How good are we at objectively judging talent and predicting future ability? Be it for a business proposal, a high-flying student or an athlete or musician who excels early in their career, does our initial judgement of their natural ability cloud our view of them? In essence, are we all suffering from a ‘natural talent’ bias?
What Does the Research Say?
Recent research looked to investigate whether someone’s perception as to whether another is a natural or not influences their behaviour towards them.
In one particular study, participants were split into two groups, before being asked to listen to a one-minute recording of an entrepreneur’s business proposal. Both groups heard the exact same recording, although one group were told that this specific entrepreneur was a natural (born with such talents), whilst the other were told that this entrepreneur was a striver (they worked hard to get to where they are today).
The researchers found that the participants judged the proposal to be more skilled and likely to succeed when it came from the natural, in comparison to the striver, hence demonstrating that we show a positive bias towards “naturals”.
The researchers conducted a second experiment to test these ideas further. In this study, they sought to examine whether we still prefer naturals even when it’s clear that another candidate is better qualified. The researchers discovered that with little awareness of demonstrating such a bias, participants were willing to sacrifice a number of preferential objective measures in order to favour the entrepreneur perceived to a be a natural.
In a similar study, musicians were asked to listen to two pieces of music. The first they were told was played by a musician who was described as a natural, whereas the second was played by a musician labelled as a striver. In reality, both pieces of music came from the same professional musician. The participants were asked to rate which of the pieces sounded better and which of the musicians would go on to have the better career. Again, the researchers found that participants rated the natural as more likely to be successful, and the better choice to join their orchestra, in comparison to the striver.
The above research suggests that when given the choice between someone perceived to be naturally talented or a hard worker, people tend to choose the former. Therefore, it is essential that teachers are aware of these often-unconscious tendencies.
Perceiving some students as naturals may also cause teachers to unconsciously give these students more attention than others, as they expect them to achieve. Since having high expectations for a student has been proven to help them achieve more, this gives “naturals” an unfair advantage. Furthermore, contrary to popular beliefs that a natural is better than a striver, it has been demonstrated that that working hard and being conscientious are important factors in success.
Teachers should therefore be looking to create a classroom environment in which effort is encouraged and reinforced, and where all students recognise that effort helps them improve. Teachers can often enhance their students’ efforts by praising their processes (e.g. “you tried really hard”) rather than their natural abilities, as this helps students to develop a growth mindset, where they believe that their attributes are not fixed and improvements are possible.
Recent research has shown that many of us suffer from a bias when it comes to selecting candidates, such that those who are perceived to be naturals are often preferred to those considered strivers, regardless of their other credentials or current abilities.
Being aware of this bias is the first step. If we want to help students develop a growth mindset, we first have to look at ourselves and ensure we don’t have a fixed view of other’s abilities.
Find out more on our guide to developing a growth mindset in your classroom.