Summary: People who are more determined, or express more “grit” have different patterns of cognitive performance, researchers say. However, having more grit does not necessarily translate into having better cognitive performance.
A new analysis of the personality trait of grit found that people who showed higher levels of grit also had different patterns of cognitive performance—but not necessarily enhanced cognitive performance.
Nuria Aguerre of the University of Granada, Spain, and colleagues present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE .
A person with grit is someone who displays notable perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals, even in the face of setbacks. Researchers typically measure it with an evaluation tool known as the Grit Scale.
While previous studies have suggested a potential link between grit and certain aspects of cognitive functioning, no studies have directly examined this relationship.
To gain further insight, Aguerre and colleagues had 134 study participants complete questionnaires, including the Grit Scale, to evaluate their personalities according to three traits: grit, impulsiveness, and mindfulness.
The participants also completed four experimental computer-based tasks to measure different facets of cognitive ability, including flexibility, inhibition, the ability to replace irrelevant items in one’s working memory—which holds information temporarily—with newer, relevant items, and the control mode tendency.
Statistical analysis of the questionnaire and experimental data revealed that, contrary to the researchers’ predictions, people with higher grit scores did not necessarily score higher on overall cognitive ability.
However, in line with prior research, grit was statistically linked to the personality traits of low impulsivity and high mindfulness, which are both related to self-regulation.
However, albeit to a lesser statistical extent, participants high in grit did show different patterns of cognitive performance. The researchers characterized this cognitive profile as showing cautious control: an enhanced ability to pay attention to all available information and remain sensitive to conflicting information in the present moment, while relying less on earlier information.
Overall, these findings suggest that different patterns of cognitive ability—not necessarily greater ability—may underlie grit. This is in line with other researchers’ previously proposed ideas.
The researchers describe this study as exploratory and suggest that future research could delve deeper, such as by including a more comprehensive measure of grit and by also considering a cognitive ability known as fluid intelligence.
The authors add: “To crown the top of the mountain you do not need very good executive functions. You should be aware of the environment instead.”
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The relative role of executive control and personality traits in grit
Although grit is predictive of wellbeing, educational achievement, and success in life, it has been conceptualized as largely distinct from cognitive ability.
The present study investigated the link between grit and executive functions since regulation abilities might underlie the expression of grit.
A hundred thirty-four people were administered personality questionnaires (grit, impulsiveness, and mindfulness) and four experimental tasks tapping into Miyake’s and Braver’s models of executive functioning (including measures of flexibility, inhibition, working memory, and control mode dimensions).
Multivariate analyses showed that two composite scores (trait and executive functioning) were reliably predictive of grit, although it was the trait composite (characterized by low impulsivity and high mindfulness) that explained more variance. Importantly, gritty participants did not demonstrate enhanced executive functioning.
Instead, they exhibited a different pattern of performance that might be reflecting a cautious profile of control, characterized by paying attention to all available information, less reliance on previous contextual cues but sensitive to conflicting information of the current context.
These findings converge with Duckworth’s idea that high grit people do not necessarily have a greater cognitive capacity. Rather, they use it in a different way.