Researchers at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) have found that children think more highly of the naturally talented over hard workers, a preference that they carry into adulthood.
That is the case even in China, a culture that places effort above natural talent as people perceive the naturally talented as being more competent than those who work hard, according to a new study published in the journal Child Development.
Although children’s preference for naturals also generalizes to the perception of their friendliness and a willingness to interact with them, Chinese adults do not prefer naturals over hard workers except when considering competence, the study found.
The study was led by PhD candidate Mary Shaocong Ma under the supervision of Professor Eva E. Chen, adjunct associate professor of the Division of Social Science, HKUST, who collaborated with Professor Chia-Jung Tsay, associate professor at University College London and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Given the value we place on achievement, how we assess and perceive achievements matters. Our research implies an early-emerging hidden bias toward individuals with different achievement trajectories. Although natural talent and hard work are both considered essential ways to achieve, our findings suggest that people actually prefer talented naturals over hard workers, and this naturalness preference exists in childhood and endures into adulthood,” said Ma, who is currently also a visiting scholar at Harvard University.
“The bias can consequently impact children’s interactions with peers perceived as talented or hardworking as it can lead them to interact more with the naturally talented over hard workers. The apparent decrease of this preference with age also implies it may be more malleable than previously thought,” she added.
The naturalness bias refers to the implicit preference individuals have for naturals, who display inborn talent, over strivers, who expend effort to attain equal achievement.
For instance, in past studies led by Professor Tsay, when presented with the same musical performance, participants judged the performance and perceived the performer’s potential for success more highly if the musician was portrayed as a talented natural rather than as a hardworking striver. These patterns were also found in evaluations of entrepreneurs.
Although past research suggested a general preference for people who find success through talent, little was known about whether the naturalness preference is present at an early age.
In the present research, the team conducted two studies to examine the preference among approximately 350 adults and 300 children, specifically those aged between 5 and 6 years, in Mainland China, where traditional philosophies and social norms encourage hard work, the study writes.
In Study 1, participants were randomly assigned to two groups: In one group, participants heard a story about someone who had attained high skills in making friends from natural talent; while in the other group, participants heard the same story, except the person’s skill was attained through hard work. They then rated the person’s characteristics reflecting their competence (such as intelligence) and character warmth (such as friendliness). This design was intended to examine if participants perceived different levels of competence and warmth in naturals versus strivers, and whether any such perceptions differed by age.
In Study 2, participants were shown a natural and a striver. Then they indicated their behavioural preferences in a series of tasks that aimed to examine with whom participants preferred to interact more and to whom they preferred to allocate more resources.
“Our findings imply that parents and educators should guide children to properly view their own talent and effort and to understand that both talent and effort can contribute to an equal level of achievement. They should also guide their children to appreciate the competence and achievements of their peers who have achieved through different trajectories to promote an inclusive learning environment,” explained Ma.
Policymakers in education may also work to reduce the impact of the naturalness preference by fairly allocating resources to learners who exhibit different levels of innate abilities, she suggested.