By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

Practice may not make up for lack of innate ability

by in Fitness & Wellbeing, Research.

Argentine musician and composer Charly Garcia (C) jokes as he tries to play in a out of tune piano before a press conference in Montevideo on May 6, 2011.


Psychologist Zach Hambrick of Michigan State University conducted a study (released Monday) that upended an old saw: practice alone is not enough to make perfect.

Hambrick and colleagues analyzed 14 studies of chess players and musicians, and found that practice accounted for only about one-third of the differences in skill for both music and chess. Hambrick said that contributing factors to becoming an expert include innate ability and starting at an early age. This is not the first time Hambrick has looked into the subject; his previous research suggested that working memory capacity — tied to intelligence — plays a factor in excellence. In his 2002 research, published in the journal Cognitive Psychology, Hambrick and colleagues studied complex tasks such as piano sight reading, and found that people with higher levels of working memory capacity outperformed those with lower levels, even if the latter had extensive experience and knowledge of a task.

Hambrick’s findings contradict a lot of literature on the subject. To take one example among many, in a study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences in 2003, sports psychologists Angela Abbott and Dave Collins suggested that success in sports is more complex than ability versus practice and takes into account the psychology of the individual, different aspects of talent and possible practice systems. A 2007 Harvard Business Review article wrote that practice is vital to becoming an expert and concluded that even Mozart was not born an expert — he started playing the clavichord before the age of 4 and practiced constantly.

Hambrick’s study deepens the nature/nurture mystery; more studies need to be done to determine which, if any, is more important. Hambrick sees an important practical dimension here: “If people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities, they may gravitate toward domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.”