The Psychology of GRIT

So many times, we have been told that people who have succeeded in life have done so by immense talent. Other times, we spend nights worrying about how possible it is that our counterparts excel at our fields better than us. However, what if it is a simple situation of something we are lacking, something which we all need to work at.

In 2011, Angela Duckworth studied a number of students, who were training to become a part of the United States military. Out of 14,000 students who apply yearly for admission into the United States Military Academy at West Point, only 1200 are admitted after the rigorous admission process, and after that, one in five cadets drops out before graduation. (Duckworth, 2011). Such a staggering amount of failure, one would say. But what caused it?

A longitudinal study by Duckworth et al., (2011), was carried on a group of students who were to compete in a National spelling bee competition. It was found out that to get to the national level where only about 8 students compete, usually, hundreds of people apply to spelling bees from different schools. So, what is it that is special about the people who make it to the Nationals? What is special about the person who wins the competition?

From casual observation, I have found out that out of an average of 150 students who are admitted into Dentistry department yearly, at the University of Lagos, Nigeria, only an average of 60 students graduate when they are supposed to. An average of 50 is dropped between 100 and 300 level, and, an average of 40 repeat the classes.

The question remains:

What is special about people who make it to the top?!

From Duckworth’s observation, everybody who excelled at their respective field had spent considerable amount of time working at their goals each day whether they liked it or not and this was what was important.

The winner of the spelling bee put 8 hours into practice daily, whether she wanted to or not; whether she felt like it or not; Majority of the students at the final year class of the College of Medicine, University of Lagos put in long hours to study, whether they like it or not. The students who made it to the US Military had endurance capacities that were found wanting among their colleagues.

Duckworth reached a conclusion that GRIT was responsible for the successes she had witnessed in these fields.

What is Grit?

Grit is the ability of a person to endure through difficult situations while maintaining a consistent effort characterised by the ability to persevere during difficulties and maintain a sustained effort over an extended period of time. It is also the disposition to pursue long-term goals with sustained interest and effort over time (Duckworth et al., 2007).

According to Duckworth, what describes a gritty individual is the ability of that person not to abandon tasks for the sake of mere changeability, or in the face of obstacles.

Psychology of Grit
Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

Theories Supporting Grit

There are three theories which have been found to support the concept of grit.

They are:

  1. Self Determination Theory
  2. Social Cognitive Theory
  3. Positive Psychology Theory

Self Determination Theory

The self determination theory suggests that people’s psychological needs are the motivating factors to their growth and change. This theory also suggests that there are three of this needs which are:

The need for:

  1. Competence : Gaining mastery of skills;
  2. Connectedness/ Relatedness: Building strong social support systems;
  3. Autonomy: Exerting control over ones behavior by themselves.

Deci, 1985, believed that when people are given extrinsic rewards for an already instrinsically motivated behavior, it leads to them questioning their autonomy. They begin to ask themselves if they are really in control of their behavior, and as a result, they feel less and less in control of their behavior and the intrinsic motivation that was once there before disappears.

He also suggested that when people are given positive encouragement and feedback on their performance, this increased their intrinsic motivation. One begins to ask why. It is because feedback helps people to feel more competent,

According to Deci & Ryan (2008), people are driven by a need to grow and gain fulfillment. Getting mastery over seeming challenges and developing new experiences are important for building a complete and cohesive sense of self.

The part of this theory that relates to grit is autonomy. This is because autonomy focuses on the cognitive aspect of self determination theory which means acting without external pressure. Several studies have been done by various researchers to prove that there is indeed a positive relationship between relatedness, competence and more importantly, autonomy, with seeing through a goal to the end. Examples include: longitudinal studies of diabetes self-management (Williams, McGregor, Zeldmanm Freedman, & Deci, 2004), exercise behavior (Edmunds, Ntoumanis, & Duda, 2006), cessation of tobacco (Williams et al., 2006), classroom evaluations of Nigerian and Indian adolescents (Sheldon, Abad, & Omoile, 2009).

Social Cognitive Psychology

This theory focuses on cognitions and emphasizes that humans are responsible for their own development and go on to create their own eventual outcomes (Bandura, 1978).  According to this theory, one’s personal, behavioral, and environmental factors affect their behavior. This means that though it is true that cognitions contribute to behavior, it is also true that an individual can change their behavior and achieve optimal functioning. Albert Bandura also realized that the fact that humans may not also have control over situations they found themselves in, and so, they have to rely on other people like spouse, friends etc  to exercise control. (Bandura, 2001)

According to Bandura’s social cognitive theory, a person can actually alter their outcome. And so, the way a person sees a task is a function of their level of self efficacy. A person who has a high self efficacy will anticipate success at their task, while a person with low self efficacy will anticipate failure at their task.

Also, a person’s level of self efficacy determines how much effort they will put into reaching for their goal. It would also determine the length of time they put into a task. (Bandura, 1989).

The tenets of the social cognitive theory, which include perseverance, determination and self-efficacy, are closely aligned with the definition of grit, and this makes it important to the study of grit. And so, due to fact that grit is passion and perseverance for long term goals, social cognitive theory shows strongly the relationship between grit and career success.

