The Social Science of Success

Duckworth, Cuddy, and Gladwell promise people the secret ingredients of human achievement…

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What if I told you that all of your professional and personal dreams were within your grasp? That if you just had the right knowledge then you could accomplish whatever you wished. Step right up, Step right up! Come quickly now! Our psychologists have run the experiments, crunched the numbers, and done The Science! This is The Science that overturns any obstacles in your path. Guaranteed! Call today!

American carnival barkers have long made comfortable livings selling panaceas to desperate people. In a country where so many live lives of frustration and economic misery, plenty of willing customers can be found for those promising to unlock the doors to success and riches. Pop social science literature has its own kind of snake oil to sell you. It doesn’t take the form of a cure-all elixir, a late night infomercial, or a dubious start-up pitch. Rather, it is peddled by well-credentialed academics, who promise to give you the Science that will tell you how to live. Drawing on findings from their research, they insist on having found a Theory of Everything, one that can explain All Human Achievement. And they want to share it with you, for a very reasonable price.

Based on the gushing blurbs to be found on these two books, naïve readers might believe that indeed, the True Secret of Success has recently been discovered. On the back of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Jane McGonigal writes that “this book will forever change how you carry yourself.” Simon Sinek adds: “This book is a must-read for every doer out there.”

The praise for Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is equally dizzying. Daniel Gilbert, an esteemed social psychologist at Harvard and bestselling author, writes “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Duckworth is the one who found it.” The very secret of success itself! Larry Summers was impressed enough to write: “The ideas in this book have the potential to transform education, management, and the way its readers live. Duckworth’s Grit is a national treasure.”  “This book will change your life,” says Dan Heath, a professor at Duke’s business school and bestselling author.

Angela Duckworth’s résumé is perhaps peerless. Former White House intern, McKinsey consultant turned tough-neighborhood middle-school teacher, degrees from Harvard and Oxford, start-up co-founder, now a tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a MacArthur “genius grant” Award recipient. When she announces, from her own position of success, that she has discovered the source of human achievement, one is encouraged to take her seriously.

Duckworth defines “grit” in her book as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” and as she self-deprecatingly notes in her talks, her 20s were defined by a chaotic search for a purpose—Duckworth had “little grit.” She had no grand goals, but during her stint as a teacher she noticed that it was not always the most intelligent students who did the best, rather it was the ones that toughed it out and worked hard as hell that did—those with grit. Duckworth headed to graduate school to explore this observation further. There, she began studying high achievement through interviews with professionals in “investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law” in order to figure out what distinguishes “star performers.” From these interviews, she further confirmed that neither innate ability nor simply raw number of hours of practice explained who was in the 1% of the top 1%. Rather, there was something else: “a ferocious determination.” After one especially enlightening interview, she describes her reaction, “I came to a fundamental insight that would guide my future work: Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.”

Duckworth formalized this insight into a questionnaire—the “Grit Scale.” 12 simple questions, measuring things like whether respondents set goals, are committed to long-term success, overcome failure and adversity, and generally speaking get shit done. Duckworth then went out into the real world to test her idea. Her book examines the “Beast Barracks,” the rigorous summer boot camp that every incoming West Point freshman must go through. She administered the Grit Scale to all cadets in 2004 and she found that “98%” of the grittiest cadets made it through the Beast. Duckworth concludes:  What matters for making it through Beast? Not your SAT scores, not your high school rank, not your leadership experience, not your athletic ability. Or your Whole Candidate Score. What matters is grit.” Further studies of finalists in the National Spelling Bee and GPAs among Ivy League undergraduates corroborated these findings – grittier spellers went further and grittier Ivy League graduates had better grades.

This all sounds quite compelling, and even commonsensical. It’s also a useful corrective antidote to the conservative fetishization of Ayn Rand’s “lone genius.” For Duckworth, success is about commitment, not being a Nietzschian superman.

But Duckworth’s theory suffers from a glaring myopia. It’s examining success among a particular subset of people: essentially, those from the top 5% of the distribution of a given profession. Duckworth is interested in studying success among successful people. She’s looking at environments where everyone is already very successful, such as West Point and the National Spelling Bee.

This means that Duckworth isn’t looking at determinants of success and failure such as, for instance, wealth. She explicitly leaves aside social context early on. As she says:

“Of course, your opportunities – for example, having a great coach or teacher – matter tremendously, too, and maybe more than anything about the individual. My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” It’s a fair admission. But she only makes it briefly before returning to expounding at length on the power of her theory.

