Money, Resources, Work

Why perceived talent is rewarded over hard work

May 29, 2024 by

Is being perceived as hard-working a good thing? Not always, says research on naturalness bias – the preference for talent over hard work. When naturalness bias occurs in the workplace, it can be deeply unfair and costly. Researchers believe that this bias happens below conscious awareness, and that there are ways we can avoid being passed over for hard work. The smartest solution may be for us to give a more nuanced picture of our success without focusing exclusively on one element or the other.

Photo: Miguel A. Padrinan (Pexels.com)

Is being perceived as hard-working a good thing? Not always, says research on naturalness bias – the preference for talent over hard work. To understand what naturalness bias is, ask yourself if you would eat engineered ‘meaty’ rice and are you impressed with prodigies? If you feel an aversion to meaty rice and an admiration for prodigies, then you experienced naturalness bias.

Naturalness bias is the tendency to perceive individuals who exhibit effortless proficiency as more capable and talented.

Naturalness bias may not be an issue in choosing what we eat or who we admire, but when it occurs in the workplace, it can be deeply unfair and costly. Naturalness bias in the workplace is the tendency to perceive individuals who exhibit effortless proficiency as more capable and talented and are rewarded over capable individuals who are perceived as hard-working. This occurs in real life when entrepreneurs who are viewed with innate talent are awarded more investment capital over other better-qualified entrepreneurs. Researchers believe that this bias happens below our conscious awareness and that there are ways we can avoid being passed over.

Research on musicans

Dr. Chia-Jung Tsay, an associate professor at the University College London School of Management, has researched naturalness bias in a series of studies ranging from musical talent to entrepreneurial success. Her initial experiments on musical talent asked participants to rate a performer’s ability as a professional musician after listening to recordings of musical performances of two musicians. Prior to listening to the recordings, participants read a short biographical text that either emphasized each musician’s natural talent or hard work. The twist was that participants were not aware that both performances were played by the same musician and that only the biographical text differed.

Naturalness bias may be a result of our brain’s unconscious processing.

What Tsay found was that participants gave significantly higher ratings if they read about the performer’s natural talent, and lower ratings if they read about the performer’s dedication to practice or hard work. Participants were also asked about what factor was more important for musical achievement, and most participants chose effort over talent as the more important factor. Tsay believes that naturalness bias may be a result of our brain’s unconscious processing and that we may not be aware of the disconnect.

Research on entrepreneurs

Tsay also designed a similar experiment that examined people’s attitudes to entrepreneurial success. Study participants were given profiles of entrepreneurs and a one-minute audio presentation of their business plans. The profiles were nearly the same except in the few sentences that described how each entrepreneur arrived at their current success. Half of the study participants received the version where hard work was emphasized and the other half received the version where innate talent was emphasized. Participants were asked to evaluate the entrepreneur and their business proposal.

Study participants were willing to invest in less qualified entrepreneurs when the entrepreneurs were described to have reached their current success through natural talent.

Tsay found that on average, participants rated the business plan belonging to entrepreneurs with natural achievements more highly. Surprisingly, the bias was stronger among participants who had greater entrepreneurial experience such as founders or investors. Then when asked to directly compare various candidates, study participants were willing to invest in entrepreneurs with poorer intelligence test scores, fewer years of leadership experience, and less accrued capital, because they were described to have reached their current success through their natural talent.

Researchers suggest providing a more nuanced picture of our success, where we discuss our innate strengths and areas of hard work that allow us to succeed.

Implications

The implications of this research may likely explain why leaders seem to pay lip service to hard work and show an unconscious preference for people who appear to have innate talent or for perceived star performers. Managers may want to account for naturalness bias in their decision-making to reduce costly outcomes. For workers, we may want to present ourselves in a way that our achievements are not overlooked. The researchers suggest providing a more nuanced picture of our success, where we discuss our innate strengths and areas of hard work that allow us to succeed.


Naturals and strivers: Preferences and beliefs about sources of achievement (Journal of Experimental Social Psychology)

Privileging Naturals Over Strivers: The Costs of the Naturalness Bias (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin)

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