How the self-esteem craze took over America

In recent years, a group of researchers led by the University of Pennsylvania’s Angela Duckworth have claimed that this personality characteristic, which is defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” predicts academic — and therefore career and life — success better than just about anything else we can measure. “My lab has found that this measure beats the pants off IQ, SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations,” Duckworth told the New York Times last year. And during the portion of her 10-million-views TED Talk in which she discussed rookie teachers working in challenging schools, Duckworth claimed that “one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.”

It would be hard to overstate the hype that has ensued as a result of these claims — grit has been described by many of its proponents and disciples as the secret to success, a story line Duckworth helped promote in her best-selling book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. She also won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her work on the subject. The Department of Education has recommended grit interventions in K–12 education, while the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a network of 200 charter schools around the country, has adopted grit as one of the seven foundational “character strengths” it seeks to foster in its students. And because grit satisfies a “recent update to federal education law [that] requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance,” as the Times put it, many more schools nationwide are exploring how to integrate the measurement and fostering of grit into their classrooms and curricula.

So it’s surprising that there’s so little evidence to buttress Duckworth’s claims that grit is a uniquely powerful predictor of academic success — let alone that interventions can meaningfully increase it. The best research available suggests that, predictionwise, grit is in practice almost completely identical to the well-known Big Five personality trait known as conscientiousness, and that it performs significantly worse, as a predictor of academic achievement, than much less sexy measures like students’ study skills.