Pop psychology sells incredibly well.
But it does not always serve you incredibly well.
At least, not if you’re looking for what’s proven, thorough, proven, and effective.
This article will put to the test the most widespread pop psychology myths and report to you a summary of the fact-checking efforts.
But first, let’s start with a definition:
- What Is Pop Psychology
- #1. Learning Styles
- #2. Mirror Neurons
- #3. The Marshmallow Test
- #4. Ego Depletion / Finite Willpower
- #5. The Stanford Experiment
- #6. The 10.000-Hour Rule
- #6. (Subliminal) Behavioral Priming
- #7. Facial Feedback Hypothesis
- #8. Growth Mindset
- #9. The 3:1 Happiness Ratio
- #10. Grit
- Limitations of “Debunking” Articles
What Is Pop Psychology
Here is my definition of pop-psychology:
Pop psychology is the ensemble of psychological theories, behavioral analyses, and personal diagnoses that are presented was scientific, proven, or thorough, but which are instead unproven, disproven, superficial, or poorly understood by the speaker.
Pop psychology stands for “popular psychology”, but it has come to
Popular psychology and while it is not always and necessarily wrong, it is characterized by being unscientific.
Who Are Pop Psychologists: A Profile
Here is a quick way to tell them apart:
- The scientist seeks scientific rigor: his claims are based on science and results. He often talks about “evidence”, “more information needed”, “exceptions”, and “external factors”
- The pop-psychologist seeks to sound deep and informed, which leads many to believe that what he says makes sense. He loves big generalizations and extremisms (you’re either screwed, or you can do anything in life)
More rarely, the pop-psychologist might actually want to help, but is simply clueless about basic scientific principles and human biases (oh, the irony).
Here is a quick overview for you:
Please note though that, as for much reality, pop-psychologists and scientists are on a continuum.
And, confusingly, it’s also possible to be high on both the scientific and pop-psychology scale.
Martin Seligman is one such example. He popularized both himself -nothing inherently wrong with that- and positive psychology. But as a popular psychologist, he is advancing good science that can be used for self-help and mood-enhancement.
- Scientists VS pop-psychologists: when things overlap
Most pop-psychologists are not scientists and researchers themselves.
They’re often journalists, writers, gurus of all stripes, snake oil salesmen, and “talk-show personalities”.
However, scientists can also engage in pop psychology, at times, while non-scientists can instead share accurate and scientific information.
- The pop-psychologist per excellence: best-sellers & self-help gurus
The most prolific and deadly pop-psychologists are good writers and skilled communicators high in narcissism.
Good writers have at least the minimum cognitive ability to understand research, coupled with the skills of making science sound exciting and “fun”.
Malcolm Gladwell is a good example.
Self-help gurus instead look at science with the aim of teasing out practical techniques and strategies aimed at self-development and the attainment of certain life goals such as happiness, career advancement, relationship success, etc.
Some of these self-help gurus are spot on and do a great job. Some others instead might be spreading potentially harmful pop-psychology. And some others still are snake-oil salesmen who bend scientific to sell useless products or services (see: Joe Dispenza).
Alright, done with the intro, let’s start with the biggest pop-psychology myths:
#1. Learning Styles
I bet you’ve read this one a few times before.
So goes the saying:
Some people learn more when the material is presented visually, while some others learn more when the material is discussed verbally.
Over the course of the years, a whole host of training methodologies and quizzes have sprung up purporting to teach people how to learn more effectively.
Yours truly here even took a couple of those quizzes (and maybe you have too?).
Why It’s Pop Psychology
A team of researchers in the field of learning psychology published a long and detailed review of the “learning styles literature”, and you can find the whole research here.
In a nutshell, the researchers say that all of the studies which allegedly did find evidence of different learning styles, very few used randomized research designs that would make their findings credible.
Of those that did use proper research designs, some provided evidence which not only fails to support the learning style theory, but which found evidence that flatly contradicted the learning-styles hypothesis.
The researchers conclude:
The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing.
