Faculty voice:

Zach Hambrick:
Elements of talent

Sept. 25, 2013

David “Zach” Hambrick is an associate professor of cognitive psychology whose research into the field of expertise has garnered widespread national media coverage and landed Hambrick an occasional writing gig in the New York Times. Read examples of his work here, here and here.

Growing up, I had no idea that I wanted to be cognitive psychologist. In fact, I had no idea that cognitive psychology even existed. My first major in college, at Methodist College in Fayetteville, N.C., was business administration. My goal was to get my business degree and then manage a golf course. (Like Ferris State, in Michigan, Methodist offers a concentration in professional golf management.)

Then, in my sophomore year, I took a course in cognitive psychology, and my plans changed. What I found particularly interesting was the scientific study of expertise—how people acquire high levels of skill in fields like music, games, and sports. I have always been fascinated with exceptional performance—as a kid one of my favorite books was the Guinness Book of World Records—but until then I had no idea that this was something that scientists actually study.

In short order, I changed my major to psychology and set my sights on a career in the field. First as a graduate student at Georgia Tech and then as a faculty member, my research has since focused on the perennially debated question of why some people reach extremely high levels of performance while most others fail to do so. What, in other words, distinguishes the best from the rest in music, sports, the professional world and so on? Is it all about training? Or do other factors play a role, too?

My research with colleagues supports the latter view. As we report in a paper recently published in the journal Intelligence, practice is necessary to account for why some people reach high levels of skill and others do not. (No one makes it to the Olympics without some training. There are no “naturals,” in the strictest sense of the term.) But there’s more to the puzzle. Genetically-influenced abilities—elements of “talent”—appear to contribute to expert performance as well.

Our research has challenged the popular view—promoted by writers such as Malcolm Gladwell in his bestselling book Outliers—that basic abilities don’t much matter for success. Now the question that we’re trying to answer is when and how much these abilities matter.