Americans never tire of rooting for the underdog or praising the self-starter who climbs his or her way to the top through blood, sweat and tears. But in our hearts we may prefer naturals over strivers. And understanding people's true preferences could help us navigate the worlds of academics, business and art.
Five years ago Chia-Jung Tsay, a psychologist now at University College London School of Management, reported a “naturalness bias.” After listening to two clips from the same classical music recording, subjects said they preferred the clip they were told was performed by a musician who was naturally talented over the one described as having come from a hard worker—even though they explicitly said they valued effortful training over innate ability.
A new paper by Tsay in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin builds on this work by extending it beyond music and also measuring the bias's consequences. Subjects with business experience and novices alike said they preferred business ideas and entrepreneurs when the entrepreneur was described as a natural versus a striver, despite saying earlier that effort was more important than natural talent. This bias was as strong, if not stronger, in business experts; one experiment found that a supposed striver needed 4.5 more years of leadership experience, 28 more IQ points, or $39,000 more in capital, compared with a natural, to be on equal footing when appealing for investment to business experts.
So why do we have this preference for inborn talent, which Tsay says she has also found in sports and dance? Her data point to a common belief that naturals have more potential for progress. Tsay's interest in this kind of bias derives from her own experience as a pianist competing for prizes. “I saw a lot of this,” she says—to the extent that musicians would present themselves as younger than they really were and downplay how hard they practiced.