What Naturalness Bias can teach us about our perceptions of talent

Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration

Thomas Edison

After a family trip to Florida which included a visit to the winter residence of Thomas Edison in Ft. Meyers, a souvenir fridge magnet with this quote became a permanent fixture on our fridge at home.

From sports people to entrepreneurs we often hear similar sentiments echoed by successful people – Success is more about hard work than it is about natural gifts. Despite this, and according to recent research, many of us still have a preference for people with a “natural gift” over those that have grafted for their success.

“I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given. I believed in myself, and I believe in the goodness of others.”

Muhammad Ali

The role of inherent bias in our lives is truly powerful and it is easy to underestimate how much our unconscious minds impact our decisions. Inherent bias impacts us on a daily basis influencing our likes and dislikes, but extrapolating this across large demographics can lead to significant impact on our society. The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam, is an excellent introduction to this concept.

A subset of unconscious bias is “Naturalness Bias” supported by a relatively recent, but comprehensive body of research by Chia-Jung Tsay.

This first piece of research tested the role of naturalness bias by taking a single piece of music by the Taiwanese pianist, Gwhyneth Chen, and playing it twice to listeners. In each instance, the music was identical but listeners were given a different bio of the pianist to accompany the each of the two renditions. One bio emphasized the pianist’s natural talents, and the other spoke to the tremendous amount of work that went into developing their skills. Despite the two recordings being exactly the same, the listeners rated the “natural” pianist higher.

Tsay went on to test this theory further, in the business world. In a similar pattern, study participants were presented with a business plan and a bio for the fictional entrepreneur that created it. In one group the business plan was paired with a story of a natural entrepreneur, and the other a story of a hard-worker who developed their skills over time. Despite the business plans being identical, the “natural” entrepreneur received more favorable feedback on the business proposal across all surveyed responses.

Tsay even went a step further in this second study, using a conjoint analysis to quantify the potential cost of this bias. Participants were willing to sacrifice about 4.5 years of experience, 8% in management skills, 30 IQ points, and $31k in invested capital to invest in the “natural” entrepreneur!

The pervasive influence of bias in our lives should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to the HR function. Despite the prevalent notion that success is primarily driven by hard work rather than innate talent, research shows that many individuals still hold a preference for those perceived to possess a “natural gift.” This unconscious bias, deeply ingrained in our decision-making processes, can have far-reaching implications for organizations, and our society as a whole.

Recognizing and addressing bias in HR is crucial for creating a fair and inclusive work environment. By actively challenging biases and promoting a culture that values hard work and dedication, organizations can ensure that individuals are evaluated based on their merits and contributions rather than preconceived notions of natural talent.

It is incumbent upon HR professionals and leaders to implement strategies to mitigate bias and foster diversity and inclusivity within their organizations. This can be achieved through diverse hiring practices, structured evaluation systems, training programs that raise awareness about different types of bias, and cultivating a culture that values effort and growth. By acknowledging and addressing the role of bias, we can pave the way for a more equitable and inclusive workplace where individuals are recognized and rewarded for their hard work and achievements. Ultimately, fostering a bias-free environment will not only benefit individuals but also contribute to the overall success and growth of organizations.

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