too.   All that means is that they were a lot more anal than the people who scored in the 99.1 percentile.  It does not mean they were more intelligent.

But then what is the "proof" that these "profoundly gifted" people were more intelligent after all?

They "were between three and five times more likely to go on to earn a doctorate, secure a patent, publish an article in a scientific journal or publish a literary work." In other words, they were more anal than the mere 99.1'ers. With the exception of getting a  patent (which can take very little effort, but often reflects a desire to get rich), all of these activities require some dedication.  It's exactly what you would expect from people who at age 12 were sitting inside compulsively memorizing SAT words, in order to prove how "smart" they were to some grown-ups who had selected them for a "smartness" study.   And perhaps even more importantly, none of those activities translates very well to real-world success.  We all know Ph.Ds who are idiots, and we know that they must have written scientific articles to become Ph.Ds (and note that the Hambrick/Meinz study itself presumably qualifies as such an article).  And don't get me started on patentees and authors.

In order to somehow prove that "talent" matters as much as they say it does, they'd have to come up with a much better way of measuring "talent" than SAT scores and doctorates, patents, scientific articles, and literary works. 

The authors go on to tout their own results as reinforcing the SAT "findings":

"In our own recent research, we have discovered that “working memory capacity,” a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities. In one study, we assessed the practice habits of pianists and then gauged their working memory capacity, which is measured by having a person try to remember information (like a list of random digits) while performing another task. We then had the pianists sight read pieces of music without preparation.

"Not surprisingly, there was a strong positive correlation between practice habits and sight-reading performance. In fact, the total amount of practice the pianists had accumulated in their piano careers accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across participants. But working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about 7 percent, a medium-size effect). In other words, if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice, but different levels of working memory capacity, it’s likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task."

Where to begin with this?  Again, it overwhelmingly proves Ericsson's point about striving -- by far the largest contribution to a pianist's ability to sight-read (nearly half) is practice.  The factor that they have identified -- working memory -- gives only a 7% contribution.  It's hard to tell what this means in this context.  The authors just say it means that for two pianists who have practiced the same amount, it's "likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task." 

In their recent article on this subject in the Oct. 2011 "Current Directions in Psychological Science," they explain that the data comes from a study that they did in 2010, and produce a chart with sight-reading on the y-axis and working memory on the x-axis that shows that (1) for pianists who haven't practiced all that much, better working memory means better sight-reading (as represented by a blue line that slopes upward from y =3 to y = 4), and for pianists who have practiced a lot better working memory also means better sight-reading (as represented by a red line that slopes upward from y = 5.5 to y = 6.5).

Of course, their point is that everything else being equal, working memory makes a difference for sight-reading.  That's fine, and hardly surprising -- you can readily imagine why this correlation is so.  If working memory is hard-wired (and I have no reason to believe it isn't), then working memory (which is the ability to have a lot going on in your head at the same time) is obviously going to help you sight-read music, everything else being equal.  But I have no idea how important this small, incremental ability in "sight-reading" is in the total mix of qualities that makes for a great pianists.  And the authors don't come close to telling us.

As an example, it's pretty obvious that a chess player with a better memory for opening sequences will be better than one who, everything else being equal, does not have as good a memory.  And perhaps that's why Grandmaster Sergio Mariotti -- who supposedly had a photographic memory -- got to be a grandmaster.  But he never was able to distinguish himself particularly among grandmasters. 

In the end, their data support rather than refute what the pro-strivers have been telling us:  The pianists with poor working memory who have practiced a lot score 5.5 on sight reading, while the people with excellent working memory who have practiced only a little score only 4.0.  That sounds like a pretty good argument for practice and striving to me!

And beyond that, we're only talking about a 7% contribution.  As above, the best the authors can say is that it is "likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task."  That means that at least in some cases, all other things being equal, pianists with worse working memory managed to do better at sight reading than those with better working memory.  For those pianists, talent did not matter one bit.


To their credit, the authors hedge a bit here and there, e.g. "None of this is to deny the power of practice. Nor is it to say that it’s impossible for a person with an average I.Q. to, say, earn a Ph.D. in physics."  But then they go on to say: "It’s just unlikely, relatively speaking. Sometimes the story that science tells us isn’t the story we want to hear."

I haven't heard anything from "science" that I don't want to hear.  The results of the research they've provided us do nothing to diminish the value of practice; they only confirm it.

n.b., by coincidence, I had earlier today listened to Jane McGonigal's TED Talk on the value of videogaming.  She cites the Ericcson study (via Gladwell) for the point that because video-gamers have put in 10,000 hours of gaming by the time they finish high school, they must have gotten very good at SOMETHING.  We just need to figure out what that something is!  (And to her credit, McGonigal suggests four somethings: (1) urgent optimism - the desire to act immediately, combined with reasonable hope of success; (2) weaving tight social fabrics -- takes trust and builds bonds to play games with people; (3) blissful productivity -- gamers know they are happier working hard than just hanging out; (4) epic meaning -- gamers want to be attached to world-changing activities.).   

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