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.


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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

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Image via Triff / Shutterstock.

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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