“Naturals” vs. “Strivers.” Do We Unconsciously Favor Those Who Appear More Naturally Gifted?

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?


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.


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?

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22 Responses

  1. Respect Noa ! I would have chosed the natural. Is it because I am an elitist? I would justify by saying that effortful training is relative, and yes, I believe that what influenced me in the biographies of the two (which for me are marketing texts) are the expression and the result of the love, the true and sincere love of what they are doing, so yes, how I got there is important. The more you begin something with natural ability and joy, the more it is profound, the more the connection with the instrument or the discipline is intimate. This doesn’t have necessarily something to do with the age at which you begin.
    What you get people to say is important.
    I would say that a musician has to really the music, feel like the true meaning.
    Yes the belief is important. Apple and an other company may have the same level of skills, but if Apple sells more, this is because Steve Jobs and the story behind Apple, reversed how Apple communicates: why Apple? They believe in thinking differently, in changing the status quo. How? By making their products easy to use, user friendly and beautifully designed. What d they do? They sell great computers, and iPhones, and so forth.
    Except if we are living in a communist society where people are asked to do what be paid the salary for everyone, and where being the winner of the competition doesn’t act as an unprecedented social achievement, because… competition doesn’t exist, yes, it is good thing that stories influence us in our world! IT is a difficult question though, given the world we live in, also in all its atrocities!

  2. A natural talent will play well. Will they run a teaching studio well? Will they manage their paperwork intelligently? Will they handle students well? Will they run disastrous masterclasses? Will they know what to do when their destination airport is snowed out? Will they react well to colleagues or be a diva? Hell, will they remember to file their taxes? Will they follow the competition rules properly?

    If so many musicians say that making music for a living is a tough, demanding career from which a lot of people wash out, then they SHOULD pick the striver, because how naturally gifted you are at your instrument has little to do with how good you are at running yourself as a self-employed small business owner, which is what a gigging musician is — up to and including the Itzhak Perlmans and Lang Langs of the world. Obviously, the striver will be better equipped to cope with getting to the gig despite being forced off an airplane because they couldn’t take their cello on board. How fast of a trill you have has nothing to do with how you handle that situation, and that’s 90% of a gigging musician’s life and success.

    1. Hi! I guess the key issues here are trust and respect, rather than income generation or other practical purposes. If you teach to earn money, then you’ve lost heart, your soul and the passion to your craft, there is no point to begin with. Naturally gifted musicians will GET NOTICED but they probably hate the attention. Popularity always gets in the way. Fame or fortune will be the last thing on their minds because their focus is only to play and harness their unique brand of music and performance. They are competing against themselves and not with anyone else. And each day, they are improving effortlessly because they are doing it for the love of doing it. It is the world that will clamor for the privilege of being taught by them and will go to the naturals and will go to certain extents just to get a glimpse of how they were able to do it. That IS the difference: the naturals will teach the strivers ONLY if they deserve it and for the right reasons. But if they are appeased with trust and respect, they willingly share their knowledge or expertise. The naturals would FEEL if the strivers are only after fame or fortune, and if so, I don’t think they can or will relate with the strivers. No pun intended but reality will speak, the naturals aren’t here for the money or popularity.

  3. I think potential listeners would feel that if they, too, worked hard enough, they could arrive at a similar performance as player B’s, but player A’s performance is seemingly coming from a different place, a fount that they don’t have, couldn’t have — divine or at least unattainable. A teacher may be drawn to the prospect of being the shaper of this divine clay.

  4. Another very interesting article…I wonder whether it’s possible to get translations into other languages of your blogs.
    My husband ( Italian tuba player teacher ) is also very interested in your articles, but doesn’t read or speak English, and it takes a looong time vocally translating ….
    As to above article,I feel it depends on which niche of the music world ( and with which instrument) one hopes to work.
    In an Orchestra ( apart from principal seats) a ‘striver’ is to be prefered ,wheras as a solist the indefinable extra can make a difference.
    I think that most musicians themselves tend to gravitate towards a career which suits their particular talent.( maybe 2nd flute rather than 1st etc. ,chamber music,teaching ,leader,)..As with a great sporting team ,it’s the mixture that makes it work.