If the classification of students’ learning styles has practical utility, it remains to be demonstrated.
What’s The Truth
The authors of the above study do not deny that some students might learn better when information is presented in a certain way.
They simply deny there is supporting evidence for the “learning style theory” in the current literature.
And they say that an optimal curriculum probably depends as much (or more) on the discipline than on the students’ preference for learning (ie.: a geometry class could hardly be effective without lots of visual-spatial material).
#2. Mirror Neurons
If you’re into science, psychology or self-development you have probably read a lot about Rizzolatti’s watershed experiment and how he accidentally stumbled upon monkey’s “mirror neurons” in Parma.
Ramachandra, author of “Phantoms in The Brain” and a popularizer of science helped spread the news of that important scientific discovery when he said that “mirror neurons will do for psychology what DNA did for biology“.
Since then, you can barely read a book on persuasion and self-development without stumbling upon the omnipresent mirror neurons.
Do you want to empathize with people? Mirror neurons will help.
Do you need to make people feel comfortable? Use your mirror neurons to let your body match theirs.
Need to subconsciously persuade someone? Match them first then start leading… And their mirror neurons will have them follow you like you’re the pied piper.
Why It’s Pop Psychology
After reading so much pop-psychology on mirror neurons in humans you might be surprised to hear that there is no consensus as to whether mirror neurons even exist in humans.
Scientists such as Hickok, Pascolo, and Dinstein, for example, question the idea that mirror neurons form a distinct class of cells (Hickok even wrote a book about the “mirror neurons myth”).
Where there seems to be more and more consensus instead is that mirror neurons are not the great revolution that early, over-enthusiastic scientists cracked it up to be.
What’s The Truth
It’s probably true that humans have mirror neurons as one study seems to have identified neural activity similar to Rizzolatti’s monkeys.
But as this article from Harvard University points out the consensus seems to be moving towards the following:
- It’s unlikely that mirror neurons alone explain humans’ ability for imitation
- It’s unlikely that the mental ability to simulate other people’s action is at the core of understanding other people’s actions
- It’s possible that mirror neurons are part of our human’s ability to empathize, but it’s likely they’re only one element in a larger, more complex system (Rizzolatti, 2010)
Much research still needs to be done here.
But the next time you read a pop-psychology book telling you that mirror neurons are what makes mimicking, empathizing and persuasion possible, I recommend you immediately downrate the author’s (scientific) credentials.
#3. The Marshmallow Test
The marshmallow test, first a study and later a book, is one of the earliest, most famous and most cited experiments in willpower.
If you have been into self-development topics, then chances are very high that you have read about the “marshmallow test”… A few hundred times.
The basic narrative goes like this: children who can delay gratification become more successful in life.
It’s been proven by the marshmallow test (and most people buy it because it “kinda makes sense”, no?).
Some authors then go as far as to teach you -and your children- how to increase your “delaying gratification muscles”.
Why It’s Pop Psychology
- The marshmallow test failed to replicate
- There are simply too many variables the “marshmallow test” did not account for
Some of the variables that the “marshmallow test” did not account for include:
- Different children are likely to have different levels of interest in consuming marshmallows (ie.: the “delaying power” is based not on self-control but on limited interest marshmallows)
- The sample size was very small
- Children in the sample were from a similar socio-economical background (a subset of self-selection bias: all children of professors or students at Stanford, )
Indeed when Typer Watts replicated the study he found that:
- The correlation was 50% smaller than the original test
- The correlation almost vanished when taking into account for intelligence and family background
Not The Researchers’ Fault
The marshmallow test is not pop psychology per se, but it’s the sweeping generalizations of most non-researchers that made it such.
Shoda, Mischel, and Peake cautioned readers about the limitations of their findings already in their original study.
They warned readers about the small sample size, the risk of over-generalizing their results as well as the fact that always delaying gratification is also not an effective strategy.
But of course, that wasn’t going to stop the self-help gurus and the professional generalizers of this world from tarnishing an otherwise interesting research.
