Why People Love to Believe in Natural Talent

21 Dec

In previous posts we have presented evidence that points to “natural talent” as being largely an illusion. For a recap see the posts on natural talent, the 10,000 hour rule, and unlimited speed and reaction times.

So if natural talent doesn’t exist (or is not nearly as important as it’s made out to be), why is the theory so popular? That many people can’t be wrong, right? Well it is favoured for a number of reasons:

1) It’s romantic. Everyone loves the story of someone with a rare gift that the rest of us don’t have. It almost seems like a super power, and is highly valued. A natural talent is considered special, whereas the reality of dogged acquisition of a skill by repetitive practice seems far more everyday and less glamorous.

2) Starting early builds skills and expertise that are unexpected for somebody so young. This surprises people and is labelled natural talent by those who don’t know the training history of the child.

3) Acquired skills FEEL automatic. Even when we have worked hard to develop a skill, once gained the skill feels natural. This effect becomes even more dramatic the more we practice, and by the time mastery occurs it feels utterly natural as if we were born with it, and it is easy to forget much of the hard work that went towards gaining it. Highly honed skills also  look very natural to outside observers.

4) The multiplier effect. This effect occurs where the slightly better performance of one child provides encouragement and opportunities that aren’t given to other children. By taking advantage of extra opportunities and practice, the gap between the child and their peers is multiplied. The accelerated learning that results is commonly mistaken for a natural ability to gain skills more quickly than others. Again this is because of failure to look objectively at the training history of the child. An understanding of the multiplier effect is of primary importance for anyone looking to perform at a high level and is therefore the topic of an upcoming post. Its importance is discussed in detail by Ceci and others, 2003 (Developing Childhood Proclivities into Adult Competencies: The Overlooked Multiplier Effect).

So it’s easy to see why the idea of natural talent is so popular. It’s romantic to think that each person has their own special gift that can’t be manufactured by others, and there seems to be evidence of it all around us – after all, people’s skills vary so widely, and in ourselves we find some things easy and others difficult.

Great performance can be explained without it

On initial inspection, such differences in performance may appear difficult to explain, so natural talent is used (you could say invented) to bridge this gap in our understanding. But when we look deeper, and go behind the scenes (which we do with the great athletes in sport), we see very different levels &/or amounts of accumulated practice and opportunities that were not obvious at first. And we see that the extraordinary differences in ability can indeed be explained. |Revisit this post for more discussion of great performers|

Does it prove natural talent doesn’t exist? No. But high levels of performance DO make sense, so conjuring natural talent to explain great performance is no longer necessary.

What do you think?

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