Wake-up Call: people prefer naturals over strivers


Wake-up Call: people prefer naturals over strivers

In a Harvard test, people were more willing to select the natural even if it resulted in a less-qualified individual being hired

Although people say that training is more important than talent, research shows that they prefer the natural over the striver

When it comes to judging individual performance, what influences our evaluations? Research has found that the potential to be good at something often carries more weight than actually being good at it. But why is that?

One of us conducted a study that presented 103 participants with descriptions of two classical musicians.

One musician was described as having inborn ability, whereas the other was described as having worked hard to develop her ability. Then the participants listened to a recording of a performance attributed to each individual and were told to evaluate each performer. The recordings presented the same performer and the same composition.

Although people stated that training was more important than talent, their ratings showed that they preferred the natural over the striver.

In a follow-up study, Tsay focused on entrepreneurship. Tsay assigned participants to read profiles of either a “natural” or a “striver” entrepreneur. Participants then listened to a recording of the entrepreneur’s business proposal. The same recording was used for both groups. Again, participants preferred the natural to the striver.

Of particular interest was that when participants were asked how they made their decisions, only 7.3 per cent recognised that they were considering the source of achievement.

At what cost would investors pass over a highly accomplished entrepreneur in favour of one who had achieved less but was perceived as a natural?

Tsay gave 18 pairs of entrepreneur profiles to 294 participants. Each profile differed on five attributes. Four were presented as objective indicators of performance, while the fifth was the source of achievement: naturalness or striving. The participants were told to choose which of each pair of entrepreneurs they would invest in for a new business, and then they rated how important each attribute was for their decisions.

Consistent with the earlier findings, 58 per cent of participants preferred the natural over the striver. Tsay even found people were more willing to select the natural even if it resulted in the hiring of a less-qualified individual.

These studies suggest that when we judge performance through the lens of naturalness, we are likely to inflate our evaluations and sacrifice the objective quality of work that we select. Our naturalness bias may lead us away from supporting those who do not appear to be naturals but are just as capable.

To minimise this bias, we can turn to research on a broader range of biases for possible solutions. For example, organisations can use clearly defined metrics to assess people. And, on an individual level, being more mindful of the difference between what we say we value and what we actually value can go a long way. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2016 Scott Barry Kaufman is the scientific director of the Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Chia-Jung Tsay is an assistant professor of organisational behaviour at UCL School of Management, University College London.


ref: Scott Barry Kaufman, Chia Jung Tsay

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