The ability to control impulses and urges has sometimes been considered an aspect of Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman, 1995)
And there are, in my opinion, little doubts that the ability to delay gratification, as one aspect of controlling impulses, is an important factor of success -especially if compared to its opposite end of the spectrum: an extreme bias towards short term gratification with no long-term planning-.
So, absolutely, do critically resist (some of) your short-term impulses and do what’s hard today for more success tomorrow.
Just don’t believe that it’s the “marshmallow test” that proves it.
#4. Ego Depletion / Finite Willpower
The theory behind ego depletion is that we all have a limited amount of willpower, and the more we use it on any given day, the less we have it.
Based on this theory, plenty of self-development resources claimed that, “scientifically”, you should avoid “wasting” your willpower.
The theory also enlarged to include decision-making as a finite and limited resource connected to willpower.
That’s why some pundits recommended people to do like Steve Jobs and wear the same clothes every day: you saved up your mental resources.
Why It’s Pop Psychology
Recent studies have thrown a spanner in the works for the ego depletion theory and challenged the whole theory.
A multi-lab replication experiment found the effects of ego depletion to be extremely small with “zero” included within its confidence interval.
And a series of meta-analytic tests found little evidence that willpower is based on a limited physical or psychological resource.
The ego-depletion theory has been a big thing in psychology.
On trial here was not just a single paper or study, but a whole overarching concept that seemed to have been repeatedly confirmed and which was widely accepted.
It has led some scientists and some publications to call into question whether our current scientific system based on publications is not distorting scientific progress.
Part of the issue is that, as Baumeister himself noticed in his original paper, there are no direct measures of willpower’s limited resources and the indirect experiments we must rely on are liable of being “polluted” by other intervening factors.
- Participants might arrive with the idea of “owing” to the researchers some effort, and then “take it easy” after they feel they’ve given enough
- It’s not always easy to isolate how people’s changing mood impacts their tenacity (ie.: is giving up early a consequence of depression, sagging self-esteem or is it because willpower is limited?)
- With some tasks giving up might actually be the most rational and smart thing to do
There can be ways to limit each of these factors, but not all studies have successfully done so.
And a recent analysis of both sides of arguments finds no compelling evidence for either the ego depletion theory or the negation of willpower as a limited resource.
And of course, there is the good old placebo effect.
This study finds out that ego depletion takes place, at least partly, based on whether people believed willpower is limited or not.
At this point, I am not sure whether willpower is more like a muscle or more like a fuel tank that depletes with usage.
I do believe though that there is another aspect we should consider, and that’s identity.
The more you show yourself effectively using willpower, the more you can tell yourself that you are someone who sticks with his commitment even when it’s hard. And this “identity approach” could reinforce the “muscle” aspect of willpower.
However, I also believe that as of now it makes sense that you try to make your difficult but healthy habits as easy as possible (ie.: don’t have colas in your fridge if you want to eat healthily but load it with fruits) and your easy but unhealthy habits as difficult as possible (ie.: live in a smoking-free flat on 30th floor, no balcony to help you give up smoking).
#5. The Stanford Experiment
The Stanford Experiment is one of the huge classics of social-psychology research.
Part of the reason it’s so popular is that the “human darkness” that it purports to lay bare capture people’s imagination like a magnet.
The idea that we’re all a step away from becoming cruel, soulless victimizer makes us all scared and excited at the same time.
In a nutshell, it markets and sells well.
If you need any proof, the “Stanford Experiment” has its own website and it spawned movies, documentaries and popular YouTube videos that purport to show the “untold truths” of what really happened.
The “Stanford Experiment” is also Zimbardo’s most famous experiment and much of his later work has been inspired by its results, including a TED talk and a book with a catchy name (ie.: “The Lucifer Effect“).
Why It’s Pop Psychology
The Stanford Experiment is pop psychology because the word “experiment” doesn’t even belong there.
It’s not a real experiment and Zimbardo himself admitted so:
From the beginning, I have always said it’s a demonstration.
