Huffpost Science

Geniuses Are Born, Not Made? Debate Between Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, Dr. Zach Hambrick

Posted: Updated:
Wolfgang Mozart, Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, Tiger Woods, Jane Austen, Isaac Newton
Wolfgang Mozart, Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, Tiger Woods, Jane Austen, Isaac Newton

Do genes make the genius? Or is it really true that practice is what puts people in Carnegie Hall?

Some argue that the the seeds of genius are planted before birth—child prodigies like Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci and Tiger Woods come to mind. Others say 'genius' is just another word for minds that have been honed by untold hours of practice—Paul Cezanne, Robert Frost and even Charles Darwin were well-known 'late-bloomers.' Of course, many argue that brilliance and virtuosity represent the combined effects of learned and innate characteristics.

Wolfgang Mozart, Marie Curie, Steve Jobs, Tiger Woods, Jane Austen, Isaac Newton.

Who has genius right? We invited a pair of noted experts in the field to square off on this proposition: geniuses are born, not made. On one side is Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman, a professor of psychology at New York University in New York City. On the other is Dr. Zach Hambrick, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

Who wins the debate? That's up to you and other HuffPost Science readers, all of whom are invited to read the arguments side by side and then cast a vote. Whoever changes more minds is the winner.


Pre-debate poll:

Tell us your opinion before the debate starts to set the starting line

Geniuses are born, not made.

Agree - Thanks for voting! Please proceed to read the debate below

Please vote to proceed to the debate


Who makes the better argument?

David Z. Hambrick Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, Michigan State University

Why do some people learn complex skills with apparent ease, and ultimately reach expert levels of performance, while others struggle to move beyond a novice level? What distinguishes novices from experts in music, science, sports, and professions? Over a century ago, Sir Francis Galton, the founder of the scientific study of individual differences in psychological traits, argued that "genius" is hereditary -- that greatness is born, and that a person's environment has little to do with success in life. Galton was wrong. To a very large degree, expert-level performance reflects knowledge and skills that can only be acquired through experience. The Florida State University psychologist K. Anders Ericsson and his colleagues asked violinists at an elite music academy in Germany to estimate the amount of time they had devoted to deliberate practice for each year since they started playing violin. By the age of 20, the best players had accumulated an average of over 10,000 hours -- thousands of hours more than less accomplished groups.

Summarizing Ericsson's research in his bestseller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell described 10,000 hours as the "magic number" of expertise. But recent research shows that some people require much more deliberate practice than others to become experts. The best evidence for this comes from a study of chess players by the cognitive psychologists Fernand Gobet and Guillermo Campitelli. Gobet and Campitelli found that some chess players needed literally thousands of hours more deliberate practice than others to reach "master" status, a very high level of expertise. It took one player just 3,000 hours, but another over 20,000 hours. There is no magic number of expertise.

This and similar evidence for wide ranges of deliberate practice among experts suggests that factors other than deliberate practice are critical for becoming an expert. But what are these other factors? Part of the answer is general intelligence -- the psychological trait that a person's IQ score reflects. Elizabeth Meinz and I had pianists perform a "sight-reading" task in which they played pieces of music with no preparation. We also had the pianists estimate how much deliberate practice they had accumulated, and perform tests of working memory capacity. Working memory capacity is the ability to hold in mind information over a short period of time that many cognitive psychologists think of as a core component of general intelligence. We found that deliberate practice accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across the pianists in the sight-reading task -- a massive contribution by statistical standards. But working memory capacity predicted performance differences, as well. Regardless of amount of deliberate practice, the pianists with a high level of working memory capacity tended to perform better than others on the sight-reading task.

Further evidence for the importance of general intelligence comes from a study by Vanderbilt University researchers David Lubinski and Camilla Benbow. They found that individual differences in general intelligence in childhood predicted individual differences in scientific achievement in adulthood. For example, compared to people who "only" scored in the 99.1 percentile, those who scored in the 99.9 percentile -- the profoundly gifted -- were about three times more likely to earn a Ph.D. in a science, math, or engineering field. Does this necessarily mean that it is impossible for a person with an average, or even below average, IQ to earn a Ph.D. in one of these fields? It does not. Does it mean that it is unlikely, relative to a person with a high IQ? It does. This is bad news if you buy into the egalitarian view that most anyone can achieve most anything with enough hard work -- especially since individual differences in IQ are not only influenced by genetic factors, but are also highly stable across the lifespan. But there's a silver lining: If you have an accurate idea of your abilities (or "talents"), and of the likelihood of achieving one goal vs. some other goal given these abilities -- say earning a Ph.D. in electrical engineering vs. becoming a master electrician -- you can make an informed decision about which goal you want to devote your time, money, and energy to pursuing.

