Is Giftedness Nothing More than Good Genes?

Most people want to believe that if they work hard, and practice, practice, practice, they can be the next great musician, artist, sports star, math genius, or whatever other fill-in-the-blank talented person they aspire to be. A new article discounts that egalitarian view of success and claims that hard work alone may not lead to greatness.

In the latest installment of the nature-versus-nurture discussion, psychologists claim that practice only accounts for half the success of great performance. Certain tasks and abilities, however, are defined by genetics, they posit. You either have gifted genes, or you don’t. And, if you don’t, practice can only take you so far.

For the study, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, researchers evaluated 57 piano players with varying levels of experience — from virtual beginners to virtuosos. Each pianist was asked to sight-read of piece of music he or she had never seen before. Scoring a point for the “nurture” side of the debate, those with more hours of practice did do better at sight-reading. But — score one for “nature” — the number of hours of practice only predicted half of the differences in performance.

Working memory capacity — the ability to store and process information simultaneously — is an important factor in learning, comprehension, reasoning, and overall intellectual capability. And, working memory capacity is substantially heritable. In this piano-playing study, working memory capacity significantly impacted sight-reading performance. The authors believe it may be due to the fact that a higher capacity influenced how many notes ahead a player could read as he or she played.

The authors do not insist that talent is all innate. Deliberate practice can overcome shortfalls or limitations in heritable or genetic abilities. But, innate intellectual ability makes a big difference in what one will be able to achieve.

Knowledge and skills acquired through experience cannot be discounted in music, sports, academics, or the arts. And, deliberate practice does predict success to some degree. Essentially, the heritable factors related to intelligence set limits to success. No causal relationship between unique genes and talent, success, or giftedness has been uncovered, and most scientists believe that a combination of innate abilities and motivation, training, and support influence the success of exceptional individuals.

So, child prodigies and successful geniuses, be thankful for what you were born with, and continue to work hard. For the rest of the population, you can still get to Carnegie Hall (or wherever else you want to go) with practice, practice, practice. You may just have to practice a little harder.


Ericsson KA, Krampe RT, & Heizmann S (1993). Can we create gifted people? Ciba Foundation symposium, 178 PMID: 8168368

Ericsson KA, Nandagopal K, & Roring RW (2009). Toward a science of exceptional achievement: attaining superior performance through deliberate practice. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1172, 199-217 PMID: 19743555

Hambrick, D., & Meinz, E. (2011). Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (5), 275-279 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411422061

Koziol LF, Budding DE, & Chidekel D (2010). Adaptation, expertise, and giftedness: towards an understanding of cortical, subcortical, and cerebellar network contributions. Cerebellum (London, England), 9 (4), 499-529 PMID: 20680539

Meinz EJ, & Hambrick DZ (2010). Deliberate practice is necessary but not sufficient to explain individual differences in piano sight-reading skill: the role of working memory capacity. Psychological science, 21 (7), 914-9 PMID: 20534780

Winner E (2000). The origins and ends of giftedness. The American psychologist, 55 (1), 159-69 PMID: 11392860

Image via Triff / Shutterstock.

  • onergk69

    One of the most fascinating topics on our planet: Genotype & Phenotype. Research on prodigies suggests a genetic & environmental contribution. Parents of a prodigy provide significant enrichment. Now, how about those who exhibit autistic savant features, with amazing abilities in some with a devastating syndrome, often presumed to have below normal intelligence(IQ’s of 70 or less)!

    And we know that early life experiences directly impact gene expression. The most common cause of mild mental retardation (80% of all MR) is early & protracted pscyosocial stimulation! We now know that the brain is genetically programed to proliferate dendrites. The actual trigger is psychosocial stimulation; and lots of it.


  • Kelly

    There seems to me to be a lot of flaws with this study. For one, sight-reading is a skill that is part of being a musician, but is definitely not the sole defining factor of one’s musical abilities. The other issue that may have surfaced in the study but makes no appearance in the article is the role of environment outside of musical training. I think there is something to being inherently predisposed to success in certain areas, but I think that environment is an extremely powerful agent and even has the capacity to alter a person’s biology, rendering the separation of genes and environment extremely difficult, if not impossible.

    • Joe

      I completely agree with what you are saying. I don’t find this a particularly scientific test. Adding sight-reading into the equation means that we’re not just talking about pure musical ability. Also there are studies that claim training the human mind around early adolescence makes a huge difference… So the ability to sit and learn a piece will be much better ingrained in those who learned to sight-read at an earlier age.

      I play by ear… I can pretty much reproduce any song I’ve just heard. But I couldn’t sightread for toffee. How do I fit into the nature/nurture argument?

  • Michael Jell

    Our genes account for the biological and neurological predispositions that we have inherited from our family ancestors. They are just like seeds that may or may not germinate, depending on your childhood and current environment. And I think that its the influence of the environment who plays great role of learning. That includes parenting and schooling.

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  • Nadia Hassan

    I think this article is deeply flawed reporting of the actual study. For starters, this article claims that the practice finding is “score one for nurture” and the finding that practice doesn’t account for more variation is “score one for nature.” This seems to deliberately misunderstand the underlying concepts behavioral geneticists are measuring. Practice is not necessarily nurture. People are not equally disposed to interest in music and working hard to practice enough, so it’s very likely influenced by genes. Genes influence discipline. Similarly, the environment likely impacts things outside of practice. Moreover, just because something is influenced by genes, it doesn’t imply that it’s immutable. Hair color is highly heretible, but Loreal can change it without much trouble.

  • Leon Rasberry

    Overall musical memory is definitely a factor when it comes to the vast majority of concert and professional pianist. Not all are great sight-readers, but most do have excellent musical and informational memories. This exhibits itself sometimes as the so-called photo-graphic memory in the case of music notation, and audio-graphical in the case of those who easily and accurately remember and memorize music they have heard or played. I say this because I am familiar with much of the history Classical, Popular, and Jazz Piano and Keyboard performers and musicians. Some were blind and of course could not do visual sight-reading.

    I think all of us can think of names of these “Titans” in piano and music. Maybe, I will list some this weekend (as it is time to prepare for sleep and work tomorrow).

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Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.

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