PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT? NOT SO MUCH
Turns out, that old “practice makes perfect” adage may be overblown.
New research led by Michigan State University’s Zach Hambrick finds that a copious amount of practice is not enough to explain why people differ in level of skill in two widely studied activities, chess and music.
In other words, it takes more than hard work to become an expert. Hambrick, writing in the research journal Intelligence, said natural talent and other factors likely play a role in mastering a complicated activity.
“Practice is indeed important to reach an elite level of performance, but this paper makes an overwhelming case that it isn’t enough,” said Hambrick, associate professor of psychology.
The debate over why and how people become experts has existed for more than a century. Many theorists argue that thousands of hours of focused, deliberate practice is sufficient to achieve elite status.
“The evidence is quite clear,” he writes, “that some people do reach an elite level of performance without copious practice, while other people fail to do so despite copious practice.”
Hambrick and colleagues analyzed 14 studies of chess players and musicians, looking specifically at how practice was related to differences in performance. Practice, they found, accounted for only about one-third of the differences in skill in both music and chess.
So what made up the rest of the difference?
Based on existing research, Hambrick said it could be explained by factors such as intelligence or innate ability, and the age at which people start the particular activity. A previous study of Hambrick’s suggested that working memory capacity – which is closely related to general intelligence – may sometimes be the deciding factor between being good and great.
While the conclusion that practice may not make perfect runs counter to the popular view that just about anyone can achieve greatness if they work hard enough, Hambrick said there is a “silver lining” to the research.
“If people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities,” he said, “they may gravitate toward domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.”
Hambrick’s co-authors are Erik Altmann from MSU; Frederick Oswald from Rice University; Elizabeth Meinz from Southern Illinois University; Fernand Gobet from Brunel University in the United Kingdom; and Guillermo Campitelli from Edith Cowan University in Australia.I wonder what age groups they studied and for how long they gathered data. It seems a little difficult to assess the “innate ability” of a 30 year old (assuming innate means that it was not influenced by previous experiences or environments).
Yeah, I’m wondering how they controlled for all these factors, too… and while this makes sense for something like language [especially re: working memory capacity, from what I understand of it so far], is it really like this for, say, learning a sport? or a musical instrument?
But if this is the case, then the advice I gave my 13-year-old fencing buddy last night about just having to practice a lot to do whatever she wants to do is flawed. :(
Zach’s research doesn’t specifically look at innate factors—that’s the domain of heritability studies, which he doesn’t really do, which use, e.g., comparisons of fraternal and identical twins to try to calculate how much of the variation in a certain trait are the result of genetic similarity. He, specifically, was looking at the effects of practice on expertise, and found that practice only explained a part of the variation in skill proficiency. The rest of the variance would have to be accounted for by non-practice factors (which might include innate stuff).
Yes, this is a good point. I suppose I did not properly phrase my question. What I wanted to suggest is a question of how he differentiated practice from other experiences test subjects may have encountered throughout their life. For example, I believe the ability to picture things well in one’s mind is a key component to playing chess proficiently. Thus, being a chess player, I enjoyed studying geometry in school because I was able to manipulate the figures/shapes in my head. I have no doubt this effect would work vice versa. Therefore, would practicing geometric problems constitute practicing chess because they both concentrate on a shared skill? If so, shouldn’t that be factored in when calculating how much an individual practices chess? Similarly, certain types of dancing requires a lot of the same cognitive processes as playing certain instruments (I am a percussionist as well), so would dancing count as practicing as well? That was my main question. Perhaps he answers it in the publication of his study, but I bring it up because I think it’s an important question to address.