What does all of this say about whether experts are born are made? The answer is "both." Experts are born because people come into the world differing in ways that turn out to matter for real-world achievement. But experts are made because there is no getting around the necessity of a long period of practice and training for reaching a high level of performance. This is my take. Take it for what it's worth.

Scott Barry Kaufman Scientific Director, The Imagination Institute

In a 2011 academic album, Professor Gaga made the bold empirical claim that we are just Born This Way. This set off intense debates among academic psychologists about the role of nature and nurture in determining genius. Was Gaga right?

In one sense, Gaga was on the right track. If there's anything we've learned from over 25 years of twin and adoption studies -- conducted on over 800,000 pairs of twins and more than 50 different samples -- virtually every single psychological trait -- from IQ to persistence to artistic ability to schizophrenia to autism to marital status to television viewing -- is heritable. The heritability of human characteristics is so robust that Eric Turkheimer named it the First Law of Behavioral Genetics.

These findings vindicate Gaga -- they counter the belief that we are born into this world as blank slates, completely at the mercy of the external environment. There's such a thing as individuality, at least partly rooted in our biology. But much to the dismay of many scientists, Gaga left out some important technical caveats. She didn't mention the fact that heritability has very little to do with the potential for change. At the now infamous "On the Veracity of Gaga's Empirical Claims" Conference held in Venice Italy, one insightful young scholar raised the point: What if you're born with some tendencies you don't want to be born with? Are you just stuck that way?

This caused a flurry of discussions, and it was generally agreed upon that just because a trait is heritable (and virtually all of our psychology traits are heritable), doesn't mean that the trait is fixed or can't be developed. After all, the tendency to watch reality television is probably heritable, but parents can exert enormous control by banning their children from watching Snooki destroy her life.

Psychologists also realized that the actual heritability estimate isn't all that informative either. Eric Turkheimer came along and showed everyone that the heritability of IQ is quite high in enriched environments, but extremely low in poorer households. This showed environment matters and that you can't take the heritability estimate of a trait at face value. What's more, you can't make inferences about an individual based on heritability calculations -- which are based on large populations of people at a particular point in time.

Researchers eventually agreed that it was time to take the major insights they gleaned from decades of twin and adoption twins and move on. Next stop: the search for tiny molecules. Unfortunately, things turned out to be trickier than anticipated. No single gene could be found to explain more than a fraction of the variation in any trait. Even when potential genes were found, they rarely replicated. Twin studies showed that the genes were there somewhere, but modern genomics research suggested that it would be no simple matter figuring out how a very large number of interacting genes (which are always interacting with the environment) influence the development of complex psychological traits.

What has become evident is that none of our traits come prepackaged at birth. Baby M.J. didn't pop out doing a windmill dunk. All traits are developed -- no exceptions. This does not mean, however, that people don't differ in the rate at which certain abilities are developed. The precocious feats of prodigies and prodigious savants show loud and clear what one can achieve when you have what Martha J. Morelock refers to as a "rage to learn". Prodigies appear to be the ones pushing their parents; not the other way around.

But while getting a perfect score on the SAT at age 12 is impressive, precocity is no guarantee of later success. Likewise, a lack of early precocity is no guarantee of failure. We must stop referring to the precocious as "geniuses" and see their feats for what they are: early signs that the child may be ready to start the long, arduous path to acquire the expertise required to learn, or even change, existing paradigms.

One thing is for sure: there's far more possibility we could be getting out of all children than we are even close to realizing. So many children are tuned out, because we aren't appreciating the path they want. Instead, we give everyone the same preset path to follow and expect them to be naturally motivated to deliberately practice down that path. This goes against everything we currently know about what it takes to succeed.

Genius involves figuring out who you are, and owning yourself. It's about amplifying your best traits and compensating for the rest. Geniuses grab life by the horns, and persevere amidst setbacks. They take control of their lives, instead of waiting for others to open up doors. In this very important sense, greatness is completely, utterly, made.

That's what Lady Gaga realized -- and you can, too.



Did one of the arguments change your mind?

Geniuses are born, not made.


Agree - Thanks for voting again! Here are the results:



moreless AgreeDisagreeUndecided

David Z. HambrickScott Barry KaufmanNeither argumenthas changed the most minds

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Michigan State University was in Ann Arbor. In fact, it is in East Lansing.


Suggest a correction

Around the Web

Student Innovators "Get Their Genius On"

Scientists Tap the Cognitive Genius of Tots to Make Computers Smarter