Social scientists typically refer to this bias as “sampling on the dependent variable.” That is to say, her dependent variable of interest, the thing she wishes to explain, is achievement, and she only selects cases with high achieving individuals. One might be impressed to learn that 98% of “gritty” West Point cadets made it through Beast Barracks, but there’s an additional statistic you need to know: 95% of all West point cadets make it through. (Duckworth acknowledges this fact in her academic paper on developing the Grit scale, but it is conspicuously absent from her book.) Thus grit may explain something, but it doesn’t explain much. It might tell us why certain West Point cadets do slightly better than certain other West Point cadets. But it leaves aside an important question: how do people become West Point cadets to begin with?

In fact, we don’t even know that “grit” at West Point tells us anything about success at all. That’s because Duckworth doesn’t study the people who leave West Point, just the people who stay. But for all we know, the people who drop out are not failures. Perhaps they just didn’t enjoy military service that much. Is it really that unthinkable that a few of the more independent-minded 18 year olds could arrive at West Point, only to make a swift exit after having a drill instructor scream in their face because a quarter didn’t bounce off the bed? It could be that plenty of (eventually highly successful) people come in with a naïve, romantic notion of military service, but quickly figure out it’s not for them. Duckworth hasn’t produced a study showing that grit predicts success, but one showing that grit predicts conformity and the ability to endure institutions.

The issue here isn’t that Duckworth is doing uninteresting research—far from it. It’s that she is trying to convince us that it implies more than it actually does. (Is she explaining 10% of the world or 90% of it?) It’s also true that by picking the particular groups she does, Duckworth furthers a dangerous myth about “success.” She may have an accurate theory explaining variations among the people in the top 10% of the income distribution. But for the remaining 90%, whom she does not study, the determinants of “success” are far different. For them, social circumstances, rather than individual psychology, could be more important. When Duckworth puts aside “outside forces,” she somehow imagines that the mind can exist in a vacuum. That we can assume away the structural impediments to success, such as a lack of access to healthcare or a stable income, endemic interpersonal violence, state coercion, and persistent forms of bigotry. Because she only looks at success, but doesn’t study failure, she doesn’t see how perfectly gritty and determined kids can be held back by the misfortune of growing up in the wrong neighborhood.

Consequently, Duckworth’s findings could just as easily lend themselves to a full-throated endorsement of social democratic redistributionist policies and politics. She ends the book by acknowledging that grit is not the only thing that matters in life. She does say that she would much rather have good kids rather than gritty or great ones. Nevertheless, she emphasizes  individual psychology over social conditions:

“We all face limits—not just in talent, but in opportunity. But more often than we think, our limits are self-imposed. We try, fail, and conclude we’ve bumped our heads against the ceiling of possibility. Or maybe after taking just a few steps we change direction. In either case, we never venture as far as we might have…To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”

This views life outcomes in terms of individual effort. But she could just as easily have concluded that in order for grit to matter, people need to be free of institutional barriers to success, or that we should make sure people aren’t pushed down seven times out of eight. If everyone started as social or economic equals, then grit might be the deciding factor. But they don’t start as equals.

If the core argument of Grit is that the ability to pursue one’s goals is far more important than innate differences in talent, then Duckworth could come out in favor of removing impediments to goal pursuing, such as the drudgery of low-wage labor. She could have taken a note from John Maynard Keynes in the Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren, who suggested that a future of abundant free-time would be the norm if the gains from technology are redistributed. Instead, Duckworth has given the misleading impression that grit is what’s needed to overcome structural obstacles, even though she has only studied people who have made it past those structural obstacles already.

Duckworth has given the misleading impression that grit is what’s needed to overcome structural obstacles, even though she has only studied the people who have made it past those structural obstacles already.

Absent this, Duckworth’s book therefore provides convenient arguments for those who wish to justify inequality. After all, it’s grit that determines success. If you don’t succeed, you’re probably just insufficiently gritty. This may partly explain why her book has reached such heights of popularity; Americans love theories that simultaneously tell individuals they can do anything (even though they probably can’t) and rationalize the economic status quo.

Of course, this isn’t what Duckworth says, and she cannot control the uses of her book. Journalists have over-simplified the findings of Grit. Moreover, she has been forthcoming and responsive to criticisms of the book, and in an interview with NPR said “I aspire to be a scientist who remains open to criticism because I can’t possibly be 100% right about everything!” Moreover, she came out publicly against a Department of Education initiative to transform grit into a portion of national educational assessment, writing in the New York Times that, “I worry I’ve contributed, inadvertently, to an idea I vigorously oppose: high-stakes character assessment.” Intellectual integrity like this must be celebrated.

