Through gritted teeth

Photo by Flickr user blmurch. Click for sourceThere’s an excellent article in the Boston Globe about ‘grit’ – the ability to stick with a task and persevere over a long period even when the going gets tough.

The article riffs on the work of psychologist Angela Duckworth who became interested in what attributes outside of intelligence contribute to success.

‚ÄúI‚Äôd bet that there isn‚Äôt a single highly successful person who hasn‚Äôt depended on grit,‚Äù says Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania who helped pioneer the study of grit. ‚ÄúNobody is talented enough to not have to work hard, and that‚Äôs what grit allows you to do.‚Äù…

After developing a survey to measure this narrowly defined trait – you can take the survey at – Duckworth set out to test the relevance of grit. The initial evidence suggests that measurements of grit can often be just as predictive of success, if not more, than measurements of intelligence. For instance, in a 2007 study of 175 finalists in the Scripps National Spelling Bee, Duckworth found that her simple grit survey was better at predicting whether or not a child would make the final round than an IQ score.

As the article notes, this concept of grit is not just perseverance, it’s also about keeping relevant long-term goals in mind.

When psychologists have researched ‘goal-directed action’ in the past, they’ve almost always been thinking about the here and now. Reaching, immediate problem solving and short-term achievement.

This is slowly starting to change and some cognitive scientists are now attempting to understand the psychology and neuroscience of what we might call ‘life goals’.

There’s an interesting neuroimaging study in the latest issue of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience that looked which brain areas are active when we’re thinking about future events that are not personally relevant, compared to those that the individual holds as a personal goal.

The study extends previous work that indicates that our ability to imagine the future uses similar brain networks as our ability to remember the past, to the point where patients with dense amnesia have drastic impairments in picturing future events.

In the case of personal goals, it seems a similar network is involved, with the addition of the ventromedial and posterior cingulate areas, both frontal lobe regions previously linked to coding the emotional weight or value of an experience.

I’ve long suspected that 90% of real-world intelligence is motivation and a similar message seems to be emerging from the research.

Link to Boston Globe article ‘The truth about grit’.

2 thoughts on “Through gritted teeth”

  1. Interesting – I know (anecdote alert!) quite a few children who are ballet nuts (boys and girls)- they are so dedicated to getting on in ballet, it’s frightening. (They also get whatever marks are necessary in school for their parents to “let” them carry on with ballet). Could it be that disposition feeds into type of interest feeds into “grit”? Do some activities inspire more “gritty” behaviour – and in some cultures – than others?

  2. I’m always a tad sceptical about these measures of “success”. A lot of the truly “successful/gritty” people I have known could have also been described as “unbalanced, too narrowly focused, overly aggressive, deeply unhappy, desperately driven, overly ambitious.”.
    While society benefits from their characteristics it’s deemed as “success” and “grit”.
    When a smallest change in direction for these people brings them into conflict with society… It’s suddenly, “obsessive, dangerous, deranged, bad, lost the plot, evil, hubris”.
    Yet mostly when I have looked, these people haven’t really changed… merely societies evaluation of their output.

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