Of all we can say to describe a candidate or an employee, ‘a hard worker’ is probably one of the most valued. Everyone likes, values and respects people that work hard. Some even think that ‘working hard’ is a skill that can be gained but often harder to find.
But as much as we value hard work, some recent research suggests that we actually choose the elusive quality we call talent.
Researchers Chia-Jung Tsay and Mahzarin Banaji provided a series of experiments in which they examined what has been called the ‘naturalness bias’, the tendency to choose ‘naturally talented’ people over ‘hard-workers’. Mahzarin Banaji and Chia-Jung Tsay asked 103 professional musicians to rate two performers based on a written profile and clips of them playing Stravinsky's Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka. The experimenters first asked the musicians their opinion on the source of musical achievement. Musicians replied, expressing “the strong belief that strivers will achieve over naturals.”
Banaji and Tsay then described two pianists, equal in achievement but different in their paths to success: one was a natural, showing early evidence of high innate ability; the other was a striver, exhibiting early evidence of high motivation and perseverance. The investigators played an audio clip of each pianist performing, and asked the musicians for their judgments. Despite their stated belief in the value of effort, the naturalness bias won out: the musicians rated the “natural” performer as more talented, more likely to succeed, and more hirable than the striver. The two performers were actually the same person, with one profile tweaked to emphasize work ethic and the other made to highlight natural talent.
Natural talent arguably plays an outsized role in musical ability. So Tsay recently expanded her research into a work area where striving and experience are widely considered virtues, and where objective past returns are valued as much if not more than potential success: entrepreneurship.
The study had a similar set-up to the musical one. Participants reviewed an entrepreneur profile that was manipulated to emphasize either inborn talent or hard work, then heard a one-minute business proposal that was actually the same in both cases. Across two samples, the "natural" earned higher ratings than the "striver," both in terms of perceived achievement (things like talent level and willingness to hire the person) and pitch evaluation (things like performance skill and willingness to invest in the venture).
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Whether or not the naturalness bias holds true outside the lab, and just how it might vary based on an evaluator’s own distinct personality traits, is unclear. And of course its potential employment impact breaks both ways. Knowing that experienced professionals tend to side with innate talent, for instance, suggests it might be advantageous to flash some natural skills during investor pitches or job interviews, instead of focusing on dedication.
In future research, Tsay hopes to gain a better sense of why the bias exists in the first place. One possibility, she says, is that people might unwittingly perceive natural talent as a more stable characteristic—aligning it with "an immutable, more authentic, and more certain path to success." A path that, from the perspective of a hard worker, looks an awful lot like a shortcut.