But while Duckworth cannot perfectly control how her work will be used, she could nonetheless have made sure the book emphasized the limitations of her studies. She does frame grit as an exploration of the nature of success qua success, not one marginal aspect of success within a small non-representative subpopulation. And she does overplay her hand, arguing that grit is the secret sauce which is well beyond what her research can actually support.

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Amy Cuddy’s work follows a similar pattern: an initial study with some interesting empirical findings, blown far beyond its boundaries into a theory of nearly everything. Unlike Duckworth, however, Cuddy bears more of the responsibility for the misrepresentation.

Cuddy’s major idea is “power poses,” the notion that if one adopts an open and expansive body posture, one can become less nervous and a better leader. Supposedly, the correct poses trigger one’s brain to increase the production of testosterone and lower the amount of cortisol. Cuddy’s initial experiments suggested that adopting a power pose for a few minutes had a measurable effect on body chemistry, pharmacologically inducing confidence and competence.

As attractive as that sounds, unfortunately, the central findings of Cuddy’s work have largely been discredited. Dorsa Amir, a biological anthropology PhD student at Yale, explained on a popular biology blog shortly after Cuddy’s book appeared that her ideas make little sense from a natural science standpoint:

“In general, hormones like testosterone and cortisol are dynamic. Both hormones have a diurnal rhythm, which means they change throughout the day. They’re also influenced by dozens of variables: the obvious ones like age, sex, and weight help determine clinical guidelines for what ‘normal’ levels look like….How did Cuddy and colleagues control for these phenomena? In short: they didn’t.”

Noted statistician Andrew Gelman of Columbia University and a colleague of his, Kaiser Fung, expressed further doubts that Cuddy followed sound statistical procedures. They wrote in Slate that the “power poses” concept was a prime example of “social scientific malpractice”: the small sample size of the original study meant that “variation is high, so anything that does appear to be statistically significant (the usual requirement for publication) will necessarily be large, even if it represents nothing but chance fluctuations.” In other words, one can immediately see how this “massive effect” was obtained: natural variation in hormonal levels between respondents led to variation before and after the poses, and given a small sample (42 people), a massive effect was found due to high levels of variation.

This criticism has led Cuddy’s colleagues to distance themselves from this work. For instance, Dana Carney, one of the coauthors of the original power poses paper, posted an unequivocal rebuke on her faculty website:

“I do not believe that ‘power pose’ effects are real. I discourage others from studying power poses. I do not teach power poses in my classes anymore. I do not talk about power poses in the media and haven’t for over 5 years (well before skepticism set in).”

In response, Cuddy shifted the goalposts, saying: “The key finding, the one that I would call ‘the power posing effect,’ is simple: adopting expansive postures causes people to feel more powerful… The other outcomes (behavior, physiology, etc.) are secondary to the key effect.” Notice how she has adjusted the claim. The original claim is that if one adopts a power pose, one’s primordial Darwinian brain stem goes into action, and one’s body chemistry shifts. This second claim Cuddy now defends is that if one adopts the power pose, one feels more powerful. But this isn’t much of a claim at all, since all it suggests is a placebo effect. (Although it should be noted that even this is dubious, since the findings themselves are likely just an artifact of statistical noise.)

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Cuddy’s is a clearer case of malpractice. Her work was subjected to criticism for years prior to the publication of Presence. Unlike Duckworth, Cuddy has not responded to the scrutiny of the scientific process openly, and she has only recently dealt with it at all. Her 2007 study failed to replicate in 2010, yet she delivered a TED talk on her work in 2012 (now the second most watched talk of all time), and released Presence in 2015.

It’s a shame that Cuddy staked so much on power poses, because the (significant) portions of her book that have nothing to do with the poses are quite interesting. Her main point is about “presence” itself, which she defines as “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential.” These parts of her work are well-written and compelling. Her chapter on “imposter syndrome” and her self-doubts is written with great humanity and humility. She recounts the countless emails she has received from all over the world of people inspired by her work, especially young women in countries with brutal patriarchal structures. We are introduced to people who have overcome major adversities who went on to reach incredible academic and professional heights. Cuddy herself has quite a life-story: she entered her PhD program just a year after a traumatizing car accident that resulted in severe head trauma. If she had left aside the “science” of power poses, and instead mused on confidence, adversity, and the realization of human potential, it would have made for a solid and enlightening read.

