What Does Having Grit Really Get You?

A new study suggests that "grit," the now-celebrated ingredient to success in education and life, isn't so important for academic success.
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Jeff Bridges as a man of True Grit. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Jeff Bridges as a man of True Grit. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Success in life depends on a lot of things: talent and practice, for sure, and perhaps something called grit, a combination of perseverance and consistent interests over long periods of time. Grit, in fact, has gotten a lot more attention than the other two lately. But a new study suggests the role of grit, in academic achievement at least, might be overstated.

In fairness to Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist behind the grit concept, she and her colleagues never really argued otherwise. In the original paper, grit explained only about four percent of the differences between individuals' levels of success, making it an important factor, but hardly the only one. The point wasn't that talent or other factors weren't crucial; it was that grit could help turn natural talent into success.

Does grit really have much value in primary or secondary education?

Still, the idea of grit as the key to success got a lot of attention—especially among education policymakers, who've wondered whether grit is something we ought to teach in, say, high school. That got a group of psychologists led by Kaili Rimfeld, a student at King's College London, interested in a basic question: There's reason to believe grit is a factor in success, but does it really have much value in primary or secondary education?

Rimfeld and her colleagues looked for an answer using data on 2,321 pairs of English and Welsh twins who participated in the Twins Early Development Study. When the twins were 16 years old, the researchers gave them a questionnaire—Duckworth's own short-form grit survey—to measure grit, followed by a standard personality survey. The researchers asked for (and verified) twins' scores on the General Certificate of Secondary Education, taken by most 15- and 16-year-olds in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

While some aspects of grit, namely perseverance—including not getting discouraged by setbacks, working hard, diligence, and finishing what one started—were correlated with GCSE scores, grit as a whole was not. What's more, once the researchers controlled for the so-called Big Five personality traits, the perseverance aspects of grit explained only about half a percent of differences across the survey participants' GCSE scores. Among the Big Five, conscientiousness was the strongest and most reliable predictor of GCSE scores, and it was also strongly correlated with perseverance. Personality traits including conscientiousness accounted for 5.5 percent of the variation in scores—not a lot, but more than perseverance.

The study was also, of course, an analysis of twins, meaning the team could ask about the genetic and environmental impacts on perseverance and conscientiousness. They found both factors were moderately heritable, but mostly a product of environment.

The results suggest grit isn't that important for academic achievement, at least when other personality traits are included in the analysis—though that doesn't necessarily mean teaching grit is without value. "Throughout adult life, children will face challenges," the researchers write, "thus perseverance in long-term goals might help them to develop habits of hard work and the continuous pursuit of their goals, despite the many obstacles they face."

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