To be great, it may take more than practice

MICHIGAN STATE (US) — Can practice, practice, practice alone produce greatness? New research finds working memory capacity may be the deciding factor between being good or being great.

The concept runs counter to previous arguments such as those from Malcom Gladwell of the New Yorker and David Brooks of the New York Times that argue intelligence plays a role in greatness—but only to a point. Beyond that, they say, it’s all about practice.

In a series of studies, researchers found that people with higher working memory capacity, which is closely related to general intelligence, outperformed those with lower levels—and even in individuals with extensive experience and knowledge of the task at hand. The studies analyzed complex tasks such as piano sight reading.

“While the specialized knowledge that accumulates through practice is the most important ingredient to reach a very high level of skill, it’s not always sufficient,” says Zach Hambrick, associate professor of psychology at Michigan State University.

“Working memory capacity can still predict performance in complex domains such as music, chess, science, and maybe even in sports that have a substantial mental component such as golf.”

“A person with a 150 IQ is in theory much smarter than a person with a 120 IQ, but those additional 30 points produce little measurable benefit when it comes to lifetime success,” Brooks writes in The Social Animal.

“David Brooks and Malcolm Gladwell are simply wrong,” Hambrick says. “The evidence is quite clear: A high level of intellectual ability puts a person at a measurable advantage—and the higher the better.”

Intelligence has both genetic and environmental origins, Hambrick says, yet “for a very long time we have tried and failed to come up with ways to boost people’s intelligence.

“The jury’s still out on whether you can improve your general intelligence,” he adds. “We hold out hope that cognitive training of some sort may produce these benefits. But we have yet to find the magic bullet.”

Hambrick co-authored the paper, published in  Current Directions in Psychological Science, with Elizabeth Meinz of Southern Illinois University.

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