Why Do We Prefer “The Natural” to the “Striver”?

My latest column for MindShift, the NPR education blog, is about why we prefer the gifted “natural” over the hard-working “striver”:

“‘The struggle with writing is over.’

That message, written on a Post-It note and affixed to his computer, brings the novelist Philip Roth great relief and contentment these days, according to a profile published earlier this week in the New York Times. At the age of 79, the author of more than 31 acclaimed books says he is finished with writing, and he couldn’t be happier. ‘I look at that note every morning,’ he told Times reporter Charles McGrath, ‘and it gives me such strength.’

Fans of Roth’s books—which include Goodbye Columbus, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Human Stain, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning American Pastoral—may be surprised to learn that he regarded writing as a struggle at all.

His words flowed so easily on the page, and his books arrived with such frequency in the stores: at times, close to one every year. But behind that proficiency and productivity was arduous, unrelenting work. Roth told his interviewer that he’d enjoyed spending time with friends at his house in Connecticut this past summer: ‘In the old days I couldn’t have people in the house all the time. When they came for the weekend, I couldn’t get out to write.’

Americans have a complicated relationship with this kind of relentless striving. We extol the virtues of hard work even as we idolize the ‘natural,’ the star who effortlessly achieves, who wins the race without breaking a sweat. The writer Malcolm Gladwell has called this tendency ‘the naturalness bias,’ and notes that we bring it to bear on individuals ranging from athletes to artists to ‘gifted’ children.

In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology last year, Harvard psychologists Mahzarin Banaji and Chia-Jung Tsay applied a scientific lens to the phenomenon, gathering a group of professional musicians as subjects. The experimenters first asked the musicians their opinion on the source of musical achievement: Was ‘effortful’ training more important, they inquired, or innate ability? The former, the musicians replied, expressing ‘the strong belief that strivers will achieve over naturals.’

Banaji and Tsay then described two pianists, equal in achievement but different in their paths to success: one was a natural, showing early evidence of high innate ability; the other was a striver, exhibiting early evidence of high motivation and perseverance. The investigators played an audio clip of each pianist performing, and asked the musicians for their judgments. Despite their stated belief in the value of effort, the naturalness bias won out: the musicians rated the ‘natural’ performer as more talented, more likely to succeed, and more hireable.”

Read more here, and tell me what you think: Why do we elevate “the natural” over “the striver”?

6 Responses to “Why Do We Prefer “The Natural” to the “Striver”?”

  1. Interesting question! My sense is that we elevate “the natural” because our culture tends to glorify prodigies (e.g., Mozart, Tiger Woods) and so-called “overnight successes” (which are usually anything but) rather than the “hard work pays off” type of story.

    This is especially true in sports, though it’s changed a bit in the Moneyball era. Scouts used to overemphasize “tools” (speed, size, and even looking good in a uniform!), but now there is more statistical analysis of “skills.”

    While it’s true as some scouts say that “you can’t coach size”–and there is also no doubt in my mind that I could never have been Usain Bolt no matter how much I worked at sprinting–I do believe we as a culture consistently underrate persistence. I’ve dabbled in fiction writing and would say without hesitation that I would bet on a driven, obsessed author of average intelligence over a verbal genius with average drive any day of the week!

    With our executive coaching clients, we often get frustrated when people describe someone as a “natural born public speaker.” We always say that the bad news–and the good news–is that public speaking is not in anybody’s DNA. Yet there is a real belief out there that some people just have the ability and some don’t. Our response: If you want to people able to tell a great three-minute story to an audience, you may need hours to develop it… and we recommend practicing it out loud, on your feet as many 25 times before delivering it live.

    • anniempaul says:

      “We as a culture consistently underrate persistence.” I think that’s really true, Scott. I like your message to clients that being a good public speaker is not about “natural talent,” but about practicing and getting better incrementally.

  2. Maybe the bias is a result of this reasoning: the striver might well make it, but only by continuing to strive; we don’t trust ourselves to keep on striving. So we prefer someone who seems to already possess a lot that can never be taken away over someone who started with less and could backslide.

    This is just a guess, since as a striver, I consciously reject this line of reasoning.

    • anniempaul says:

      That’s a really interesting insight, Franklin–we assume that the striver has to strive because he or she doesn’t have a lot of talent to begin with. Of course, the mastery that is built up by striving may well be more lasting than the talent that someone has never had to work on.

  3. Bob Rothman says:

    This is not a new phenomenon. In their 1992 book, The Learning Gap, the late Harold Stevenson and Jim Stigler surveyed students and teachers in Sendai, Taipei, and Minneapolis on their beliefs about effort and ability. On one question, whether tests indicate the level of students’ ability, the children in Minneapolis tended to agree, while those in Sendai and Taipei disagreed. They then asked mothers to rate the importance of effort, ability, task difficulty, and luck in their children’s success in school. Effort was the highest rated for all groups, but mothers in Minneapolis were less likely than those in Sendai and Taipei to rate it highly and more likely than the others to rate ability highly.

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