Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Give me a child at six . . . and he'll grow up based on his capabilities and not according to my plans

From Overstating the Role of Environmental Factors in Success: A Cautionary Note by David Moreau, Brooke N. Macnamara , and David Z. Hambrick.

From the Abstract:
Several currently popular areas of research—brain training, mindset, grit, deliberate practice, and the bilingual advantage—are premised on the idea that environmental factors are the overwhelming determinants of success in real-world pursuits. Here, we describe the major claims from each of these areas of research, before discussing evidence for these claims, with a particular focus on meta-analyses. We then suggest that overemphasizing the malleability of abilities and other traits can have negative consequences for individuals, science, and society. We conclude with a call for balanced appraisals of the available evidence concerning this issue, to reflect current scientific discrepancies, and thereby enable informed individual decisions and collective policies.
They elaborate:
The view that a person’s environment plays a much greater role in determining success in the world than innate traits has long been a theme of psychological theorizing. Nearly a century ago, John Watson, the founder of behaviorism, articulated this view when he wrote, “[g]ive me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents...” (Watson, 1930, p. 104). The appealing implication of this view is that anyone can be become highly successful, whether it be in school, work, or a hobby.

While few, if any, contemporary scientists would endorse Watson’s (1930) extreme view, the idea that individuals’ capabilities are highly malleable, and thus that environmental factors are the overwhelming determinants of accomplishment in real-world pursuits, remains a powerful undercurrent in psychological research. Currently, this view is emphasized in five popular areas of research: brain training, mindset, grit, deliberate practice, and the bilingual advantage. Thousands of scientific articles have been published on these topics, which have also captured the popular imagination through books such as Smarter: The new science of building brain power (Hurley, 2014),Mindset: The new psychology of success (Dweck, 2006), Grit: The power of passion and perseverance (Duckworth, 2016),and Peak: The new science of expertise (Ericsson & Pool, 2017). Some of these areas of research have also spawned lucrative commercial ventures. Brain training is a multibillion-dollar industry, and commercial mindset interventions are used in schools around the world.

Nevertheless, the central claims of each of these areas of research have been increasingly called into question in the scientific literature. Here, we briefly summarize evidence from each area of research, focusing on large-scale studies and meta-analyses. Our intent is not to criticize individual theorists—misleading statements can find their way to the media and popular beliefs despite caution expressed by the theorists (see, e.g., Duckworth, 2016). Rather, our goal is to present current evidence for the claims central to each area of research. We conclude that caution is warranted when considering both future research on these topics and translations of this research to real-world applications.
Much as I dislike acknowledging how innate many capabilities appear to be, that is what the evidence shows. And brain training, mindset, and grit have all struck me as TED Talk type glib material rather than real science. Deliberate practice is over-touted, but I suspect has at least some merit.

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