The only thing that makes it an experiment is the random assignment to prisoners and guards, that’s the independent variable.
There is no control group. There’s no comparison group. So it doesn’t fit the standards of what it means to be “an experiment.”
And then, later on, sounding as if he wanted to defend himself:
Is it a study with flaws? I was the first to admit that many, many years ago.
There is countless valid and legit criticism moved against the Stanford Prison Experiment though which go well beyond what Zimbardo originally admitted, including:
- “Coaching” for guards’ worst behavior
- Demand characteristics bias (ie.: participants are likely to behave like they believe the researchers want them to behave)
- Prisoners faking their hysterical crisis
Zimbardo has been very vocal in personally replying to most of the criticism.
His replies rarely constituted a full rebuttal of the criticism, but to me, he often managed to convincingly take some of the sting off of them.
However, in a nutshell: the “Stanford Experiment” is pop psychology because it’s not a real experiment and its results cannot and should not be generalized.
The controversies around the “Stanford Experiment” grew so large that they could make for a whole book.
But that’s more gossip than science.
If we are discussing science and psychology, tend there are no doubts that different social settings can elicit wildly different behavior from the exact same persons (albeit I don’t believe that extreme good and extreme evil often coexist in the same person as some have suggested).
And there are little doubts that social roles do affect people’s behavior.
The realization that people can act evil and we must learn to cope with that evil is, after all, one of the founding principles of this website.
And that’s the issue with some of the criticism of the “Stanford Experiment”: some pushed it too far in trying to deny that social situational variables can heavily influence behavior both for the positive and the negative.
Some critics indeed seemed busy in an effort to defend human nature.
But denying that people -or at least some people- can become abusive when given enough power and under certain social situations is the equivalent of not understanding human nature.
To say it in Zimbardo’s own words:
SPE serves as a cautionary tale of what might happen to any of us if we underestimate the extent to which the power of social roles and external pressures can influence our actions.
And with that, I fully agree.
To be the wonderful human beings that we can all be, we must all also learn about our darkest drives and channel them into something positive.
#6. The 10.000-Hour Rule
In his book “Outliers” Gladwell popularized the “10.000 hour rule”.
The “rule” says that to reach the pinnacle of any discipline and to become a master of any craft you need to put in 10.000 hours.
Since Gladwell’s best-seller hit the shelves, the “10.000 rule” spread like wildfire.
It was simple and catchy. It removes natural talent from the equation and puts outsized success in everyone’s grasp.
Even reputable publications fell for it.
The picture below is taken from the National Geographic article:
There is only one little issue: it’s not true.
Why It’s Pop Psychology
There is no 10.000-hour rule.
Malcolm Gladwell has written some good stuff.
But he is also one of the heaviest heavyweights of pop-psychology (and that’s one of the reasons why I prominently featured him in my “most overrated books” list).
With the 10.000-hour rule, I am not sure whether Gladwell actually misunderstood the research or whether he willingly bent it to sell more of his books.
And I don’t know which one would be worse.
But Anders Ericsson, the author of Peak and the researcher whom Gladwell misquoted, explains why Gladwell got it all wrong:
- People variable: to achieve mastery some will require less time, some more
- Field variable: the competitiveness of the field has a strong correlation to how hard you need to train to reach the top
- Quality variable: time matters, but how you train is equally, if not more, important
- And finally, there is no “magical” threshold that corresponds to 10.000 hours
Albeit Eric Andersson is far more on the “nurture” side and he embraces the idea that training trumps everything, genes and personal predispositions likely play a major role as well.
Hence, to maximize your chances of success and get the biggest bang out of your training, choose a field you enjoy, a field in which you have all the cards to be successful and then focus not only on how long you train but also on how you train (and to learn how to train I can highly recommend a copy of Anders Ericsson’s Peak, possibly followed by “The Talent Code” and “Mastery“).
#6. (Subliminal) Behavioral Priming
Priming says that exposure to one stimulus will later influence people’s perception, response, or behavior.
