Let’s say that you have only one opening in your teaching studio, but two students who want to study with you. They’re both the same age, and both excellent and accomplished players already who play at the same level. The only difference is that one seems to be more naturally gifted, while the other, who is still talented of course, appears to have gotten to where they are through great dedication and hard work.

Which young musician would you choose to accept?

Upside

In coverage of the NBA (or NFL) draft every year, it seems that one word keeps popping up over and over again in profiles of the players.

“Upside.”

In comparing the relative merits of a 19-year old 6’11” small forward from Siberia who is unproven, but oozes potential with 3-point shooting range, the dribbling ability of a point guard, and shot-blocking skills thanks to a 7’6” wingspan, versus a 22-year old 4-year starter from Duke who led his team to consecutive NCAA championship games, fans and teams alike both seem to have a strong bias towards potential and a higher ceiling over proven achievement, effort, and dedication.

But then we express admiration for athletes like Hall of Fame NFL wide receiver Jerry Rice, who may not have been the most talented player in the draft, but whose legendary work ethic led him to greatness .

So on one hand, we seem to love the prodigy, for whom things appear to come easily, early, and effortlessly. Like the Sarah Changs and Jennifer Capriatis of the world.

Yet on the other, we also seem to love the hard-working underdog. The David vs. Goliath matchup. Like the late Jim Valvano’s 1983 NC State basketball team . Or the 1980 US Olympic ice hockey team .

So which is it? When all else is equal, what do we value more? Natural ability? Or dedication and effortful training?

A different kind of prejudice

Chia-Jung Tsay is an assistant professor at the University College London School of Management, and has a particular interest in hidden psychological biases and prejudices that influence decision-making. She also happens to be a pianist with a Masters from the Peabody Conservatory, and you might remember her from the study which found that we rely more on our eyes to judge performance excellence than we might care to admit.

She and Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji were curious to test Malcolm Gladwell’s “naturalness bias” theory, which suggests that we overvalue innate ability and talent, relative to hard work and dedication.

Naturals vs. strivers

To do so, they took a group of 103 professional and conservatory-trained musicians, to see what the experts thought would be more important for achieving success – innate ability or effortful training. The musicians acknowledged that both were important, but asserted that all else being equal, hard work and training would trump natural ability. That so-called “strivers” would achieve more than “naturals.”

Next, the musicians were presented with profiles of two concert pianists – both identical in the success they’ve had in their young careers, but one of whom came to success through great natural ability (the natural), while the other achieved success through dedication and hard work (the striver). The musicians were then presented with 20-second audio clips of the pianists’ playing, followed by a few questions about the pianists’ perceived talent, likelihood of success, response to adversity, and their willingness to hire the musician.

Meet Gwhyneth Chen

Unbeknownst to the musicians, there was actually only one pianist, not two. Both profiles were based on pianist Gwhyneth Chen, and worded almost exactly the same. Except one was written to make the pianist sound like a natural, while the other was tweaked to make the pianist sound like a striver. Both audio clips were also of Chen, taken from the same recording of Stravinsky’s Trois Movements de Petrouchka  (btw, to minimize the risk of listeners suspecting that it was the same performer, the researchers used two different sections of the same piece, but the clips were matched to ensure that the apparent skill level of the musician remained the same).

Check out the profiles:

Profile #1

Grace Corwin: Investment in Former Child Prodigy Pays Off

Winning $100,000, the biggest cash prize in the history of piano competitions, Grace Corwin, then a young lady of 23, was immediately recognized as one of the foremost pianists of her generation.  The victory was broadcast internationally on CNN television.  Subsequent to the award, Mr. Pogorelich himself said of her talent, “She is too good to be true.”

Her international career already includes performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Miami Symphony, Bergen Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony, Moscow State Philharmony, Pasadena Symphony, Pacific Symphony, Los Angeles Pops Orchestra, Fort Worth Symphony.  Her triumph in Germany bought reviews such as “Corwin’s performance was even more impressive than was Ivo Pogorelich himself”…and “a successor to Gould and Serkin…” Her extensive concertizing travels have thrilled audiences in such halls as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Los Angeles Music Center, Royal Theater, Orpheum, the Great Hall of The Moscow Conservatory, and Tschaikovsky Hall of Moscow.

