Study on Army cadets suggests "grit" matters more than previously thought

"We need to move beyond this aptitude myopia."

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How important are grit, perseverance, and effort when it comes to success? A new study has revealed it’s more important than one might think. To survive and thrive, grit may be just as critical to success as are more conventional predictors, like grades and education level.

Research on more than 11,000 military cadets at West Point, the United States military academy, through four grueling years, clarifies grit’s role in reaching goals, as well as other non-cognitive factors like physical ability.

The scientists came to this new finding about grit’s importance by measuring the following three attributes:

  • Cognitive ability, defined as the “ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience”
  • Physical ability, measured by how fast, strong, and physically capable a cadet was.
  • Grit, defined as the “passion and perseverance for long-term goals of personal significance.”

The team analyzed the data of 11,258 cadets over ten years. What they found was surprising: Cognitive ability was negatively related to physical ability and grit. In other words, the more cognitive ability the cadets had, the less physically able, or “gritty,” they were.

While cognitive ability predicted academic and military grades, cadets’ physical ability and grit predicted whether or not they completed their initiation training and whether they graduated from West Point at all.

The research was published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Famously, West Point cadet training kicks off with six weeks of “Beast Barracks — tasks designed to push the students to their physical and mental limits — and that’s just the beginning. The academy is a unique testing ground for examining success and failure.

West Point cadets are high-achieving and withstand tremendous pressure during their time at the academy. How they survive and thrive at West Point offers lessons for other fields and industries.

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Michael Matthews, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors and a professor at West Point, says that it’s a “mix of cognitive and non-cognitive skills that predict success,” but the secret ingredients to anyone’s success depends on what, exactly, you want to achieve.

“We need to move beyond this aptitude myopia to fully developing a scientific understanding of these other attributes — how to measure them and therefore understand the impact they have on human success,” he tells Inverse.

While intelligence matters, less-studied noncognitive factors like passion and perseverance may be the secret sauce for success.

The Power of Grit

The study builds on years of research by Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., professor at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Duckworth and Matthews have been studying West Point cadets for over a decade.

"Success requires talent, but also tenacity, research shows.”

In a 2007 study, they discovered a surprising connection between grit and achievement across different hyper-competitive groups of people:

Talent isn’t enough; sustained and focused application of that talent is what truly matters.

In this new 2019 study, the researchers looked at cadet performance across their time at West Point, from arrival to departure from the academy. West Point admission records provided cadet scores on standard academic tests. They also included results of the Candidate Fitness Assessment, which every West Point applicant must complete. The cadets then completed a 12-point test known as the “grit scale,” in their first week of training. They then looked at the cadets’ data on initiation completion, graduation, and grade point averages (GPAs) to get a sense of the students’ academic, military, and physical performance during their time at West Point.

Grit seems to enable people to keep performing when the going gets tough, the findings suggest.

Ultimately, both cognitive and non-cognitive traits matter in different ways and at different times, the authors say.

“The lesson is that the constellation or combination of cognitive and non-cognitive attributes that predict success are going to vary as a function of what you’re trying to predict,” Matthews says.

Beyond West Point

The research team may have seen different results in a different setting. The secrets to success may be quite different at a law firm or in a graduate program, for example.

“In the military context, the physical attributes may account for a larger share of variance than they might in other pursuits like being a professor. It doesn’t matter if I can lift 30 pounds or 300 pounds,” Matthews explains. “It is a very physical path to go out and be soldiers. Every soldier is essentially a professional athlete without an off season.”

Cadets’ training is about persistence and nothing to do with IQ. It’s about grit, Matthews says.

The cliche "never give up" might actually be the key to success -- but only in certain situations.

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How to boost or build grit is unclear. There’s likely a lot of social learning and reinforcement from parents and peers that play a role as children grow up, Matthews says. “The environment and experience you have as a child — in school, and in your formative years — are instrumental in developing this, ‘Never say die, never quit attitude,’” he says.

And while a military academy might seem a world away from most people’s daily life, Matthews says the research does have relevance for the other, less extreme obstacles most people face in their everyday lives.

How we respond to obstacles — and failure — shapes our likelihood of future success. Failing fast and applying lessons learned will keep us on a positive upswing rather than lead us down a path of persistent failure, a separate study published last week Nature suggests.

“Challenges have a way of finding us. By virtue of being human-being, we will have epochs of our life where we’re highly challenged,” Matthews says. “West Point becomes a kind of laboratory for learning how individuals come to succeed under these trying circumstances. The circumstances could be different for you or me, but the psychological impact of the trials and tribulations might be similar.”

When predicting success, how important are personal attributes other than cognitive ability? To address this question, we capitalized on a full decade of prospective, longitudinal data from n =11,258 cadets entering training at the US Military Academy at West Point. Prior to training, cognitive ability was negatively correlated with both physical ability and grit. Cognitive ability emerged as the strongest predictor of academic and military grades, but noncognitive attributes were more prognostic of other achievement outcomes, including successful completion of initiation training and 4-y graduation. We conclude that noncognitive aspects of human capital deserve greater attention from both scientists and practitioners interested in predicting real-world success.
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