Don’t bother to protest. Don’t attribute economic differences to historical forces or bigotry. Just strike the right pose.

Both of these psychology books have clearly scratched an itch: topping bestseller lists and establishing a public platform for both authors. And both have something in common: they purport to explain success as a function of individual-level characteristics, offering readers strategies to change themselves for the better. One book suggests that diligence and hard work pays off in the long run, while the other argues that interpersonal dynamics can be changed by adjusting one’s body language. These theories have in common that they individualize people’s social outcomes, suggesting that it’s factors of our own making (rather than, say, oppressive social structures) that shape our chances in life.

In placing so much emphasis on factors like grit and body language, Duckworth and Cuddy present a worryingly apolitical view of inequality. Look, they say, don’t bother to protest. God forbid you should join a union. Don’t attribute economic differences to historical forces, or to bigotry. Just strike the right pose. Grit your teeth. Forget structural disadvantages and the precarious post-industrial economy, just have passion and perseverance.

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One can perhaps blame Malcolm Gladwell for a lot of this. In the late 2000s, Gladwell pioneered the “this nifty thing explains success” subgenre of nonfiction. Whether it was his 10,000-hours hypothesis (the Beatles were good because they practiced a lot) or his “David and Goliath” idea (seeming impediments can actually be people’s unique advantages), Gladwell offers a series of empirically questionable mini-theories, each of which is designed to explain success using every means other than social structure. Gladwell has dedicated his professional career to trying to uncover what it is about individuals that makes some succeed while others fail. He has never considered the possibility that perhaps it isn’t something about individuals at all. (One can imagine a Gladwell-style book cover with the title Capitalism: Why Some Individuals Succeed While Others Fail. But one cannot necessarily imagine anyone reading it.)

This also speaks to a broader incentive problem in the social sciences. In terms of making one a highly sought-after public intellectual, clever Gladwellian empirical findings are far more valuable than nuanced, humble career-spanning research. James Heckman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who has spent his career refining statistical methods and empirically studying the sources of poverty, expressed his frustration in a 2005 interview with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, “In some quarters of our profession, the level of discussion has sunk to the level of a New Yorker article: coffee-table articles about ‘cute’ topics, papers using ‘clever’ instruments….Most of this work is without substance, but it makes a short-lived splash and it’s easy to do. Many young economists are going for the cute and the clever at the expense of working on hard and important foundational problems.” Though he doesn’t name the book, Heckman is almost certainly referring in part to the effect of Freakonomics on the profession. Figuring out why some nations are poor and others are rich is a very hard question. One the other hand, producing clever statistics showing that Sumo wrestlers cheat, as Steven Levitt does in Freakonomics, is much more fun and lucrative.

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The rewards of producing bestselling “pop” theories exist across professions. Niall Ferguson, the now Stanford-based economic historian and fetishist of empires, went from producing detailed histories of banking to pumping out books like Civilization: The West and the Rest which explained “The Six Killer Apps of Western Civilization.” Ferguson’s bestsellers landed him on the speaker circuit, enabling to him to charge more than $75,000 a pop for a talk. He evidently now goes from hedge fund to hedge fund telling financiers how morally sound and intellectually innovative their work is. At this, he is apparently quite good, at least according to Steve Drobny of Drobny Capital, who says: “Niall Ferguson is the best speaker we’ve hired for our hedge fund events.” Why bother to do the hard work when you can grift hedge fund managers with a quick spin through the killer apps of the West?

Ferguson, Gladwell, Duckworth, and Cuddy thereby illustrate two serious problems with the contemporary intelligentsia. First, you’re under great pressure to produce a novel empirical finding, and if you can develop one surprising enough, you can get yourself a TED talk. Second, there are deep anxieties within our contemporary society and economy, and the bestselling ideas are those that simultaneously flatter the rich and comfort the poor. Tell the wealthy they are gritty rather than lucky, that they are special Davids who slew Goliath. Tell them that they pose with power. Tell the poor that life is tough, but if they stick it out, and develop some presence, they too can make it. With a hell of a lot of people at the bottom, and a few at the top, one can do well by offering people secrets for how to get from one end to the other. Above all, don’t ever suggest that it’s luck or pre-existing wealth that determine your lot in life. What readers want is one weird trick to fix it all.

If you want to get rich, then, we know how to do it. The true secret to success may be neither grit nor presence. But Grit and Presence have certainly made their authors very successful indeed.