Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Innate Talent: Myth or Reality?

Academic journal article Journal of Singing

Innate Talent: Myth or Reality?

Article excerpt

"INNATE TALENTS ARE, we think, a fiction, not a fact."1 Psychologists Michael Howe, Jane Davidson, and John Sloboda threw down the gauntlet with this bold statement that summarized the gist of their provocative target article, "Innate Talents: Reality or Myth?," published in 1998. The authors' opening salvo was hardly controversial.

It is widely believed that the likelihood of becoming exceptionally competent in certain fields depends on the presence or absence of inborn attributes variously labeled "talents" or "gifts" or, less often, "natural aptitudes."2

But they then proceeded to completely debunk the notion they branded "the talent account," concluding that:

Even people who are not believed to have any special talent can, purely as a result of training, reach levels of achievement previously thought to be attainable only by innately gifted individuals.3

They further defended their takedown of the talent account by citing its importance in educational and policy decisions, and the observation that belief in this account is especially ubiquitous among those who instruct, pursue, and support musical training: teachers, students, and parents.

Within the accelerated timeline of cognitive science, 1998 is in the far distant past, yet the strong contemporaneous responses provoked by the Howe et al. title question still reverberate. In the interim, the popular press has seized on both the talent account and what it really takes to achieve success, particularly in professional sports and marketing. Books like Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers codified the so-called "10,000 Hour Practice Rule,"4 and the title of Daniel Coyle's The Talent Code foreshadowed his thesis: that the "code" can be cracked (with a little help from recent research in cognitive science).5

The talent account demands reconsideration, not just by academic psychologists or for-profit motivational speakers, but more urgently by practitioners who actually work with those deemed to possess (or not to possess) that most intangible of attributes, talent.


"Innate Talents: Reality or Myth?" roused a variety of strong responses from among reigning luminaries in cognitive science at the time of its publication. August cognitive psychologist Robert J. Sternberg weighed in with a response whose snarky title presaged his opinion. In "If The Key's Not There, The Light Won't Help," Sternberg declared "deliberate practice" as patently obvious "for proficient levels of competence," and charged Howe and company with citing studies that were "almost all irrelevant to the issue."6 (Indeed, one study proffered the ability of seasoned cocktail waitresses to "regularly remember as many as 20 drink orders at a time" as proof that it is training that accounts for success, and not talent.)7

Another researcher allowed that even though the Howe et al. article demonstrated "little evidence for the talent account," he still wasn't buying "training and early experience" as the only factors that can account for individual achievement.8 This author's plaintive plea, "Might we adopt the learning-related account instead of the talent account?," and his subsequent suggestion that there are "problematic social implications" in stressing hard work alone, "especially in cultures in which effort is emphasized," revealed his own biases: the late Giyoo Hatano was a professor of cognitive science at Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, a country that suffers one of the world's highest suicide rates among industrialized nations.9 The causes for suicide are varied and complex, but most experts attribute Japans epidemic suicide problem to the toxic result of personal failure within a culture that values extreme effort.

Several respondents stressed the importance of industriousness, basically agreeing with the authors' contention that talent is a myth, in part because "emphasis on innate talent as the basis for outstanding achievement underestimates the importance of hard work. …

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