On Grit and Intelligence:

Perseverance is a principle that should be commendable in those who have judgment to govern it.  ~ Mark Twain

We value grit – perseverance in the face of challenges – in society. We say “never quit” and applaud those who persist despite adversity. American heroes pull themselves up from their bootstraps. Research suggests that there is truth behind such truisms and tales. Research shows that grittier individuals have greater success achieving important life goals that require commitment. They are more likely to graduate from school and hold onto their romantic relationships, for example, compared to those lower in grit.

Grit, Personality, and Resilience

As part of this movement to encourage resilience, we need to consider the limitations of grit and resilience. Even though grit scholars acknowledge there may be costs of being gritty, research has really only focused on its benefits.  I recently took up this challenge and found that there is a downside to grit. Grit can be viewed as a part of other personality facets like conscientiousness. Likewise, grit seems to be an essential part of resilience. Being resilient – bouncing back from setbacks – requiresperseverance and persistence when those setbacks occur. Because grit seems to breed success, efforts are being made to encourage grit and related virtues, especially from a young age.  Such training efforts are akin to programs that foster resilience likethose developed at OWLS. Of the 5 Cs of resilience, grit is most like Commitment.

As part of this movement to encourage resilience, we need to consider the limitations of grit and resilience. Even though grit scholars acknowledge there may be costs of being gritty, research has really only focused on its benefits. I recently took up this challenge and found that there is a downside to grit.

The Downside of Grit

Across several studies, we demonstrated that grittier individuals continued persisting to their detriment. In contrast, less gritty individuals were better able to figure out when to “cut their losses” and move on. For example, grit was associated with persisting longer at unsolvable puzzles when participants could have moved on to solvable ones.

This has real world consequences. Participants were paid more for success at our tasks, so grittier individuals who failed to move on earned less money.  This task was also designed to be analogous to timed tests like the SAT, where it behooves test takers to skip problems they are struggling with so there will be enough time for the ones they can solve. In our analog, grittier people failed to move on and therefore would have performed more poorly. Such an approach could hurt them on the SAT.

Discernment: Get More From Grit

Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water, though. Grit is great. It helps drive success in important areas like school and work, as well as interpersonal relationships. However, gritty individuals should take heed that blindperseverance could hinder their success. They should also consider strategy, just like on the SAT. When life gives you unsolvable problems, move on to solvable ones.

Our research also suggests that grittier people are more positive and optimistic when faced with losing propositions. Thus they might be more likely to misidentify an unsolvable problem as solvable, compared to their less gritty counterparts. Because of this positivity and optimism, gritty folks refuse to move on when they should. Taking a metered approach to estimating their chances might help gritty folks know better when to move on, thereby reducing sunk costs and wasted effort, increasing their success in life even further.

However, that could be easier said than done. Indeed, it’s often unclear whether a given problem is unsolvable, or if it would be solvable if you just stuck at it long enough. Although we can think strategically to try to identify “unsolvable problems” or those paths that would lead to failure, we only really know in hindsight, when everything is said and done. Only once the cat is out of Schrodinger’s proverbial box do we know which it will be: a success or failure.  As NPR journalist Shankar Vedantam poses in an interview with me on this subject: “is stubbornness just the name we give to grit when things turn out badly?”

This Blog authored by Dr. Gale Lucas, OWLS Director of Research

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