Grit and Galton: Is psychological research into traits inherently problematic?

Is all psychological research on individual differences racist?

Can psychologists ever separate our shameful past of scientific racism from the methods, techniques and questions that have grown from it?

A recent post criticizing the concept of “grit” (and Angela Duckworth, the researcher responsible for its popularization) made me consider these questions. While grit might be a specific research topic in psychology, it offers a useful case study in how findings in psychology get applied to education and policy settings.

The author of the post in question, Lauren Anderson, an education professor at Connecticut College, recounts discovering that Duckworth was awarded a MacArthur genius grant, and was disturbed as she read more about the roots of grit. From reading the research statement on Duckworth’s website, Anderson sees only one scholar mentioned in the first paragraph: Francis Galton, the father of eugenics.

With that, Anderson lays out what is essentially a guilt-by-association set of questions about the connection between Duckworth and Galton:

“What are we to make of a 2013 “genius” award winner quoting unproblematically the ‘founding father’ of eugenics in the opening paragraph of her research statement, even as her research engages young people of color?”

First, I am going to fully defend Duckworth herself, and any researchers of individual differences (who are also painted as “problematic” with this broad brush). But second, I am going to return to Anderson’s perspective, and try to see how it reflects neither ill-intentioned character assassination, nor intellectual laziness, but rather disciplinary differences, and a split between how people define science.

For the defense: here is Duckworth’s opening paragraph of the research statement:

The Duckworth Lab focuses on two traits that predict success in life: grit and self-control. Grit is the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals. Self-control is the voluntary regulation of behavioral, emotional, and attentional impulses in the presence of momentarily gratifying temptations or diversions. On average, individuals who are gritty are more self-controlled, but the correlation between these two traits is not perfect: some individuals are paragons of grit but not self-control, and some exceptionally well-regulated individuals are not especially gritty. While we haven’t fully worked out how these two traits are related, it seems that an important distinction has to do with timescale: As Galton (1892) suggested, the inclination to pursue especially challenging aims over months, years, and even decades is distinct from the capacity to resist “the hourly temptations,” pursuits which bring momentary pleasure but are immediately regretted.

It is clear that Duckworth’s work focuses on traits. There is a great deal of modern research on personality psychology that focuses on individual differences in traits. Some people are shy, some people are outgoing, some people are messy, others are fastidious. The research questions are often framed as Duckworth does above. Are there fundamental and relatively stable personality traits? How are they related? How is shyness related to introversion? What kinds of future behavior can personality models predict? Here, in Duckworth’s opening paragraph, Galton is quoted with a very specific claim: there are two kinds of self-control, separated by time scale. One is the ability to resist an immediate momentary pleasure, and another that helps one to pursue a goal over years and decades. What makes Jiro dream of sushi, while some college students dream of pizza and video games?

But much of the research on traits began with white male researchers that were avowed racists. Galton is but one, there is Karl Pearson, a mathematician, pioneer of statistics, and one who saw eugenics as a natural outgrowth of his work on measurement and analysis of individual differences:

“History shows me one way, and one way only, in which a high state of civilization has been produced, namely, the struggle of race with race, and the survival of the physically and mentally fitter race. If you want to know whether the lower races of man can evolve a higher type, I fear the only course is to leave them to fight it out among themselves, and even then the struggle for existence between individual and individual, between tribe and tribe, may not be supported by that physical selection due to a particular climate on which probably so much of the Aryan’s success depended.”

And many of the early trait researchers also did research on individual differences in cognitive ability (or intelligence), which was also often bound up in racism. But does this mean that all trait research is stained? Was eugenics itself a bad seed, as it were, leading to an infected tree of modern trait research?

Absolutely not. If Galton said that some people are more shy than others, would shyness researchers be prohibited from “unproblematically” citing him? Of course not. Galton invented the dog whistle, and we don’t see any racist undertones with that. What’s more, we don’t condemn the transistor simply because its co-inventor, William Shockley, used the credibility granted by his Nobel Prize in Physics in 1956 to embark on an effort to apply the science of intelligence to improving human population through eugenics.

In reading Duckworth’s research statement, Anderson bemoans the “familiar-sounding narrative deployed to rationalize a turn toward individualistic, “objective measures.” But instead, she is simply reading about the existence of an area of psychology research into individual differences, whether they be neuroticism, intelligence, shyness or openness. Of course people are affected by the environments they were raised in and the situation they currently find themselves in. But individual differences exist, and studying them and invoking those who have studied them in the past, does not make one a racist. This is not a “turn toward individualistic objective measures” but an effort to study the dimensions of how people are different from each other. A complete disavowal of the role of individual differences plants us in another moment in psychology’s past, with Watson, Skinner and radical behaviorism, which of course has its own successes, failures, and interesting utopian theories.

Now I am going to step back a moment and consider why Anderson might have seen grit and Galton as problematic, but also the way in which I can agree that the application of the science of grit can actually be racist, even if the science itself is not. As I see it, Anderson sees Galton’s theories as far more coherent than any modern psychologist, including Duckworth, would. She seems to ascribe special meaning to the fact that the quoted section of Galton comes from a book which also has a section on the comparative worth of different races. If one sees Galton as a theorist, as a scientist devoted to forming a coherent, unifying, comprehensive view of human psychology, then each thread is connected to every other thread. Pull on the self-control thread long enough, you will see that it is connected to racist ideology.