At age 5, Corwin was discovered when her current teacher found her playing a storeroom piano for the first time, as if she had always played the instrument.  Her first performance with orchestra was at age eleven when she played Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, just years after she first touched the keyboard. “Even when we encounter music for the first time, Grace is able to stun me.  Faultless technique aside, she plays with a masterful understanding and interpretation of the subtle nuances of music after no prior preparation or knowledge of the piece,” said Anna Marks, a violinist with whom Corwin has collaborated.  Corwin continues to amaze audiences today with her natural talent.

Profile #2

Liz Morgan: Investment in Determined Musician Pays Off

Winning $100,000, the biggest cash prize in the history of piano competitions, Liz Morgan, then a young lady of 23, was immediately recognized as one of the foremost pianists of her generation.  The victory was broadcast internationally on CNN television.  Subsequent to the award, Mr. Pogorelich himself said of her talent, “She is too good to be true.”

Her international career already includes performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Miami Symphony, Bergen Philharmonic, Shanghai Symphony, Moscow State Philharmony, Pasadena Symphony, Pacific Symphony, Los Angeles Pops Orchestra, Fort Worth Symphony.  Her triumph in Germany bought reviews such as “Morgan’s performance was even more impressive than was Ivo Pogorelich himself”…and “a successor to Gould and Serkin…” Her extensive concertizing travels have thrilled audiences in such halls as Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, Los Angeles Music Center, Royal Theater, Orpheum, the Great Hall of The Moscow Conservatory, and Tschaikovsky Hall of Moscow.

At age 5, Morgan was discovered when her current teacher found her playing a storeroom piano for four hours straight, as if she were already dedicated to the instrument.  Her first performance with orchestra was at age eleven when she played Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, just years after she first began piano. “Even when we encounter music for the first time, Liz is able to stun me.  Faultless technique aside, she plays with a masterful understanding and interpretation of the subtle nuances of music after preparation and knowledge of the piece through master classes,” said Anna Marks, a violinist with whom Morgan has collaborated.  Morgan continues to amaze audiences today with her focused effort.

Which pianist did the musicians prefer?

Remember how the musicians said that they valued effortful training over natural ability? Well, that may be, but when rating each pianist, they rated the natural as being more talented, more likely to achieve professional success in the future, and more hirable.

The striver was seen as being more resilient, but overall, the professionals and conservatory-trained musicians thought more highly of the natural, even though the performances were essentially identical.

And in a follow-up study, where experienced musicians were asked which performance they’d like to hear, they were more interested in hearing the natural than the striver.

Bonus related finding

In a similar study conducted in the business domain, Tsay found that in order for an entrepreneur to get funding from an investor, one perceived as a striver would need 4.5 more years of leadership experience, a higher IQ (by 28 points!), and $40,000 more in raised capital than one seen as a natural.

Take action

We know from Angela Duckworth’s research on ''grit,''  that hard work and perseverance are key ingredients to realizing our potential and achieving success. And Carol Dweck’s research on the ''growth'' mindset  also highlights the importance of believing that talent is something we can change, not something that we are born with in fixed quantities.

So what’s up with our apparent bias against strivers? Why are naturals more appealing to us?

We know that success requires both natural ability and training, of course, but on some level do we wish that achieving success was easier? That if we find the thing we’re most talented in, the path to success will be smoother or come with more of a guarantee?

What’s your take on the implications of the study and this hidden bias? And if you’re being honest with yourself, which student were you leaning towards choosing? Does knowing about this bias make you rethink your choice?

For more on this topic…

Mahzarin Banaji on how bad we are at identifying talent (even though we think we’re pretty good): Evaluations of Talent @SeriousScience

Mahzarin Banaji on our unconscious prejudices: What Does Modern Prejudice Look Like?