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Believing Hard Work Can Trump Genetics Makes a Difference

Believing Hard Work Can Trump Genetics Makes a Difference

Telling someone that hard work can improve or overcome God-given talent appears to be a winning formula, even if the original message may be a least partly incorrect.

Michigan State University researchers discovered when a person is told that hard work can override genetic ability, performing the work causes instant changes in the brain, and may make the person more willing to strive for success.

The findings suggest the human brain is more receptive to the message that intelligence comes from the environment, regardless of whether it’s true.

And this simple message, said Michigan State’s Hans Schroder, may ultimately prompt us to work harder.

“Giving people messages that encourage learning and motivation may promote more efficient performance,” said Schroder, a doctoral student in clinical psychology whose work is funded by the National Science Foundation.

“In contrast, telling people that intelligence is genetically fixed may inadvertently hamper learning.”

In past research by Stanford University psychologist Dr. Carol Dweck, elementary students performing a task were either praised for their intelligence (“You’re so smart!”) or for their effort (“You worked really hard!”) after correct responses.

As the task became harder, children in the first group performed worse after their mistakes compared to the group that had heard effort was important.

The MSU study, which appears online in the journal Biological Psychology, offers what could be the first physiological evidence to support those findings, in the form of a positive brain response.

“These subtle messages seem to have a big impact, and now we can see they have an immediate impact on how the brain handles information about performance,” Schroder said.

For the study, two groups of participants read different articles. One article reported that intelligence is largely genetic, while the other said the brilliance of da Vinci and Einstein was “probably due to a challenging environment. Their genius had little to do with genetic structure.”

Participants were instructed to remember the main points of the article and completed a simple computer task while their brain activity was recorded. The findings, in a nutshell:

  • The group that read intelligence was primarily genetic paid more attention to their responses, as if they were more concerned with their performance. This extra attention, however, did not relate to performance on trials after errors, suggesting a disconnect between brain and behavior;
  • In contrast, those who had read that intelligence was due to a challenging environment showed a more efficient brain response after they made a mistake, possibly because they believed they could do better on the next trial;
  • The more attention these participants paid to mistakes, the faster their responses were on the next trial.

Researchers believe the importance of the study is the understanding that feedback about the nature of abilities people are exposed to on a regular basis — from a teacher comforting a student (“It’s OK, not everyone can be a math person”) to the sports announcer commenting on a player’s skill (“Wow, what a natural!”) — can make a significant difference.

These messages are thought to contribute to the attitudes or “mindsets” people hold about their intelligence and abilities, said Schroder.

Source: Michigan State University

Teacher encouraging a student photo by shutterstock.

Believing Hard Work Can Trump Genetics Makes a Difference

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Believing Hard Work Can Trump Genetics Makes a Difference. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 4 Sep 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.