I hesitate to suggest that my readers might ever have felt the need to improve their mental abilities by conducting specific mental exercises, but you may have a friend who wants to dabble in these practices, so this little note is for your friend.
Overstating the Role of Environmental Factors in Success: A Cautionary Note
Created on: July 31, 2018 | Last edited: July 31, 2018
Your friend may have been ensnared by the following:
Thousands of scientific articles have been published on these topics, which have also captured the popular imagination through books such as Smarter: The new science of building brain power (Hurley, 2014), Mindset: The new psychology of success (Dweck, 2006), Grit: The power of passion and perseverance (Duckworth, 2016), and Peak: The new science of expertise (Ericsson & Pool, 2017).
Why are these notions so attractive? I think that most people would like to be cleverer, and the idea of a shortcut is alluring. Spend a short time mastering a training routine, and then the mysteries of the universe will open up for you. This is an old dream. Jude the Obscure desperately wanted to learn other languages, and was extremely disappointed to find out that the language learning books, far from teaching him a language learning trick as he imagined, were simply long lists of things that he had to learn. Reality can be tedious.
Thesis: the brain is like a muscle which needs exercise. Er, not really. There is some evidence for “near transfer” of specific skills but no convincing evidence for “far transfer”, as when the specific learned skill leads to improvements in other wider abilities.
Meta-analysis by Melby-Lervåg and Hulme (2013), found “no convincing evidence of the generalization of working memory training to other skills” (p. 270). They also noted that working memory training studies are often plagued by major methodological problems, including use of research designs without appropriate control groups. More recently, Simons and colleagues conducted an exhaustive review of the available evidence for benefits of brain training and concluded that “the evidence that training with commercial brain-training software can enhance cognition outside the laboratory is limited and inconsistent” (Simons et al., 2016, p. 173). Finally, in a meta-analysis examining brain training in the form of playing video games, Sala, Tatlidil, and Gobet (2017) “found no evidence of a causal relationship between playing video games and enhanced cognitive ability” (p. 111).
So, nothing in it.
Whereas the idea of brain training is to directly strengthen cognitive abilities, the aim of mindset interventions is to increase people’s beliefs that they can be strengthened. A growth mindset is assumed to be a good thing.
Across three studies with a total sample over 600 participants, Li and Bates (2017) found “no support for mindset-effects on cognitive ability, response to challenge, or educational progress” (p. 2). Furthermore, in a recent meta-analysis, Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, and Macnamara (2018) examined the effectiveness of growth mindset interventions on academic achievement and identified a number of methodological shortcomings among mindset studies, such as many instances of manipulation checks either not being successful or not being reported. Sisk et al. found that the effectiveness of mindset interventions on academic achievement was very weak overall, with almost all analyses yielding small or null effects. They concluded that “those seeking more than modest effects or effects for all students are unlikely to find them” (p. 568).
Nothing in it.
Grit refers to perseverance. This must be a good thing, surely?
However, in a study of 4,642 twins, Rimfeld, Kovas, Dale, and Plomin (2016) found that grit was substantially heritable, but found no evidence for a shared environmental influence on grit. Rimfeld et al. explained that “[t]he most limiting finding, for any possible intervention, is that shared environmental influence is negligible” (p. 786). In other words, current environmental factors such as how parents raise their children or approaches schools take to teaching do not appear to influence grit.
We are often told that the fact that a trait is heritable does not mean that it cannot be manipulated by environmental means. True, as a general warning, but in this case it seems to be the case that the trait is heritable and not manipulatable by educational means.
Evidence further suggests that, even if grit is found to be trainable, it may have no impact on academic achievement above and beyond other personality factors.
“overall grit explains no variance in either overall academic performance or high school GPA after controlling for conscientiousness” (p. 501).
Despite these negative findings, training in GRIT is an educational priority in the US and UK.
So, to have a persevering approach to learning is a good thing, but seems to be a personal characteristic which cannot be altered so as to make a difference to academic achievement.
Persevering is good, but training people to persevere? Nothing in it.
Practice, practice, practice. What could be wrong with that? Well, it could be a great time-waster for those who lack talent, and should be doing something else.
There is no question that deliberate practice can lead to major improvements in performance within an individual. The controversial claim is that deliberate practice can largely explain differences in performance across individuals. This claim is not supported by empirical evidence. In a recent meta-analysis, Macnamara, Hambrick, and Oswald (2014) found that deliberate practice leaves the majority of variance in performance across individuals unexplained and potentially explainable by other factors (see also Platz et al., 2014). In another meta-analysis, Macnamara, Moreau, and Hambrick (2016) found that deliberate practice accounted for a non-significant 1% of the variance in performance among elite-level athletes, inconsistent with Ericsson and colleagues’ (1993) claim that “[i]ndividual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice” (p. 363). Furthermore, Macnamara et al. (2016) found that higher-level athletes were no more likely to have begun practicing their sport at a younger age than their lower-level counterparts. Together, this evidence indicates that deliberate practice is not the only important contributor to individual differences in expertise.
Nothing in it for those without talent, something in it for those with talent.
La idea que hablar dos idiomas mejora la inteligencia.
However, multiple researchers have pointed out that the literature on the bilingual advantage research suffers from a high degree of publication bias, favoring statistically significant, positive effects (de Bruin, Treccani, & Della Sala, 2015). Indeed, a recent, large-scale meta-analysis showed no evidence for the bilingual advantage in any executive functioning domain after correcting for publication bias (Lehtonen et al., 2018). Similarly, in a detailed critique of the literature, Paap, Johnson, and Sawi (2015) pointed out that over 80% of the tests assessing the bilingual advantage since 2011 yielded null findings.
Is there any harm in getting people to practice useless tasks? Certainly. It wastes time they could spend learning something useful.
We think there is potential harm in the form of opportunity costs. Some of these opportunity costs impact society. For example, time that students spend completing ineffective interventions could be spent on learning mathematics, science, language,arts, and other school subjects. Similarly, money spent on brain training or mindset programs for a school—even if the program is cheaper than other interventions— could be spent on more effective interventions or on needs such as hiring additional teachers.
Be as kind as you can to your friend, and then direct him or her to a good book on some uplifting subject. Even an introduction to intelligence research will be to their advantage.