People Favor Naturals Over Strivers—Even Though They Say Otherwise

This article originally appeared in the Harvard Business Review and was published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

Our society is deeply conflicted about the source of excellence. On one hand, we are fascinated with child prodigies, portraying them as wonders of nature. On the other hand, we love a good “overcoming adversity” story, as it inspires us all to greatness.

But when it comes down to actually making judgments about individual performance, what influences our evaluations? Previous research has found that the potential to be good at something often carries more weight than actually being good at it. But why is this so?

One of us (Chia-Jung) conducted a study in 2011 with Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, presenting 103 participants with written descriptions of two classical musicians. One musician was described as having inborn ability (the “natural”), whereas the other musician was described as having worked hard to develop her ability (the “striver”). Then the participants listened to an audio recording of a performance attributed to each individual and were told to evaluate each performer on a variety of important dimensions of musical achievement. The recordings actually presented the same performer and the same musical composition—the only difference was the background story attributed to each audio sample.

On one hand, we are fascinated with child prodigies, portraying them as wonders of nature. On the other hand, we love a good “overcoming adversity” story, as it inspires us all to greatness.

Although people stated that training was more important than talent, their ratings showed that they preferred the natural over the striver. This preference for the “natural” also increased with level of expertise: Compared to a group of novice volunteers, professional musicians were more likely to rate the audio sample with the natural backstory as higher quality than the audio sample with the striver backstory.

But that’s just music—maybe musicians are particularly likely to prefer naturals, even though musical skills, technique, and achievement are often the result of many hours of grueling, deliberate practice. Other domains may be less interested in prodigies and more focused on those who achieve success through hard work and repeated effort. For example, in a separate survey, Tsay found that people were much more likely to attribute entrepreneurial achievement to striving and motivation, in contrast with our findings about musical achievement.

So in a follow-up study published this year, Tsay focused on entrepreneurship. Prior reviews have found that effort and experience are highly valued in management. Tsay randomly assigned participants to read profiles of either a “natural” or a “striver” entrepreneur. All details of the profiles were identical except for certain descriptions of the entrepreneur’s ability, effort, and experience. For example, the natural’s skills were noted from the very beginning, whereas the striver’s identical skills were attributed to experience. Participants then listened to a one-minute audio recording of the entrepreneur’s business proposal.

The same recording was used for both groups. The only difference was whether participants were led to believe that the entrepreneur’s background consisted of innate talent or hard work. The participants then rated the entrepreneur and the entrepreneur’s business proposal on dimensions including perceived talent, likelihood of success, participants’ willingness to hire the entrepreneur, skill demonstrated in the business pitch, and participants’ willingness to invest in the company.

As in the music study, participants preferred the natural entrepreneur to the striver, judging the business proposal attributed to natural talent to be higher quality than the very same proposal when it was attributed to effort. Tsay ran the study again with a broader range of domain experts and found that compared to novices, entrepreneurs who served as founders or investors tended to favor natural entrepreneurs over strivers. Those who had experience working with entrepreneurial firms seemed to be particularly susceptible to the naturalness bias.

Of particular interest to us was that when participants were asked to describe how they made their decisions, they listed a large number of factors: the entrepreneur’s confidence, passion, and trustworthiness, the presentation, the business proposal, the industry, the market, and even the evaluators’ own intuition. Only 7.3 percent of the participants explicitly recognized that they were considering the source of achievement in their evaluations of the business proposal. But even when they did, significantly more participants made reference to striving as influencing their decisions.

The naturalness bias has substantial costs that we fail to consciously recognize: Experts were willing to give up 4.52 years of leadership experience, 8.95 percent in management skills, 28.30 points in IQ, and $39,143 in accrued capital to invest in a “natural” entrepreneur.

But at what cost would investors pass over a highly accomplished entrepreneur in favor of one who had achieved less but was perceived as a natural? How much do they value potential over experience? To quantify this trade-off, Tsay used a statistical technique called “conjoint analysis,” which teases apart the attributes that matter most in decisions and the attributes people are willing to give up.

Tsay gave 18 pairs of entrepreneur profiles to 294 participants. Each profile differed on five attributes. Four of the attributes were presented as objective indicators of performance: leadership performance, management skills, IQ, and past record of investor capital raised. The fifth dimension was the source of achievement: naturalness or striving. The participants were told to choose which of each pair of entrepreneurs they would invest in for a new business, and then they rated how important each attribute was for their decisions. The profiles were randomly generated, so any potential alignment between objective metrics (e.g., higher IQ) with the natural or the striver emerged by chance.

Consistent with the earlier findings, 58 percent of the participants preferred the natural over the striver entrepreneur—even though in a pretest, people were significantly more likely to choose motivation and hard work alone, rather than innate talent alone, as the most important ingredient for entrepreneurial achievement. What’s more, this pattern emerged even when the profiles included cases where entrepreneurs who were described as strivers actually possessed qualities that indicated greater success in the past and a higher likelihood of success in the future.

Tsay quantified this naturalness bias by calculating the relative importance of the different attributes. She found that people were more willing to select the natural even if it resulted in the hiring of a less-qualified individual. Novices were willing to give up 4.47 years of leadership experience, 8.07 percent in management skills, 30.17 points in IQ, and $31,279 in accrued capital to invest in a “natural” entrepreneur. Likewise, experts were willing to give up 4.52 years of leadership experience, 8.95 percent in management skills, 28.30 points in IQ, and $39,143 in accrued capital to invest in a “natural” entrepreneur. Clearly, the naturalness bias has substantial costs that we fail to consciously recognize.

Despite our willingness to lose out on skill, experience, and even capital, perhaps choosing the natural over the striver will lead to greater long-term returns on the investment. Perhaps the natural can more easily develop new capabilities or adapt to new scenarios. This belief is seen in other fields, such as sports and art. Indeed, there is research suggesting that some of the greatest leaders, composers, and psychologists have been those who took the least amount of time to acquire the relevant expertise.

But here’s the thing: Both talent and effort seem to be relevant to skill development and eventual levels of performance, and we should not assume that talent is necessarily less malleable than effort, or vice versa. Of course, we aren’t proposing that one should necessarily choose the striver over the natural. These studies suggest that when we judge performance through the lens of naturalness, we are likely to inflate our evaluations and actually sacrifice the objective quality of work that we select. Our naturalness bias may lead us away from supporting and encouraging those who do not appear to be naturals but are just as capable. Clearly, this is not an optimal choice, and it’s one that we would be unlikely to make consciously.

Much more work is necessary to figure out how we can minimize this bias. For now, we can turn to past research on a broader range of biases for possible solutions. For example, organizations can use tangible, clearly defined metrics to assess people. Instead of asking managers to identify the “best” or the “most accomplished” individual, leaders should provide specific guidelines that align with what the organization really cares about, whether that is demonstrated skill at valued tasks, certain minimum levels of experience, or various interpersonal qualities. And on an individual level, being more mindful of the difference between what we say we value and what we actually value when making hiring or other decisions can go a long way.