A huge finding in psychology was that semantic priming, such as simple words, could prime behavior subliminally.
That opened up a lot of doors to several different kinds of possible behavior manipulation and, of course, drew a lot of attention: the original paper by Bargh et al. has been cited thousands of times.
If you have ever heard about people who moved noticeably more slowly simply because they assembled words related to old age, then you have read about the original priming research.
Bargh’s research has been widely accepted for good and made its way in the work of highly respected authors such as Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) and Robert Cialdini (Influence and Pre-Suasion).
BBC even made its own video research on priming:
And that’s without even considering the hundreds of other authors who teach how to change people’s minds and actions with “subliminal priming”. All based on science :).
Again, there was just one minor detail: the whole premise was resting on shaky scientifical ground.
Why It’s Pop Psychology
There were previous failed confirmation attempts, but it all started in earnest in 2012, when Doyen and colleagues failed to replicate Bargh’s original results.
Bargh pushed back on the initial criticism.
Another article he wrote, which was even fiercer, has now been taken down (but it’s referenced by Ed Yong and Neurobonkers).
In my opinion, the simple fact that Bargh reacted as if the replication attempt was a personal attack, does not do him honor as a scientist.
But the scientific community was worried.
In that same year Daniel Kahneman, who dedicate an important part of his “Thinking Fast and Slow” to subliminal priming, issued an open letter about the issue calling for more clarity in the priming research.
In that letter, Kahneman was still overall optimistic about the existence of subliminal social priming effects and, he later admitted, he was hoping that the original researchers would bolster their case with stronger evidence.
But that didn’t happen.
And as time went by, the pendulum started moving more and more towards the skeptics.
And in 2017 Schimmack et al. writes:
Readers of “Thinking Fast and Slow” should not consider the presented studies as scientific evidence that subtle cues in their environment can have strong effects on their behavior outside their awareness.
In 2017 Kahneman replies and agrees.
I placed too much faith in underpowered studies
And he goes on:
I knew, of course, that the results of priming studies were based on small samples, that the effect sizes were perhaps implausibly large, and that no single study was conclusive on its own.
What impressed me was the unanimity and coherence of the results reported by many laboratories.
And then on the reasons why he fell for it:
However, I now understand that my reasoning was flawed
Unanimity of underpowered studies provides compelling evidence for the existence of a severe file-drawer problem.
Basically, Kahneman is saying here that scientific journals have been guilty of confirmation bias and skewed the results towards a major over-representation of social priming.
Priming as a general concept is true and works.
But subliminal social priming that changes our behavior is much less powerful than originally estimated.
I still believe that actions can be primed, sometimes even by stimuli of which the person is unaware.
There is adequate evidence for all the building blocks: semantic priming, significant processing of stimuli that are not consciously perceived, and ideo-motor activation.
I see no reason to draw a sharp line between the priming of thoughts and the priming of actions.
But that does not change the fact that subliminal priming in the form that Bargh showed in his original study might not exist at all.
Another issue with lexical priming is that available studies seem to show that it’s only very short-lived.
So it’s unlikely you could subliminally prime someone and visibly change their behavior in either the medium or long term.
#7. Facial Feedback Hypothesis
You probably heard this one from Tony Robbins and similar self-help gurus.
The “facial feedback hypothesis” says that if you force yourself to smile, you will become happier.
The original experiment in 1988 had research subjects hold a pen in their mouth while watching funny cartoons.
The subjects who held the pen rated the cartoons significantly funnier than the control groups.
From there, a whole host of implications mushroomed, including the idea that to be happy, you just need to force more smiles.
Why It’s Pop Psychology
A much larger study in 2016, failed to replicate the original findings.
The fact that the original study failed does not mean that body movement cannot change how we feel.
It’s indeed not only possible but likely that movement (or lack thereof) affects our mood in a multitude of ways.
The indictment here is for the original “facial feedback experiment”, not the whole idea of body movement.
So if you’re down don’t force yourself to smile, but do consider a walk in the green side of town.
