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Of practice and proficiency

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One question biologists have been tackling is known as “nature vs nurture,” or figuring out how much of one’s behavior is inherited and how much is learned or influenced by the surrounding environment. With this in mind, a team of psychologists from America, England and Australia focused on the question of whether or not expertise in a particular skill can be achieved solely through years of practice and hard work.

Their analysis of several studies suggests that the saying “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” can be true, if applied toward skills at which individuals have already displayed an inclination.

“If people are given an accurate assessment of their abilities and the likelihood of achieving certain goals given those abilities,” the team wrote, “they may gravitate toward domains in which they have a realistic chance of becoming an expert through deliberate practice.”

Though none of the studies analyzed by the researchers focused on families, it’s hard not to reference the case of the Polgar sisters from Hungary. Their father conducted his own studies on developing excellence in a skill by training his children to play chess from a very early age, supplementing these lessons with coaching from professional chess players.

Two of the Polgar sisters went on to become the first female chess grandmasters while still in their teens, while the other attained international grandmaster status. The youngest of the three sisters, considered the family’s prodigy, remains the only woman ranked among the world’s top 100 chess players.

The team’s article focused on more than a dozen studies conducted among chess players and musicians to find out how much of a role practice played in differentiating skill levels.

The team found that practice by itself couldn’t account for the differences in skill levels. This finding helped them later on in disproving two common ideas as myths.

The first idea is that everyone can reach the same levels of excellence if they diligently practice. The second idea complements the first, suggesting that at least 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice is required to achieve this level of excellence.

The need to disprove the notion that “practice makes perfect” has been raised in other studies, though for difference concerns. For example, in March, Australian researchers found Internet gaming sites have lured people into spending—and losing—real money when they think they’ve figured out how to win when playing the game in practice mode.

The researchers concluded that the studies they analyzed showed that “regardless of the amount of deliberate practice they accumulate,” an expert level of proficiency may never be reached by some. “This conclusion runs counter to the egalitarian view that anyone can achieve most anything he or she wishes with enough hard work,” the researchers wrote.

The psychologists’ article appeared online May 15 in the journal Intelligence.

E-mail the author at massie@massie.com.

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