  5. Noa, you tackle social determinism questions, or let’s say it’s me who’s going to do this. Is one going to be part of the international (music) school élite, for example, is me/am I going to be part of the Juilliard School by working hard? By no means, because it should not be forgotten that all that glitters is not gold. Being is better than seeming, and despite all my great work, since I know I don’t sincerely like it, I won’t fulfill my not-honest dreams. It’s easy to cry and shout and to refer to oneself as a victim of social determinism meaning the inner logic of the jet set (as for all the names of the world-class violinists, cellists, pianist, guitarists, and so forth). It’s easy to take revenge/to revenge oneself by working hard the musical instrument that is said to be difficult to play, or by getting married with someone rich, or by bullying the winners. It’s easy to do things with the sole aim of becoming the “Word-Class Prom King or Queen”. But it’s not easy to really try to find what you love doing, not to settle, like Steve Jobs says. It’s not easy to do what you love, and to love what you do.

  6. just a technical question: how could a 6′ 11″ guy have a 7’6” wingspan? aren’t most people’s wingspans equal to their height? mine is…

    1. Hi Ian,

      Indeed, most people have a wingspan that is about equal to our height. But on average, NBA players have longer wingspans relative to height. French small forward Nicolas Batum, for instance, is 6’8″, but has a wingspan of either 7’1″ or 7’4″ depending on whom you ask. A better example might be Kevin Durant, who at 6’10” has a reported wingspan of 7’5″. Or retired center Manute Bol, who at 7’7″ holds the NBA wingspan record of 8’6″.


  7. The difference in profiles (other than names) above boil down to the word ‘Grace’ and the mention of a period of time spent. To know that these minor differences changed people’s judgement is eye opening.
    It is almost a ‘fairy tale’ effect, calling one performer natural turns them into ‘Mozart’ and calling another a striver turns them into a ‘tin-eared’ hack (exaggerated of course)

    There are very few Mozarts in any field and even where great talent is displayed early it often doesn’t last.
    Whereas true directed discipline does.

    The divide between natural and striver is almost pointless if what you are looking for is a guide to the next performance. Past performance is the best guide. It would be very disappointing to go to a concert by a natural gifted artist to hear a hour of discordant noise.

    The fact that professional and conservatory-trained musicians and who initially asserted the primacy of hard work could be so easily influenced by such a minor variation in profile is remarkable. But then I am not a profession not even a real musician.

    It would be interesting to know if there were any differences between those who changed their initial opinion after reading the profiles and those who didn’t.

    Is the tendency to view ‘natural’ as better a belief in magic, a desire to belief in fairy tales in an aristocracy of sorts. A minute number of people are born with a set of skills that match their interests and temperature and given opportunity plus an internal discipline to maintain that high level of talent is not a good guide for judgement. I wonder why we do it, it is the same phenomenon as believing rich people are ‘better’ because they don’t have to work (assuming they don’t of course) or is it that natural talent is thought of as a more pure form or is it something else?

  8. Fun article!! I would give myself a 35% natural/65% striver ratio as a violinist. I started young in my instrument and remember working hard and trusting my teachers in how they taught me.

    When I read the two profiles, I found myself getting caught up in the fantasy of the life and the gift of the “natural”. The “natural” seemed special. The “striver” seemed relatable and ordinary. I’m guessing that if I heard the performances I would probably hear them the regrettably the same way, the “natural” as special and “striver” as ordinary.

    I’ll be honest, it’s kind of discouraging to think that even I wouldn’t stick up for another’s journey similar to my own.

  9. Very interesting. On a practical level, this also means that convincing other people that you’re a natural – either by mentioning it in conversation every so often, or just writing your bio to reflect that story – will have a positive effect on other people’s perceptions (marketing!). Basically, if you tell people you’re smart/talented/successful enough times, eventually they’re going to believe it.

    1. Hi Kris,

      Interesting – I hadn’t thought about the marketing angle! However, based on the results of the second study (which I didn’t get into so much here), it seems like this strategy might only work with musicians. The intriguing thing about the follow-up study is that the experienced musicians put a higher value on effortful training than natural talent, but the non-musicians didn’t. And while the professional/conservatory-trained musicians preferred to hear the “natural” after reading the profiles and hearing the audio clip samples, the non-musicians didn’t have a preference either way. Kind of curious, no?

  10. We may think that the Striver will work harder and over the long term be a better choice. However, the Natural has the edge, because the Natural can also be a Striver, but the Striver cannot also be a Natural.

    1. I’m inclined to doubt that. Striving is also something that one can or can’t be a “natural” in. A non-striver will never be able to match that unthinking tenacity of a striver.

