A common refrain in the recruitment world is that you should hire for attitude, as skills can be taught. The notion is that a proactive and enthusiastic personality is far harder to cultivate, but that such a personality can easily support the individual as they pick up the skills required to thrive.
It is a narrative that certainly has a degree of logic to it, but new research from Stanford suggests that it might not always be the case. The researchers argue that passion should not be considered the cornerstone of all achievement, as is sometimes the case today. Indeed, the culture we grow up in tends to be far more important. Until we realize this, we may be losing out on a lot of great talent.
Show me the passion
The researchers took a big data-based approach to assess the link between our motivation and our performances. They trawled through three years worth of data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which as the only exam taken by students from around the world, provides a perfect Petri dish to assess how motivations differ in different cultures.
In total, the data included exam scores from around 1.2 million students from 59 different countries. Alongside the exam results, the data also included their level of enjoyment, interest, and self-efficacy in math, reading, and science. These scores were used to provide a proxy score for their passion for each subject.
On the surface, the results suggest that the general heuristic about passion leading to better outcomes was born out, with those who felt passionately about the three subjects tending to score better in the exams for those subjects. What is interesting, however, is that this trend was far more pronounced in countries with a more individualistic culture, such as Australia or the United States, than it was in countries with a more collectivist culture, such as Thailand and Colombia. In these countries, students were more likely to believe that family support for the topic was as important as any personal passion.
What motivates us
In the research community, individualistic countries often go by the acronym WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic nations). People from such nations tend to view the individual as both independent and the primary source of motivation.
By contrast, more collectivist societies view the self as part of a more complex web of roles, relations, and responsibilities. For them, the individual is interdependent on those around them.
As such, the researchers argue that the notion that passion feeds directly into performance is a predominantly Western perspective on things. In reality, our motivation can adopt a very different form depending on our socio-cultural context. Indeed, the researchers note that in languages such as Thai and Mandarin, there is not even a word that directly translates as passion, at least in the sense of having a burning intellectual interest in a subject.
The researchers argue that our personal motivation is significantly influenced by how our culture views things such as achievement and socialization, as well as the educational norms in that country.
The authors are keen to point out that they do not regard either the individualistic model of motivation or the more collectivist model as better, but instead believe that it’s important not to only view motivation through the individualistic lens in case we miss out on talent from communities that adopt a different approach.
This is especially so as the last few years have seen a growth in desire for passion and determination, whether in the form of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours to mastery or Angela Duckworth’s promotion of grit as vital to success in life. These tend to view motivation through the individualistic lens and may overlook the crucial role parents, teachers, and friends can play in more collectivist motivational cultures.
“By investigating cultural variability in the link between passion and achievement, the data reveal the role of individualism in strengthening this link across three academic domains: science, mathematics, and reading,” the researchers conclude. “This new evidence challenges the implicit belief communicated by higher institutions in WEIRD cultures that passion underlies students’ future success, regardless of the diversity of student background.”