Study of the Day: What Really Separates the Good From the Great

The mantra of practice, practice, practice is still important, but new research suggests that there is another key ingredient for success

main2 Denis Sinyakov Reuters RTR2SUSU.jpg

PROBLEM: In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argued that we need 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert. There are no "naturals," he said. So, is intelligence really insignificant?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers led by Michigan State University scientist Zachary Hambrick conducted a series of studies involving complex tasks. In one study, they recruited 57 pianists with a wide range of cumulative deliberate practice -- from 260 to over 31,000 hours. They tested if working memory capacity, which is closely related to general intelligence, would predict piano sight-reading skill, or the ability to play musical pieces with no preparation.

RESULTS: Across the studies, people with high levels of working memory capacity tended to outperform other participants, including those with extensive experience and knowledge of the task at hand.

CONCLUSION: Practice is important to reach a very high level of skill, but it's not always sufficient. Working memory capacity can predict performance in complex domains, such as science, music, and chess.

IMPLICATION: Working memory capacity may be the deciding factor between good and great. Hambrick says in a statement: "A high level of intellectual ability puts a person at a measurable advantage."

SOURCE: The full study (PDF), "Limits on the Predictive Power of Domain-Specific Experience and Knowledge in Skilled Performance," is published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

Image: REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov.

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Hans Villarica writes for and produces The Atlantic's Health channel. His work has appeared in TIME, People Asia, and Fast Company.

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