Does Practice Make Perfect? Maybe Not, Study Suggests Other Factors

Does Practice Make Perfect?
Research from Michigan State University finds that ample practice might not be enough to explain differing skill levels in certain activities. Michael Maggs, CC By-SA 3.0

Remember slogging through hours of clarinet lessons or tennis practice and never quite achieving that perfect note or refined backhand no matter how long you practiced? Well, it could be that all those hours were spent in vain.

Recent research from Michigan State University, led by David Z. Hambrick, associate professor of psychology, debunks the old adage "practice makes perfect." Focusing on two widely-studied activities - chess and music - Hambrick's team found that abundant amounts of practice in these areas were not enough to explain differing skill levels in individuals.

Of his findings, published in Intelligence, Hambrick said, "The deliberate practice view has since gained popularity as a theoretical account of expert performance, but here we show that deliberate practice is not sufficient to explain individual differences in performance in the two most widely studied domains in expertise research-chess and music."

Examining the long-held theory that performance reflects a long practice period, Hambrick and colleagues analyzed 14 studies of chess players and musicians, with practice accounting for about one-third of the difference in skill.

Hambrick explained that factors such as intelligence, innate ability, and the age at which a person begins an activity could account for differences in skill level. Essentially, practice alone might not be enough.

Following up from his previous 2011 study, co-authored with Elizabeth Meinz, Hambrick proposed the theory of working memory capacity (wmc) - closely related to general intelligence - as the ability to store and process information at the same time. Following a series of piano sight-reading studies, Hambrick found that individuals possessing higher levels of wmc outperformed individuals with lower levels.

"While the specialized knowledge that accumulates through practice is the most important ingredient to reach a very high level of skill, it's not always sufficient," said Hambrick.

Hambrick and colleagues don't deny the importance of practice to hone a particular skill or craft.  But, he said, "we think that for certain types of tasks, basic abilities and capacities - ones that are general, stable across time, and substantially heritable - play an important role in skilled performance." These basic capacities, Hambrick believes, comprise talent.

Hambrick and colleagues concluded that individuals have their own aptitudes and could benefit from being guided in the direction that's best suited for them. In other words: not everyone is equally skilled at every task; we each have our own unique talents.

Does this mean that limitations cannot be overcome with diligent practice?

According to Hambrick, no matter how many hours you clock in, mastery may come down to what you were born with or developed very early in life. Practice, according to Hambrick, helps once you've been steered in a direction where you have a realistic chance of becoming an expert.

 

 

Sources: Hambrick D, Oswald F, Altmann E, Meinz E, Gobet F, Campitelli G. Deliberate Practice: Is that all it takes to become an expert? Intelligence. 2013.

Hambrick D, Meinz E. Deliberate Practice Is Necessary but Not Sufficient to Explain Individual Differences in Piano Sight-Reading Skill: The Role of Working Memory Capacity. Psychological Science. 2011.

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