SCIENCE
01/07/2016 01:35 pm ET

The Problem With Favoring Natural Talent Over Hard Work

A new study finds that people may have an unconscious bias against "strivers."
"We are likely to perceive the performance attributed to naturals as better than the same performance when attributed to stri
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"We are likely to perceive the performance attributed to naturals as better than the same performance when attributed to strivers," says psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay.

What's more important -- natural talent, or hard work?

While scientists have long known that determination, effort and hard work are highly correlated with achievement, a new study finds that people may have an unconscious preference for achievement that results from innate, natural-born abilities. 

The research, published in this month's edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, shows that when evaluating entrepreneurs, potential investors favor "naturals" over "strivers." 

"We are willing to give up better-qualified candidates in order to hire those believed to be naturals," Dr. Chia-Jung Tsay, a psychologist at the University College London and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "We are likely to perceive the performance attributed to naturals as better than the same performance when attributed to strivers. We are often unaware of our preference for naturalness." 

In a series of experiments, Tsay showed a group of nearly 900 U.S. investors profiles of fictional entrepreneurs that contained information about their leadership experience, management skills, IQ and the amount of money they'd already raised.

In one experiment, the profiles hinted at whether an entrepreneur's success was due to natural talent or to hard work and determination. In another experiment, the profiles stated explicitly that the entrepreneurs were either naturals or strivers. 

Researchers then asked the investors which entrepreneur they would want to back financially, and if they would sacrifice other positive attributes (such as IQ or experience) to work with either a natural or a striver.

Tsay found that the investors showed an overwhelming preference for the naturals. The strivers, on the other hand, were at a significant disadvantage.

In order to get backing from an experienced investor, the strivers needed an average of four and a half more years of leadership experience, slightly better management skills, a 28-point higher IQ and an extra $40,000 in accrued capital than a natural, The Economist reported

Interestingly, prior to participating in the experiment, the investors said they valued hard work and determination. Yet they opted to support less-qualified individuals who had "natural talent."

"Perhaps ... we have a preference for the potential of a 'natural' over even demonstrated achievement."

Certainly, real people aren't as likely to fall neatly into clear categories like "striver" and "natural," and it's not always easy to distinguish skills that are innate from those that result from hard work, but Tsay's research suggests that the striving "try-hards" of the world just can't seem to get the respect they deserve -- and it's not entirely clear why.

"I wouldn't necessarily say it's an aversion to strivers," Tsay said. "It's perhaps that we have a preference for the potential of a 'natural' over even demonstrated achievement. It is also possible that natural talent is attributed more to stable internal characteristics, and thus [is] perceived as an immutable, more authentic, and more certain path to success."

Cultural norms and values may play a role, too. 

"We are likely influenced by concepts such as the Protestant work ethic and the American dream," Tsay said. "We may subscribe to these ideas, but our preference for and fascination with naturalness still seem to emerge through our actual choices."

This bias reveals a discrepancy between what we say we value and our actual choices, she added.

A large body of literature shows that achievement is more related to hard work and effort than natural abilities. Yet in the workplace, a predilection for innate talent may prevent hiring managers from choosing the most qualified applicant for the job.

"By recognizing our implicit preference for naturals," Tsay said, "we can become better equipped to identify and hire the people who actually possess the achievements we value and who are more likely to help us attain greater success in the long run."

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