Practice Makes Perfect? Maybe Not So Much

Paper downplays the significance of practice over raw talent
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jul 15, 2014 6:42 PM CDT
Practice Makes Perfect? Maybe Not So Much
Practice may not be as important as previously thought to become an expert, according to a new study.   (Shutterstock)

Macklemore may have put in his 10,000 hours, but maybe the rest of us shouldn’t bother—or at least some of us. A new paper disputes the significance of practice over talent, claiming that although practice is important to master a skill (a theory interpreted and defended by author Malcolm Gladwell), it may not be as critical as previously thought, reports the New York Times. The paper, which appears in the current issue of the Psychological Science journal, is a meta-analysis based on 88 studies, and it downplays the results of a 1993 study of musicians by K. Anders Ericsson, in which practice time was said to account for almost 80% of the difference between “elite performers and committed amateurs.” The paper claims that practice in certain areas (e.g., music, sports, chess) only explains about 18% to 26% of that difference in performance—and that the percentage drops to as low as 4% in areas such as academics.

The “practice makes perfect” postulation and Gladwell’s interpretation of it have both been criticized before. One of the new arguments is that success is “domain dependent”—meaning deliberate practice (instruction in which a student’s skill set is pushed as hard as possible) is only a predictor of success in stable fields where the rules don’t change much, like in tennis or chess, explains Business Insider, citing the work of author Frans Johansson. In more volatile fields such as entrepreneurship and popular music, the effect of practice is significantly lessBusiness Insider uses the example of the Sex Pistols, who became incredibly successful despite Sid Vicious having little skill on the bass guitar. It doesn’t look like the debate will end anytime soon: Ericsson himself tells the Times that the new study doesn’t concentrate on deliberate practice like his study did. “If you throw all these kinds of practice [like playing sports for fun] into one big soup, of course you are going to reduce the effect of deliberate practice,” he says. (More science study stories.)

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