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Effort Pays Off! The Importance of Grit in the Context of School and Education

March 7th, 2019

(Translation of an article in: IPN Journal No 4)

Fabian T. C. Schmidt

The term grit is used in positive psychology to describe a person’s ability to pursue long-term goals with enthusiasm and to successfully overcome setbacks and challenges. The basic idea is that in addition to talent, perseverance of effort is also important in order to achieve goals. The relevant research literature shows the connection between grit and performance for a variety of success outcomes. However, the question  about the extent to which grit fits into the context of related, already established constructs such as self-control and conscientiousness still remains open.

Grit has gained importance in various fields of research. In the field of clinical psychology, first findings indicate the effect of grit as a protective factor for depression. Occupational psychology tells us that grit is associated with higher performance and less counterproductive behavior in the working context. In educational research, which is the subject here, various studies point to correlations between grit and important performance measures such as GPA or better results in standardized performance tests.

A construct with a long history

In ancient times, extraordinary personal achievements or talents stemmed from the divine inspiration, in the Renaissance this image changed due to secular currents: The individual as an autonomous source of performance became the focus of attention. At the end of the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche reflected on this development and named continuous and hard work as well as zeal in reworking, discarding and organizing as prerequisites for outstanding achievements.

Motivated by the works of Charles Darwin, Francis Galton simultaneously examined the biographies of outstanding individuals from the areas of politics, science, and art. He concluded that, in addition to talent, zeal and the ability to work hard were necessary in order to achieve exceptional results. Over the following decades, science came very close to the current definition of grit. Zeal, willpower and perseverance frequently proved to be important qualities for success in school and at work. The five-factor model of personality evolved in the 1950s. One of the Big Five, conscientiousness, includes aspects of the two dimensions of grit: perseverance of effort and consistency of interest. The long history of research on the conditions for excellence and for goal achievement shows that grit is less a new concept than a continuation of a rich research tradition.

What exactly is grit?

Grit is defined as a personality trait that enables you to pursue long-term goals with enthusiasm while successfully mastering setbacks and challenges. Grit combines two facets: perseverance of effort and consistency of interest. Perseverance means working diligently and hard and not deviating from goals despite setbacks. Consistency of interest involves working towards long-term goals without losing focus.

The theoretical basis of grit stems from two models that will be elaborated on in the following. The first model (the framework for the psychology of achievement) describes the greater influence of effort, compared to talent, on performance. Talent influences the speed at which someone learns a skill when he or she invests effort. To deliver outstanding performance, it again requires continuous effort invested in a skill. Effort, therefore, is a central characteristic of performance. Grit is a prerequisite for effort in this model and is therefore a central prerequisite for performance. The second model (the hierarchical goal framework) illustrates the functioning of the two facets of grit. The model describes goal hierarchies, which consist of basic action impulses, assigned to concrete subordinate and replaceable goals (e.g., tasks on a to-do list). These subordinate goals are prerequisites for achieving the next higher goals, which become increasingly abstract, unspecific and more important for someone. A single overarching goal is at the top of a goal hierarchy. According to the argumentation of this model, the likelihood of achieving overarching goals increases if distractions can be suppressed. The facet consistency of interest taps this aspect. Perseverance, on the other hand, helps to generate alternative goals when blocking subordinate goals in order to continue to achieve the higher level goals.

How can you measure grit?

How gritty a person is can be measured with a questionnaire. The version of the first known questionnaire in the literature contained 12 statements based on a five-point scale. As part of my work at the IPN, I developed and validated a German-language short version of the scale together with my co-authors and then adapted it for the school context. Three sub-studies showed the good psychometric properties of the scale. Structural equation models confirmed the good fit of the model with two factors perseverance od effort and consistency of interest to the data.

The scale showed the expected positive, statistically significant relationships to external criteria such as the GPA, the academic self-concept, self-efficacy and conscientiousness. In addition, we found the expected negative correlations with procrastination.

"Grit is less a new concept than a clearer conceptualization of the proactive aspect of conscientiousness, which appears especially relevant in the educational context.”

In current research, grit received criticism for not having been sufficiently distinguished from established constructs. In the foreground of this debate was the close relationshup between conscientiousness and grit, which several studies demonstrated empirically.

In one of our studies, we could show the almost complete overlap between grit and conscientiousness. It became clear that grit primarily reflects the proactive aspects of conscientiousness and is very similar to the factor previously described by other studies as industriousness. Grit is therefore less a new concept than a more clearly defined aspect of conscientiousness, which is particularly relevant in the educational context.

Another study also showed that the two facets of grit relate to important performance criteria such as monthly income or life satisfaction even beyond conscientiousness.

Grit or Self-Control?

Self-control is another construct closely related to grit both theoretically and empirically. In psychology, self-control is the regulation of conflicting impulses for the pursuit of goals. A common feature of grit is the overcoming of obstacles and distractions in the pursuit of personally relevant goals. However, self-control is distinguishable from grit both theoretically and empirically. With self-control, actions or short-term goals are in conflict with each other on a lower level, whereas with grit they are in conflict with superordinate long-term goals. We were also able to show that grit and self-control are separable from each other using factor analysis and thus empirically represent two different constructs. Self-control is particularly relevant in everyday situations in which distractions are common. Grit, on the other hand, shows its relevance especially in performance situations where failure is possible.