Or, similar to the argument I make in “self-help myths“, asking yourself questions and forcing yourself to come up with positive answers will also work well (Senay Et Al., 2010).
And of course, as a sociologist, I can highly recommend this simple solution: people. People and positive relationships are the best things you can do for a happy life (Harvard researchers proved with the longest study of humans’ adult life).
#8. Growth Mindset
A growth mindset says that if you believe you can grow, you will seek and enjoy challenges and, as a consequence, you will grow and expand.
It’s a bit like a self-fulfilling prophecy and the opposite is also true: if you believe your traits are unchangeable you will avoid challenged and you will never grow and improve.
Neither Dweck’s TedX Talk nor her book “Mindset” were smash-hits among the general public, but they led to major investments and training in schools all around the world.
Why It’s Pop Psychology
Dweck’s suggests in her original paper that a growth mindset can be taught.
But Li and Bates’ effort failed to replicate Dweck’s initial results.
Carol Dweck replied that these experiments are difficult to run, thus hinting that Li and Bates lacked scientific rigor.
But I must agree with Nick Brown when he said that if experiments are so difficult to replicate, why does Dweck think pupils can easily learn a growth mindset from school teachers?
Carol Dweck’s woes run even deeper though.
Nick Brown went over the data and found out that:
- 17 out of 50 GRIM check inconsistencies in the means
- Several numbers were entered incorrectly into the report
- One participant was dropped without any mention of it
- Ambiguous scores were considered 0.5 (ie.: a mark between a 4 and 5 was counted as 4.5)
Sure, Brown said Dweck was exemplary in sharing her data and owning up to her mistakes and that makes Dweck honor.
But still, the doubts remain and Brown himself says he remains skeptical.
An equally troubling issue for Carol Dweck as a scientist is a 2016 paper which she titled: “What Predicts Children’s Fixed and Growth Intelligence Mind-Sets? Not Their Parents’ Views of Intelligence but Their Parents’ Views of Failure)”.
But when Dweck has been questioned about the mismatch between the title and the content, she replied:
We can see how the paper’s title could have been misleading. The paper itself never claims to compare the effect of parents’ attitudes to intelligence with their attitudes to failure and, most important, none of the key findings rest on this.
But I can’t help but wonder: if none of the paper’s key findings rest on what’s in the title and if the paper itself never actually deals with what the title says… Why the hell did she choose that title?
Again, Carol Dweck plays the good scientist and says she’s “seriously considering changing the title”.
But that only deepened my doubts about Carol Dweck.
Considering that all her success, grants and fame is based on the growth mindset and that she can charge speaking fees of between 30k and 50k, it’s only fair that we remain slightly doubtful.
Again, Carol Dweck swears that she’s not nearly motivated by financial rewards and she is about legacy and credibility.
But allow me to say, dear Dweck, that actions speak louder than words. And catchy titles, number fudging and sloganeering on books and TED Talks are not the actions of a scientist only motivated by truth.
Today I believe that Carol Dweck has dramatized the idea and the impact of a growth mindset.
And that includes both her titles and, possibly, “massaging her number”.
It’s a pity because I really looked up to Dweck as a serious, exemplary scientist.
However, that does not change the fact that a growth mindset does help people to grow.
My opinion is that the failures to replicate simply attest to the general difficulties of translating a growth mindset in measurable results in a short enough span of time.
But I personally have no doubts that a growth mindset has huge -and positive- impactful in our lives.
I see it in myself and I see it in the people around me. Not just in shying away from challenges, but I also see it in the excuses that fixed-mindset people feel compelled to do for what they see as their failures -and that’s just what the mindset theory would predict-.
#9. The 3:1 Happiness Ratio
Barbara Fredrickson and Marcial Losada are popular psychologists in the emerging -or shall we say “exploding”- field of positive psychology.
Martin Seligman, former APA president and best-selling author of “Flourish” went as far as to call her “the genius of the positive psychology movement”.
Of course, that does not say much to me from the moment I have noticed how much Seligman, Csikszentmihalyi, and Fredrickson enjoy cross-referencing each other.