  11. It’s interesting how we transform the “Potential Vs. Product” duality into a “Prodigy Vs. Hard Work” duality.

    Curiously, and at the same time, we tend to look at the Prodigy as a continuous Potential (a.k.a: a Product to be); and the “22-year old 4-year starter from Duke” (the real Product) as the Hard Work.

    Actually, a Prodigy has already spent a lot of (unnoticed) Hard Work into his/her craft. In our minds eyes, the Prodigy is closer to an already final Product then the actual Hard Worker. He passed the Potential stage. And continuous Hard Work rings out in our psychological memory has a Potential unfinished product.

    So, “Potential is to Hard Work” as “Prodigy is to Product.”

    Also, from the psychological point of view, a Prodigy (like, let’s say, Michael Jordan) is more likely to be admired (instead of envied) since the distance he is from common people doesn’t allow us to relate to his achievements or abilities.

    In the end, Hard Work builds Potential into a Product that we will, eventually, call… Prodigy, the state of easiness that comes from mastering our craft.

  12. I think we’re not really in favor of those who are born talented. We are just really amazed in what they can already do in such a young age. But I admire more those people who really work hard to be an expert and to be as good as those who are “natural.” It’s no joke to reach such level of expertise especially if you have to work on it every single day.


  13. Wonderful article! I saw this play out in my violin studio some years ago. I had a parent bring two students who had studied with another teacher for some years previously. The older child was clearly more naturally gifted, and the younger progressed much more slowly.

    The parent and previous teacher obviously compared and treated the older child preferentially, however, some pretty horrific bad habits were allowed to creep in.

    The striving child was not as advanced in the repertoire–but played with much better technique.

    I was a striver myself, so I am drawn to my kind.

  14. Could preferring the performance of the natural also be a sort of protection against critical self-evaluation regarding our own accomplishments? I mean, if we prefer the performance of the striver we say at the same time that we too can get to that level as long as we work hard enough. Knowing we don’t all reach the high level we would like, it is easier to add more value to an external factor like natural giftedness as an argument not to work harder.

  15. I think we’re missing the boat on the article as well, to judge from the comments — mine included. Note that the question wasn’t “Are we biased in favor of the naturally gifted?” but “Are we biased in favor of those who appear more naturally gifted?”

    The thing about “naturals” I think is that they do strive — but do so so constantly that we don’t realize they are doing it. I remember when I was a kid I was considered a “natural” in math. It looked like that from the outside — if you saw me sitting on the front step and staring at nothing, then going in to do my math homework in ten seconds, it would have looked like that. She just sat down and did it!

    What you wouldn’t have known is that while I was sitting on the front step, I was doing what I still do today 43 years later to get to sleep: picking numbers in my head at random and splitting them up into prime factors for fun. I was striving, almost all the time. It just didn’t show.

    I also remember an article online about Yo-Yo Ma where it talked about him going to a music lesson on a bus or subway and sitting there solving a cello problem in his head while he was there. From the outside, it would have looked like he just picked his cello up at his lesson and magically did the right thing., but in reality, he was striving.

    My favorite working pianist nowdays is Gabriela Montero, a fluent improviser who has said out loud that she never practices and yet can do the most incredible things on the piano. She might not practice as we would define it, but she has also said that she is mentally playing music all the time in her head, and sometimes has trouble falling asleep because of it. She doesn’t sit down at her instrument to practice because she is effectively practicing in her head all the time.

    Striving doesn’t always look like striving from the outside. We have this belief that striving looks miserable and unhappy and murderous and sweaty. Sometimes it just looks like the person is staring into nothingness with a vacant look on their face.

    I really do think that the only real difference between what look like naturals and strivers from the outside is that the naturals are the people who think about making music when they are nowhere near their instrument. Habitual mental practicers, in other words. Mental practice, from the outside, sure looks a lot like someone just magically picked up the fiddle and did the right thing “naturally.”

  16. http://rals.scu.ac.ir/article_11268_36d3bff7fead631f1eb368ce26604698.pdf
    I’m no longer a child a closer look at the Interaction between the Iranian EFL University students’ Identities and their performance

    The point from this study I found important is that learning a foreign language is more than just acquiring a set of syntaxic, semantic and phonological rules (like when you sight-read a score when you’re a musician) of the target language (of the musical instrument you play) but it’s a [construction or] “reconstruction of the self”.
    In the same way, we could think say each musicians have their personalities and it is what we buy.
    Performing and practicing are also a “construction of the self”. What I mean is that performance is more than just the sound. It’s also visual. And so, the self of the performer counts. Is it the self of the one against the self of the other?

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