LONDON: A friend plays online chess every day. For nearly 15 years, he has been a member of a fiendishly competitive anonymous global club, where anyone can challenge anyone else to a game.
When he described how the club organises itself, it struck me as a prime example of a modish US academic theory about the differences between those who succeed and those who fail.
In the chess club, status is earned, and only by a high average score. If my friend accepts a challenge and wins, his score rises. If he loses it falls. If they reach stalemate, his and his opponent’s scores still fall, but not by so much.
Some members, including my friend, persist with a game to the bitter end, even when it is clear that they will lose, but in order to pursue stalemate. Others “resign” as soon as they sense defeat, even when there is an opportunity to draw and mitigate the damage.
When his opponent resigns, my friend wins, but he still finds these encounters frustrating: Why don’t these lazy players push for stalemate and salvage at least part of their score?
Very likely it is because they lack grit.
ABILITY TO PUSH THROUGH
In her 2016 book of the same name, Professor Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, set out a popular-science theory backed by solid research.
Grit is essentially self-control, the ability to push through setbacks and difficulties.
In a series of controlled experiments she established that this elusive quality trumps natural talent as a predictor of who was likely to succeed and who would not. It was as true for those entering military training as it was for high-school students studying maths.
So persuasive was the grit research that a group of 47 academics from around the world are about to take it further. They include the behavioural economist Richard Thaler who last year won the Nobel memorial prize in economics.
In her 2016 TED talk — watched nearly 14 million times — Prof Duckworth explains that what she didn’t know then was whether grit was fixed, or whether it could be taught. This year’s project will try to find out, in what is being billed as the largest social science experiment in academic history.
“It’s a series of mega studies, an extension of Angela’s work,” says Professor Katherine Milkman, a behavioural economist at the Wharton School of Business, one of the academics involved.
“We know a lot, but not as much as we would like to. This is a massive systematic effort to focus on the science of behaviour change.”
Profs Duckworth and Milkman are using push notifications and micro-rewards to test the theory that grit can be cultivated in gym goers to stop them slacking off. But Prof Milkman says the findings will be applicable across a range of wider social problems — from persuading people to build savings to encouraging high-school students to study harder.
What they know already is that people often give up because rewards are delayed. If we want to lose weight, exercise takes months to deliver what we desire. Prof Milkman says “temptation bundling” has been shown to help — only watching favourite TV shows on treadmills, for example. Rewards can be enough to sustain habits.
GRIT COULD HELP SUCCESS
It is a big project. “We need huge data sets to figure out what works,” says Prof Milkman.
Critics will rightly point out that all this grit theory emphasises individual responsibility over systemic problems that defeat even the most determined people.
If individuals do not save money, perhaps they are not paid enough and the cost of living is too high. If children in US public schools are failing at maths, perhaps the problem is high teacher turnover rates. To what extent can all this grit-building compensate for dire circumstances such as poverty?
Prof Milkman acknowledges this: “We don’t think (a lack of grit) is the only barrier to success, but we do think it can help. No part of us does not recognise systemic problems. We are hoping that this is low-hanging fruit.” In other words, grit building may help while we wait for policymakers.
The academics will report within a year. Until then, my gritty chess-playing friend is taking advantage of his competitors’ willingness to slack off from difficult games. Until they find a way to reward themselves for pushing through a losing match, he is winning every time.
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