Why It’s Pop Psychology
Well, this one is easy.
The “3:1 happiness ration” is wrong because the math behind makes no sense, as Brown’s paper shows.
The lack of relevance of these equations and their incorrect application lead us to conclude that Fredrickson and Losada’s claim to have demonstrated the existence of a critical minimum positivity ratio of 2.9013 is entirely unfounded.
And then they proceed as if they were schooling a child:
More generally, we urge future researchers to exercise caution in the use of advanced mathematical tools such as nonlinear dynamics and in particular to verify that the elementary conditions for their valid application have been met
What’s funny -or sad, depending on your point of view-, is that Losada was given the opportunity to reply in the same American Psychologist issue that Brown’s paper published on.
But he declined.
Frederickson did reply though, and he basically defended the overall concept while basically conceding the math might have been wrong (he removed it from future versions of his book as well).
Tipping point beyond which “flourishing” happens are highly unlikely, as Frederickson himself admitted.
And if there is a tipping point, how could one even generalize to a simple ratio?
How can you generalize without accounting for the severity of thoughts, for example?
Sure the negativity of “I want to kill myself to stop the pain” can’t be the same of “oh damn, I didn’t get 1st place this time”, right?
However, the jury is still out on whether the positives need to far outweigh the negative to be truly happy.
If Gottman’s work is of any help, then it’s possible that’s the case (Gottman famously found out that the ratio of positive to negative for a happy relationship is 5:1)
This is Angela Duckworth’s “achievement equation”, as taken by her best-selling book “Grit“:
Talent x Effort = Skill
Skill x Effort = Achievement
Nice, an “achievement equation” where effort plays the lion’s share and with Duckworth’s research to neatly back it up (or supposedly so as we shall see).
Self-help gurus loved it and jumped on it to help spread the positive message.
Duckworth made the most out of the opportunity and ran with it, collecting awards, delivering speeches and slam-dunking it with the mandatory TED talk:
Grit quickly became the next big hit in the self-help literature and went on to engorge the already large pool of self-help myths.
And while the concept of grit stands on much stronger ground than the “10.000-hour rule” we previously discussed, it still presents deep scientific challenges.
Why It’s Pop Psychology
Much of Angela Duckworth’s material for her concept of “grit” is based on her research at West Point.
There she found out that the “grittiest” cadets were the most likely to get through the course.
How more likely?
98% of the grittiest cadets made it through the extremely physically and mentally demanding tests (Duckworth stressed how tough it is).
And the rest?
95% of all cadets made it through.
Not such a big difference, is it?
She also found out that grit is highly correlated with conscientiousness though, which is one of the main criticism against her whole “grit” concept.
Crede commented that “grit” and “conscientiousness” are so closely interlinked that “grit” is a case of old wine in a new bottle.
And it might be more marketing than a true scientific breakthrough.
Duckworth later admitted that she likes to think of “grit” as a member of the conscientiousness family, but with its own predictive power.
But even that has been called into question.
Grit is Rebranded Conscientiousness (& Marketing)
The researchers of this meta-analysis of the grit literature pointed out that grit is, in essence, similar to other psychological traits that have already long been studied and researched.
Ph.D. psychologist Vitelli in Psychology Today expands on simple conscientiousness to also include industriousness, achievement need, and self-control.
With all these well-known psychological traits, was there a need to add “new” one?
Jordan Peterson, who after this Quora reply became a famous pundit himself and authored the best-seller “12 Rules For Life“, writes:
Duckworth failed to notice that they had re-invented a very well documented phenomena, that already had a name (and, when they did notice it, failed to produce the appropriate mea culpas. Not one of psychology’s brighter moments).
A physicists who “re-discovered” iron and named it melignite or something equivalent would be immediately revealed as ignorant or manipulative (or, more likely, as ignorant and manipulative), and then taunted out of the field.
Duckworth? She received a MacArthur Genius grant for her trouble.
It’s crooked psychology.
