a statue tripping

A recent piece in the NYTimes gives a sobering palliative to Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hours’ meme.  This particular excerpt relates specifically to music:

In our own recent research, we have discovered that “working memory capacity,” a core component of intellectual ability, predicts success in a wide variety of complex activities. In one study, we assessed the practice habits of pianists and then gauged their working memory capacity, which is measured by having a person try to remember information (like a list of random digits) while performing another task. We then had the pianists sight read pieces of music without preparation.

Not surprisingly, there was a strong positive correlation between practice habits and sight-reading performance. In fact, the total amount of practice the pianists had accumulated in their piano careers accounted for nearly half of the performance differences across participants. But working memory capacity made a statistically significant contribution as well (about 7 percent, a medium-size effect). In other words, if you took two pianists with the same amount of practice, but different levels of working memory capacity, it’s likely that the one higher in working memory capacity would have performed considerably better on the sight-reading task.

I’ve always felt it was a combination, in other words, it doesn’t matter how much talent you have if you don’t use it or learn how to develop it.  And that takes practice.  And there are just somethings that no amount of practicing will allow most of us to accomplish that folks with an incredible amount of talent  would be able to do with some measure of ease.

The interesting thing, from a cross-cultural perspective, is both of these viewpoints say nothing about the environment (or very little about it).  One of the most robust psychological phenomena is the Fundamental Attribution Error (now more commonly referred to as the Correspondence bias).  Basically humans tend to overestimate the internal qualities of a person (or event or situation) as being the ultimate causal agent for behavior.  If I trip over a crack in the sidewalk, a person seeing me trip might think I am clumsy when some environmental factor (poor lighting) might also account for the particular event.  I, however, would likely blame the crack in the sidewalk or the poor lighting that didn’t allow me to see the crack.

The classical example was demonstrated by the Jones and Harris study published in 1967:

Subjects read pro- and anti-Fidel Castro essays. Subjects were asked to rate the pro-Castro attitudes of the writers. When the subjects believed that the writers freely chose the positions they took (for or against Castro), they naturally rated the people who spoke in favor of Castro as having a more positive attitude towards Castro. However, contradicting Jones and Harris’ initial hypothesis, when the subjects were told that the writer’s positions were determined by a coin toss, they still rated writers who spoke in favor of Castro as having, on average, a more positive attitude towards Castro than those who spoke against him. In other words, the subjects were unable to see the influence of the situational constraints placed upon the writers; they could not refrain from attributing sincere belief to the writers.

Focusing so much on internal qualities of a subject (either internal genetics or internal work ethic as it relates to practicing) is a normal pastime for humans.  To Gladwell’s credit, he does mention some many environmental effects of performance.  His example of sports and the age (and thus size) of a child in grade school as it relates to the normal school year and how that shapes when sports recruiting happens.  Very complex set of circumstances that tends to favor children born in certain months.  And even childbirth and how it can be related to socioeconomic status that becomes a big determinant on when to have children which can then influence placement in school (or sports).

In other words, the infrastructure of the environment will favor certain types of behavior over others, which is precisely what I’ve been talking about regarding musicians ability to get work and to shape their audiences.

I’ve been meaning to blog more about cognitive biases and how these shape our views about the world and music and audiences, but just really didn’t want to spend that much time blogging about that, but I think I need to lay out some of the fundamentals to I can at least relate how this informs many of my ideas about music, musicians and audiences.

I think I might have to start at the beginning with my next post–a little post about levity and gravity.

5 thoughts on “10,000 hours or talent?

  1. The big question here is the basis on which Hambrick and Meinz are assuming that working memory capacity is a fixed, inbuilt property. It’s not surprising that you sight-read better if you have more of it, but what’s the evidence that you’d have the same amount of it if you hadn’t spent all that time doing things that require its use? (Like, for instance, learning how to sight-read.)

    On your point about environment, Henry Kingsbury is excellent on the social processes by which young musicians take on the identity of ‘being talented’, and the ways this affects both their self-image and behaviour: http://www.temple.edu/tempress/titles/529_reg.html


    1. I’m thinking that they are probably right about the fixed amount–and there might be perfectly good biological reasons for that since their range also fits in well with some many other sense phenomena and how we perceive things within that limited range.

      That doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to subsume activities under other ones–once something becomes automatic it will piggyback neurophysiologically on other functions. For example, we don’t have to think about our fingers (or voice or embouchure) when we normally play though beginners have to constantly monitor those things. Once it becomes a habit and we make that direct connection between, say, seeing notes on a page and playing the patterns rather than each and every individual note it’s more an issue of putting a bigger number of actions within one patterned way of completing the action. So playing 7 patterns of groups of notes is essentially still in the range of playing 7 individual notes–but it’s a different grouping.

      I’ve heard about Kingsbury’s work, but haven’t had a chance to read that yet–sounds fascinating! Thanks for the heads up!


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