Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-term Goals

Review by Claudia Thompson, Associate Professor of Psychology, The College of Wooster

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007).  Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals,  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.

In a series of six studies, Duckworth and colleagues reported on their investigation of the validity of a non-cognitive factor they called grit, a trait showing stable individual differences in long-term achievement.  The goal of these studies was to determine how well GRIT could predict long-term success, independent of and at least equally well as talent or skill (which Duckworth et al. acknowledge is also important).  In addition, GRIT was assessed for its relationship to other personality variables, including especially Conscientiousness among the Big Five Personality dimensions (extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism), and for its ability to predict long-term achievement beyond that predicted by Conscientiousness, self-control, IQ, and other constructs of individual differences.

Study 1 involved the development of a GRIT Scale with face validity and internal consistency, comprised, on the basis of factor analyses, two components of grit:

  • sustained and intense interest in an endeavor (passion), and
  • long-term, focused effort (perseverance).

However, the results of Study 1 involved subjective self-report by participants answering the GRIT Scale, with the possibility of social desirability bias as well as biases of retrospection in their reports.  Therefore, Studies 2 through 6 involved objective measures of intensity and duration of interest and effort, as well as objective assessments of a variety of independent variables measuring achievement.

In Study 2 GRIT was correlated with age and Conscientiousness, yet still showed greater predictive validity than age, Conscientiousness or any of the other four dimensions of the Big Five.  Study 3 showed that GRIT among undergraduate students at an elite university was correlated strongly with GPA, although not with entering SAT scores.  SAT scores are proposed as a measure of general intellectual ability, a questionable assumption; yet, the results do show that intense and sustained commitment to academic studies (GRIT) were better predictors of academic success (GPA) than was SAT.  The authors suggest that those with lower SAT scores might compensate by working harder and with more determination to succeed.

Studies 4 and 5 focused on the retention of West Point cadets after the first summer of enrollment at the military academy.  Scores on the GRIT scale were better predictors of retention than Conscientiousness, a measure of self-control, and a composite measure of cadet quality developed by the admissions staff of West Point (Whole Candidate Score).  Self-control was proposed as a predictor of short-term academic performance, whereas grit was argued to predict major, long-term commitment to achievement.

Finally, Study 6 applied the construct of grit to an avocational rather than a vocational achievement, in this case, succeeding to the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee.  In this study, grit, over self-control and Verbal IQ, predicted advancement to higher rounds in the competition.  The effect of grit was mediated by the amount of practice the children invested in, and by the number of previous competitions in which they had advanced to final rounds (itself a measure of intense interest and perseverance).

Taken together, the results of the six studies indicate that Grit can be correlated with some individual characteristics, such as age, level of education, and Conscientiousness. Yet, when each of these variables is controlled for (in regression analyses), GRIT predicts achievement beyond or independent of these other factors.  In addition grit is a better predictor of success than measures of general intelligence (with which it is not correlated), and of other individual traits, such as self-control.  Grit’s relationship with other traits, such as resilience and optimism, remain to be demonstrated consistently, but Duckworth et al. view these constructs as cognitive processes with different parameters.  For example, resilience is a cognitive process with “limited resources” (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000) that operates in the short term and can be renewed, whereas grit is defined as a stable individual trait – i.e., not exhausted temporarily by situational demands and then restored.

A great deal has been written about grit since Duckworth et al.’s original research, some of it negative.  Kohn (Washington Post, April 6, 2014) has reviewed these criticisms, such as the questionable success of attempting to teach children grit, the redundancy of this construct with earlier psychological research, GRIT’s failure in some studies to predict creative achievement, and even possible classist and racist implications of the grit educational movement.  Some of these criticisms are misplaced, such as the claims that GRIT overlooks the importance of skill (talent, knowledge, ability) and the obstacles to achievement presented by situational, social, and cultural factors.  In fact, both these claims are addressed by Duckworth et al. in the research publication summarized here:  Duckworth immediately acknowledges the importance of skill, does not eschew the importance of creativity, and states that, while situational and social factors may be very important, they are not the focus of the six studies undertaken.

The main message of Duckworth et al.’s evidence is that, even though skill is necessary for long-lasting achievement, the non-cognitive qualities of intense interest sustained with perseverance despite potential difficulties, even failure, are even better predictors of long-lasting success.