However, this is clearly not how many modern psychologists treat Galton, or many of our other pioneers. They made a set of observations, sometimes connected to a theory, sometimes not. Pull on the dog whistle thread, and what do you get? A better understanding of the limits of the human ear, and how it ages. That’s it. For a unified theory of self-control, we might have to include some of Galton’s observations, but also Julian Rotter, Albert Bandura, Walter Miscel, Carol Dweck or Ellen Langer among many others. Put simply, we don’t have a model of how traits, attitudes, beliefs and situations interact. It is too complicated. Simply because we have a lack of a unified theory of human behavior does not mean that psychology isn’t a science. We do have sets of observations on ways in which each of these matter. The person matters, but so does the situation.

So where do I agree with Anderson? Duckworth has collected data showing that

For example, in prospective longitudinal studies, grit predicts final ranking at the Scripps National Spelling Bee, persistence at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and graduation from Chicago public high schools over and beyond standardized achievement test scores; likewise, self-control predicts report card grades and improvements in report card grades over time better than measured intelligence

So one’s success in these school situations (and spelling bees) is due more to what we might call “non-cognitive” factors (things that are not measured by traditional intelligence tests) than by cognitive ability. So at least within these contexts, hard work works. Of course, intelligence tests still do explain some variation (it helps to have high cognitive ability) but non-cognitive factors explain more. But we shouldn’t stop there.

I agree with Anderson that we should be careful and skeptical about applying these findings to school policy settings. Because if we take “hard work works” too far, it becomes a just-world fallacy, and blames those who haven’t succeeded for not working hard enough. If Sally wins the Spelling Bee because she was grittier than Tommy, then does one school succeed because it is better at imparting grit? Do schools fail because they don’t successfully transmit grit? Of course it isn’t that simple, nor would Duckworth say it is. She is interested in her little piece of the causes of success. This does not mean that she thinks social structures doesn’t exist, or poverty doesn’t exist, or racism doesn’t exist, just that she is studying something else. The problem becomes when school policy tilts to far in one direction, ignoring others. Students need more practice reading? Skip recess. I’m sorry, but reading researchers are not responsible for short-sighted school administrators who think that 1st graders don’t need recess every day.

Research psychologists such as Duckworth would do well to understand the context (and yes, the narratives) that can drive public acceptance and promotion of their science. But equally, policymakers and interpreters of psychological science should seek to situate the scientific evidence within both its scientific context as well as its social and institutional context. The existence and power of traits does not deny the power of situational and motivational context.

I’ll close with a quote from TaNehisi Coates, which Paul Thomas (see an excellent post here on separating the grit narrative from grit research) saw as relating to grit:

There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society. The black freedom struggle is not about raising a race of hyper-moral super-humans. It is about all people garnering the right to live like the normal humans they are.

I would rephrase Coates’ distinction between superhuman African-Americans and basic justice. Personality and individual difference researchers might be interested in what makes African-Americans (or any other human beings) different from each other, not necessarily superhuman. I agree that it is terrible advice for creating an equitable society, but I am ok with scientists studying things that don’t necessarily and immediately lead to an equitable society. I find fault with policymakers, who should be in the business of improving social equity (and justice), but instead act as if they can’t because people are different from one another. Policymakers should not seek to improve (or blame) individuals, but rather focus on improving their social circumstances. Duckworth is not in charge of healthy school lunches, or equal resources across schools, or improving teachers working conditions, nor would she deny that these things matter. Duckworth and fellow psychological researchers should be free to investigate the vast diversity of influences on human behavior, including cognitive ability, self control and other traits, but school officials and policy makers shouldn’t act as if grit is a magic bullet.

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in education, psychology, research, science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Grit and Galton: Is psychological research into traits inherently problematic?

  1. Pingback: NPR Whitewashes “Grit” Narrative | the becoming radical

  2. Ira Socol says:

    I completely disagree in terms of using Galton, and especially in using Galton’s philosophy, which I will argue Duckworth does. There are ways to quote people like Galton – especially on fingerprint analysis – but Duckworth does not do that.

  3. katiestrom says:

    As any scholar should know, you position yourself by citing certain work–from the reader’s perspective, those are your influences. For example, if I talk about teaching and cite Paulo Freire and Michael Apple, even if I don’t give much detail, people will most likely understand that I am positioning myself in a critical theory/pedagogy framework and thus hold particular views about teaching and education as a system. On the other hand, if I am discussing teaching and cite Doug Lemov (“Teach Like a Champion”) people will probably understand that I come from a more technicist view of teaching that is associated with the accountability movement. So from a scholarly point of view, I concur with Lauren that by invoking Galton she is, at a minimum, inviting questions about her positionality and that of her research.

    • Cedar Riener says:

      This is exactly the point I am making. As far as I can tell, in citing a specific claim in science, you are not positioning yourself at all. The history of science is littered with men (yes, true, mostly men) of questionable judgment, morals and even philosophy and world views. That doesn’t stop them from occasionally having an interesting insight that is worth attributing to them.
      I don’t think this is a scholarly point of view, but one that is more grounded in the humanities than in the sciences.

  4. Rachel Levy says:

    I’m glad you decided to write about this–your POV is a valuable and relevant one. However, I don’t think you spelled out well enough the dangers of the misapplication or should I say mis-generalization of Duckworth’s research. For example you wrote,

    “Now I am going to step back a moment and consider why Anderson might have seen grit and Galton as problematic, but also the way in which I can agree that the application of the science of grit can actually be racist, even if the science itself is not.”

    But you didn’t actually show how the application of the science of grit can be racist or even specifically problematic in current ed policy decisions and fashions. In fact, the bigger problem I’d say (besides that the grit narrative is being justified by grit research) is not that the application of the science of grit narrative is necessarily blatantly racist but that grit research is being used to ignore racism and poverty, to discount them, and absolve our society and decision makers of doing much of anything about them. I can just see our wonderful Congressman saying, “Hey, there’s not a problem with racism; there’s a problem with grit. But don’t worry, KIPP’s got it solved.”

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