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The one about the Talent Bias: Studies every teacher needs to know

The one about the Talent Bias: Studies every teacher needs to know

3 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • The science of learning

Why this study

What are we more in awe of; natural ability or hard work? A lot of people in education and sport claim to really value the importance of persistence and resilience, but are we all secretly holding a ‘natural talent bias?’

To find out, researchers from Harvard University ran a study where they played two pieces of music to members of an orchestra. The first, they were told, was described as ‘a natural’ who had early evidence of innate ability. The second, was labelled as a ‘striver’ as they had demonstrated high levels of motivation and determination.

In reality, both pieces of music were from the same professional musician. The participants in the study then had to rate which sounded better, which would have a better career and who would they choose to join their orchestra.

The main findings

  1. Despite hearing music from the same musician, the participants in the study rated the ‘natural’ as more talented, more likely to be successful, and the better choice to join their orchestra than the ‘striver’.
  2. At the start of the experiment, the participants had stated that hard work and training were essential for a musician to succeed. This view was endorsed more by the expert musicians. However, the expert musicians were found to be more impressed by the ‘natural’ musician than their less experienced counterparts.
  3. When given the choice of who they would like to hear play again, the experts went for the ‘natural’ and rated their ability higher.

Related research on Talent Bias

Often people seek evidence to prove their opinion, rather than using evidence to form an opinion. Psychologist refer to this as ‘confirmation bias’. One study examining this had students observe a lesson of a supply teacher. Half the students had read a biography of the teacher which included how they were known to be ‘cold’. The other students read the exact same description but the word ‘cold’ was replaced with ‘warm’. Sure enough, students who had been primed to think of the teacher in a certain way were more likely to rate their lesson as such.

This confirmation bias can be overcome by removing the potential to be primed by irrelevant information. For example, evidence suggests that holding blind auditions helps improve the selection process by removing any subconscious biases.

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Classroom implications of Talent Bias

This study has interesting implications for how people view talent. As the authors of the study note, “almost as complex as talent itself is the ability to recognise it”. If people are seduced by natural talent, then those who evidence early signs of higher ability may be singled out for special attention. This is problematic, especially when you consider a recent piece of research showed that doing well in primary school is closely linked to the date of the month someone is born in. It is also worth noting that this effect almost completely disappears by the time students leave high school.

Another issue that this study raises is how we help people subsequently develop their skills. If we say we value hard work and effort but then in reality value natural ability, will this message be picked up by students? Will this mean they are less likely to put in hard work and demonstrate resilience if they believe that it makes little difference, as they will always be behind their more ‘naturally talented’ peers?

This study is from our book, “The Science of Learning: 99 studies that every teacher needs to know”.

Reference: Tsay et al, 2011. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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