Thursday, September 29, 2016

New Yorker: Practice Doesn't Make Perfect (Zach Hambrick, MSU Psychology)

MSU Psychology Professor Zach Hambrick is featured in this New Yorker article about Nature vs Nurture. How far the pendulum has swung since the naive days of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and its credulous embrace of Anders Ericsson's nurturist claims. David Lubinski and SMPY also make an appearance.
New Yorker: Practice Doesn't Make Perfect

... So how much did practice actually explain? In a 2014 meta-analysis that looked specifically at the relationship between deliberate practice and performance in music, games like chess, sports, education, and other professions, Hambrick and his team found a relationship that was even more complex than they had expected. For some things, like games, practice explained about a quarter of variance in expertise. For music and sports, the explanatory power accounted for about a fifth. But for education and professions like computer science, military-aircraft piloting, and sales, the effect ranged from small to tiny. For all of these professions, you obviously need to practice, but natural abilities matter more.

What’s more, the explanatory power of practice fell even further when Hambrick took exact level of expertise into account. In sports—one of the areas in which deliberate practice seems to make the most difference—it turned out that the more advanced the athlete, the less of a role practice plays. Training an average athlete for a set number of hours yields far more results than training an √©lite athlete, which, in turn, yields greater results than training a super-√©lite athlete. Put differently, someone like me is going to improve a great deal with even a few hundred hours of training. But within an Olympic team tiny differences in performance are unlikely to be the result of training: these athletes train together, with the same coach, day in and day out. Those milliseconds come from somewhere else. Some may be due to the fact that genetic differences can account for some of the response to training. ...

So where else, exactly, do performance differences come from? While Hambrick’s work has been focussed more explicitly on practice and genetics, David Lubinski, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, has been approaching the question from a slightly different angle: through what’s called the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (smpy), a longitudinal study of the lives of students who, by the age of thirteen, had scored in the top one per cent of mathematical-reasoning ability and were then selected to take part in an enriched educational environment. (The study, co-directed for many years by Lubinski and his wife, Vanderbilt’s education-school dean, Camilla Benbow, was described in detail in a recent article in Nature.) It’s a crucial supplement to work like Hambrick’s; the data you get from close observation of the same sample and the same individuals over time can answer questions other approaches can’t. “What kinds of practice are more effective? What approaches more effective for some people than others?” Hambrick asks. “We need all the pieces to the puzzle to maximize people’s potential. Lubinski’s work on mathematically precocious youth is an essential piece.”

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