Infants make more attempts to achieve a goal when they see adults persist

A straightforward and briefly reported study that supports the rather obvious hypothesis that quite young (15-month-old) children can and do learn from observing adults, at least in the short term. The twist here is that adults in the study were deliberately trying to model an attitude (grit) more than a distinct behaviour, in an attempt to teach the kids to do the same.

It is fair to say that the researchers demonstrated to the kids that persevering with problems after initially failure can lead to desirable results, and that the kids appeared to be more inclined to do the same after watching adults doing so: this accords well with the title of the paper. I’m not sure that the adults adequately demonstrated grit, though. I don’t know about you, but I actually enjoy solving problems and positively relish the failures that teach me how to succeed. In fact, in many situations (programming, for example) I deliberately make things fail in order to understand how they do so, and that’s part of the fun, even though (and partly because) I may curse and fume when the process fails to enlighten me. Same for many commercially available puzzles, from Rubik’s Cubes to letter-sliding games. Seems to me that grit involves more than doing something enjoyable on the way to achieving some anticipated goal that matters to us. It’s often about doing unenjoyable things, sometimes for goals we don’t even find particularly interesting or worthwhile, often over a prolonged period. That’s not what was happening here. This is interesting, though, if only to confirm that really quite young kids are able to see others as beings like themselves, and to transfer the lessons of stories that they construct about what they perceive others to be doing into actions they then take themselves.

The brief timeframe of the study means that it doesn’t show whether this is how grit is actually learned over time.  The extent to which lessons persist depends on a great many things, including prior experience, repetition, who is repeating it, success in the short term, effectiveness of the attitude in overcoming meaningful challenges in the long term, social value of the attitude, current context, and counter-examples over time. Outside an experimental context we pick up attitudes and sentiments from kids as much as they do from us, from one another, and from the world at large. There are usually very many others around us who are all engaged in a rich reciprocal dance with us through which we collectively construct our various intersecting cultures and subcultures, including our attitudes and values. Also, life is seldom so neatly structured and categorized that a lesson can be so directly transferred from one context to another. At least, such cases are not the interesting ones. Though the experimenters tried to make the tasks a bit different, the study was really set up to highlight the similarities, and to lead to results that would please the children.  In real life, we usually need to connect one situation with another that is quite different, separated by time, and to choose between competing strategies to deal with it, often with others around us that are adopting different approaches, all of which will influence us. Often, we are not even particularly interested in the outcomes. It’s much harder to do experiments that reflect that reality. In fact, it’s probably impossible, at least without adopting the ethical precepts of Josef Mengele. The researchers laudably note a range of other limitations, including cultural differences, beliefs of children about adults, task specific issues, and so on, and make no extravagant claims that it can be generalized further. Indeed it cannot.

That said, this is good evidence for something that I believe is not a bad idea: that teachers (formal or otherwise) should act as they hope their students will act. A very large part of the role of a teacher is to model how people in their field (or society at large, in the case of younger kids) think and behave, to enact and demonstrate their approaches and attitudes,  perhaps more than to pass on the facts, skills, and technologies of their discipline, or to provide support for gaining such knowledge.

Bearing that in mind, while there is value in ‘grit’ and I don’t want to knock it too much, I think there are other attitudes that might matter a whole lot more, especially those that enable us to not just stick with stuff we don’t enjoy but to find pleasure and meaning in it. Passion is way more useful than grit, in the long run. Caring, too. Teachers that light fires in students’ hearts achieve way more than those that simply show them how to stick at things they hate.


Persistence, above and beyond IQ, is associated with long-term academic outcomes. To look at the effect of adult models on infants’ persistence, we conducted an experiment in which 15-month-olds were assigned to one of three conditions: an Effort condition in which they saw an adult try repeatedly, using various methods, to achieve each of two different goals; a No Effort condition in which the adult achieved the goals effortlessly; or a Baseline condition. Infants were then given a difficult, novel task. Across an initial study and two preregistered experiments (N = 262), infants in the Effort condition made more attempts to achieve the goal than did infants in the other conditions. Pedagogical cues modulated the effect. The results suggest that adult models causally affect infants’ persistence and that infants can generalize the value of persistence to novel tasks.

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