Misconceptions about Social and Emotional Learning – Misconception Three

Misconception #3: “You Can Have Too Much Grit”

This post is the fourth in a series about misconceptions we often hear about social and emotional learning (SEL). In each post, we tackle a common misunderstanding about SEL and attempt to clarify some misconceptions. The previous post in the series concerned the belief that SEL can’t be taught. In this post, we discuss the belief that sometimes you can have too much Grit.

Spurred by one of the most popular talks in TED history and a subsequent best-selling book, Grit has become, perhaps, the most well-known and most important social and emotional skill. Grit is defined as, “passion and perseverance for long-term goals” and research, much of it discussed in the previously mentioned book, has supported the importance of Grit in predicting academic success. Perhaps predictably, after a few years in the sun, Grit became the subject of various criticisms, one of which states that, at times, you can have too much Grit. The thinking goes like this; it’s good to have Grit but sometimes it’s better to know when to quit. Sometimes it’s better to move on than to keep “banging your head against the wall”, and the people who are highest on Grit are the ones most likely to keep banging. Although there may be special cases where this is true, the idea that you can have too much Grit is largely a misconception. In today’s post, we’ll discuss why. But first, we need to talk about what Grit really is.

Grit really is Conscientiousness…

Grit was first introduced to the world in a 2007 paper authored by Angela Duckworth and colleagues. Although the fact was not obvious to the general public, psychologists immediately recognized Grit as essentially a relabeling of a much older and frequently researched construct from the field of Personality Psychology known as Conscientiousness, or the tendency to have impulse control, be goal directed, planful, and to be able to delay gratification (in fact, the original 2007 paper found that Grit was highly correlated with Conscientiousness). Ten years after the first Grit paper was published, a meta-analysis confirmed psychologists’ belief: Grit is virtually indistinguishable from Conscientiousness. If Grit is the same thing as Conscientiousness, then the reason Grit is important is because Conscientiousness is important.

And Conscientiousness is important…

Conscientiousness is important for a variety of life outcomes, including, but not limited to, academic achievement, occupational attainment and job performance, health and well-being, relationship stability, and avoiding risky behavior. Looking specifically at academic performance, Conscientiousness is significantly associated with GPA at all levels of schooling. In fact, in college, Conscientiousness predicts GPA just as well as standardized achievement test scores. These findings make intuitive sense. Take the definition above: Conscientiousness, capturing behaviors related to impulse control, goal directedness, planfulness, and delay of gratification, ought to promote success in a number of areas in life, including academics. At ACT, Conscientiousness is included in our Holistic Framework ̶  a framework that describes what people need to know and be able–and willing–to do to be successful in school and work settings ̶  and is referred to as Sustaining Effort to provide a more user-friendly name.

And you can’t have too much Conscientiousness…

This brings us back to our original misconception. Can you have too much Grit/Conscientiousness/Sustained Effort? There are a limited number of experimental studies that show that sometimes “Gritty” participants do tend to persist too long on difficult problems when they could have moved on to easier problems in game-like situations (see this paper for one example). This begs the question, however, if these findings generalize to everyday life. For example, do students who are very high in Conscientiousness persist so long on difficult problems that it hurts their learning? Do highly Conscientious workers spend so long on difficult work tasks that it hurts their performance? The existing research (some of it cited above), with its strong consensus that Conscientiousness is associated with positive outcomes across the board, would suggest that this isn’t the case. However, most research has not directly tested the question of whether you can have too much Conscientiousness.

Fortunately, a recent study looked at this question explicitly. Specifically, in this study, looking at four large data sets, the researchers examined whether people very high in several components of Conscientiousness would perform worse on several real-life outcomes as compared to people who were only high in these components. The components of Conscientiousness and outcomes examined are listed in the table below.

What did the researchers find? Perhaps a better question is what they did not find? They did not find any evidence that any of these outcomes got worse as people became very high in Conscientiousness. That is, in general, more Conscientiousness was better. In summary, although a limited number of small-scale experimental studies have shown that higher Grit can lead to worse outcomes in game-like situations, this large-scale study of real-life outcomes found no such effect.

So, what does this mean? More is better

So, what does this mean for teachers and parents who might be teaching students to be more Conscientious (or Gritty)? Or for teachers who may be using a Social and Emotional Learning assessment to measure Conscientiousness? It means that we have one less thing to worry about. We can teach Conscientiousness without worrying that we are going to “overdo” it. If a student scores high on an assessment of Conscientiousness (or Grit) we shouldn’t worry that they might be “too high”. More is better. The idea that one can have too much is a misconception.

There is an old adage that says that you can’t have too much of a good thing. When it comes to Conscientiousness, it’s true! So, if you are interested in teaching and/or measuring these skills, take a look at our SEL solutions, and rest assured that your success will only help your students to develop important skills.

Jeremy Burrus, PhD

Jeremy Burrus, PhD

Senior Director, Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning Research Jeremy Burrus is the Senior Director of ACT’s Center for Social, Emotional, and Academic Learning (SEALs). Before coming to ACT, he was a Principal Research Scientist at ProExam’s Center for Innovative Assessments, and prior to that he was a Research Scientist at Educational Testing Service. He graduated with a PhD in Social Psychology from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in 2006, and was a post-doctoral research scholar at Columbia Business School in New York City from 2006-2008. His main research interests are in developing innovative assessments of social and emotional learning skills, cognitive biases, and cross-cultural competence.