The problems do not end here for “grit” though:
Grit Does Not Replicate Well
Two different studies (with 213 students and 498 students) found conscientiousness to be highly predictive of results but not grit.
But most of all, a meta-study from 88 different and independent samples shows that grit is “is only moderately correlated with performance”.
Grit is Genetically Inherited (Not A Skill As Duckworth Sold It)
And finally, while much of the success behind the concept of “grit” stems from the idea that it defies “talent”, a recent study in the UK shows that grit might be a highly inheritable trait.
That is important because Duckworth sold her concept of “grit” as a skill you can work on while conscientiousness is considered in psychology a “trait”, meaning that it’s much harder to directly influence.
And we’re back to the chicken and the egg issue: nature or nurture?
Of course, all sensible people know that it’s not a real dichotomy but it’s both (Steven Pinker, 2012)
Personally, I loved the idea of grit as encompassing both passion and perseverance.
I still do, and I still believe that one should focus on staying power while at the same time finding what they really love.
But the hallmark of a good scientist is to always reconsider his own position in the light of new information and new evidence.
And albeit there are studies showing that grit is distinguishable from conscientiousness, the two are so similar that you really gotta wonder if it makes sense to talk about a different category.
Today, I believe that Duckworth oversold her findings (which is shameful).
And she plugged into the American ethos which loves the idea that “you can do anything if you really want it and work at it”.
But most of all, I believe that it’s an undeserving, kid-like game to pitch “IQ VS effort”.
It’s really useless, and unluckily it’s something that Duckworth herself encouraged as she is quoted in this New York Times interview saying that “grit beats the pants off I.Q.
Grit beats the pants off I.Q.
-A pop psychologist out for fame and TV appearances
Analyze if Persisting Makes Sense
As Bazelais notices on his own study which failed to replicate grit (Bazelais et al., 2016), tenacity might even be counter-productive when results are not coming.
At that point, you might be better off cutting your losses and moving on to something else.
Blindly following the ethos of “grit” might compound loss aversion bias to achieve even bigger… Losses.
Grit is important. It’s crucial. But should always be mixed with a critical analysis of your results.
What Should You Do?
What’s the solution?
I would recommend that you look for what you’re really passionate for and throw your best at anything you face.
Because, yes, working hard at what you like will help you work hard at it (and will also make you happier).
But also always evaluate your results critically because it’s not true that just by staying at it you’ll be successful.
And if it doesn’t work, maybe you can move to something you also like and which comes even easier for you.
Limitations of “Debunking” Articles
Articles and posts that purport to “debunk” scientific myths have sprung up around the web since the replication crisis has started.
I guess they pander to a sort of very human, iconoclastic pleasure of seeing former heavyweights crumble.
And of course, people love the power (and sense of superiority) that comes from being the guy who stands up and bellows “not true, that’s been proven wrong”.
Indeed I have noticed a trend where these types of “popular myths” articles are either heavily flawed or lead to flawed, black and white reactions that are not warranted by our current state of knowledge.
Scientists Don’t “Debunk” But Lead Us Forward
This article wants to serve a different audience.
As skeptics, intelligent and critical scientists we must understand to see the shades of grey, and not throw out the baby with the bad water.
So, for example, the fact that the “Stanford Experiment” is severely flawed does not mean that we people are not liable to be heavily influenced by social roles and the social environment.
Because we are.
And the fact that mirror neurons did not turn out to be the revolution that the early cheerleaders claimed does not mean they are not an important scientific discovery.
Because they are. And they will further enlighten us about the beautify of our own nature.
Do you see where I’m going?
Searching for truth is a continuous process of fine-tuning.
And yes, sometimes some pop-psychology myths must be completely abandoned. And that’s great: debunking false science also moves us forward.
But more times than not progress is more about correcting and improving than about fully discarding.
So let’s all focus on searching truth rather than just “debunking” and destroying.
Because that’s what good scientists do, and it’s a responsibility that we all share.
A great critical analysis of pop-science: