Relatively uninhibited philosophizings on self and kosmos whenever the mood strikes...
Wednesday, July 26, 2006
Made, not Born?
The preponderance of psychological evidence indicates that experts are made, not born. --Philip E. Ross, Scientific American
I've just read a fascinating article in Scientific American explaining that experts in numerous fields, including chess, music, and various sports, seem to depend less on innate talent for rising to their level of expertise than they do on the right kinds of "effortful practice" that constantly challenges them to push the envelope of their usable knowledge and skill.
For instance, psychologists have conducted studies showing that there's no significant difference in general memory and visual-spatial abilities between chess grandmasters and chess amateurs. What the experts in many fields have over non-experts is greater and more efficiently structured knowledge of their field, acquired through proper training. This implies that almost anyone with sufficient motivation and proper training can become an expert in almost any field. Indeed, we see more and more people becoming expert grandmasters in chess at earlier and earlier ages due to their access to computerized chess playing games and repositories of grandmaster games. A further implication is that children who underperform academically might be motivated by various kinds of rewards and trained by expert teachers to excel in subjects in which they previously showed no promise. This reminds me of the inspiring film Stand and Deliver allegedly based on real events.
I once had a little argument with my college math teacher about his attitude toward people, like myself, who struggled in his class. He seemed quite intolerant of people who didn't grasp the concepts quickly and performed poorly on exams. I argued that some of us are just not "as good" or talented in math as others are, and he said that everyone has virtually the same mathematical talent and that I could do as he did and earn a Ph.D in math if I really wanted to badly enough and worked as hard as I needed to to do it.
I didn't believe him then, and, even after reading an article that seems to reinforce his position, I still don't believe it. I suspect that people of average ability can indeed become much better at a lot of things than they ever realized if they're motivated enough and train for it the right way. But I still think that truly great chess players, athletes, scientists, artists, and other world-class experts are born with exceptional ability, even if science is currently better at isolating the acquired factors than it is at isolating the innate ones behind the expertise. I also suspect that people with damaged brains and subnormal capacities are never going to rise to the level of expertise or of even modest skill in related fields no matter how much they might want to and no matter how hard or well they train.
But, still, the Scientific American article gives me pause in attributing too much of someone's skill to innate talent and too little to acquisition through "effortful practice," and makes me wonder if I could accomplish more in more areas than I ever thought possible if only I wanted to badly enough and worked at it the right way, with, perhaps, the help of an expert (and miraculously patient) teacher.