Positive Psychology

Positive psychology is the scientific study of what makes life most worth living. (Peterson, 2008). The positive psychology framework has been used in understanding how people achieve mental, career and health development (Seligman, 2002). As researchers keep using positive psychology to understand and predict factors that favor important outcomes, factors that contribute to success at work, academics or health can now be targeted. Grit is important as a factor in positive psychology because it lays emphasis on sustaining a person’s interest and motivation towards work and future goals.  Eskreis‐Winkler et al. (2014) conducted a research in which the predictive validity of grit and high school completion among a diverse group of Hispanic/Latino (45%) and African American/Black (43%) students in public schools in Chicago was measured. It was found out that grit predicted the completion of high school. Students who had higher grit levels were more likely to graduate.

In essence, since grit is related to high performance in fields of endeavors, positive psychology is an important factor in determining the level of grit of a person. Singh & Jha, 2008, identified the positive relationship between life satisfaction and psychological grit among people.

As positive psychology is focused on intervening to ensure that people live a good life, this is where there is a correlation between Grit, Happiness, Positive Affect and Life Satisfaction.

Diener (2000) concluded that lasting happiness could result in part from, for instance, working for one’s goals, from close social relationships, renewable physical pleasures, and flow activities. Thus Grit has an important role to play in achieving this.

You should know that:

  • In a longitudinal study of mentally gifted children conducted by Terman & Oden, 1947, it was found out that the most accomplished of men were only 5 points higher in Intelligence Quotient, than the least accomplished men. This leads to the question should Intelligent Quotient really be used as a measure of success? Is IQ really important in determining how far a person would go in life? Or how much of a success they would become at a particular endeavor?


  • In a study done on expert performers in the art which includes chess, sports, music, and the visual arts by Ericsson and Charness (1994), it was found out that over 10 years of deliberate practice set experts apart from other people who were less proficient at these tasks. Looking at people who have excelled in the notable fields around us, people like Serena Williams and Venus Williams who have excelled at the tennis sport come to mind. Both sisters have practiced every day from a very young age. Also, Beyonce the music goddess of our time is known to have very strict work ethics, as she practices for at least 8 hours a day. Down to the academic field, there is hardly any skilled professional who would tell you that getting to these levels of their life did not take them years of hard work. It is never just luck.


  • Studies have shown that grit is more related to conscientiousness than any of the big five personality traits. Conscientiousness is one fundamental personality trait that is a function of whether people set goals and keep them. Being conscientious also shows whether a person deliberates over decisions or just chooses to act on impulse. Conscientiousness is a key ingredient for success. Barrick & Mount (1991) were able to prove that Conscientiousness was more related to excellence at work than extraversion, openness to experience, neuroticism, or even agreeableness as people who are deemed as conscientious individuals have been found to be characteristically thorough, careful, reliable, organized, industrious, and self-controlled. (Duckworth, 2007).


  • In his book, “The Energies of Men” William James was quoted saying:

“Of course there are limits; the trees don’t grow into the sky.” But these outer boundaries of where we will, eventually, stop improving are simply irrelevant for the vast majority of us: “The plain fact remains that men the world over, possess amounts of resource, which only very exceptional individuals push to their extremes of use.” (William, 1907)

In this quote William James was making reference to the fact that human beings can actually excel at any field if we put our vast resources to good use. This brings us back to Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory which implied that man could in fact alter his own outcome.



For years, we have been told that Intelligence Quotient is a function of success. Imagine the havoc this may have wreaked for some people who once hearing that they had a low intelligence quotient would immediately cease to work at their goals, not knowing that it is not the only determinant factor for success.

In secondary schools, I have had the privilege to observe that there are certain students who just would not put in work to get better grades. Most of those students have gotten tired of hearing how much of a failure they are by everyone around them, or how less intelligent they are from their peers.

I believe that if those guardians had taken a different approach and tried to encourage them to work harder while setting standards that they should meet, such students would not have a laid back attitude towards school work.

It is as though they have learned helplessness with regards to failure. In a classroom, Duckworth (2007), observed that the students who excelled more at mathematics were not the students who had a higher intelligence quotient, but in fact, they were the students who did not seem smart, and would sit back after class asking questions and trying to understand what they had been taught.

Grit is important to letting people know that with just a sustained effort at their goals, they would become a success. Once this thinking is enforced, people would start to believe that they can do more and slowly, our society can start to produce more high flyers in different fields.


Bandura, A. (1978). Reflections on self-efficacy. Advances in Behaviour Research and Therapy, 1(4), 237-269.

Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. American Psychologist, 44(9), 1175-1184.

Barrick, M. R., & Mount, M. K. (1991). The Big Five personality dimensions and job performance: A meta analysis. Personnel Psychology, 44, 1–26.

Duckworth A. L., Peterson C., Matthews M. D., Kelly D. R. (2007). Grit: perseverance and passion for long-term goals. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 92, 1087- 1101, 10.1037/0022-3514.92.6.1087

Duckworth, Angela & Kirby, Teri & Tsukayama, Eli & Berstein, Heather & Anders Ericsson, K. (2011). Deliberate Practice Spells Success Why Grittier Competitors Triumph at the National Spelling Bee. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 2. 174-181.10.1177/194855061

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Diener, E., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Beyond money: Toward an economy of well-being. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 5(1), 1-31.

Edmunds, J., Ntoumanis, N., & Duda, J. L. (2006). A test of self-determination theory in the exercise domain. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 36(9), 2240-2265.

Ericsson, K. A., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49, 725–747.

Eskreis-Winkler, L., Shulman, E. P., Beal, S. A., & Duckworth, A. L. (2014). The grit effect: predicting retention in the military, the workplace, school and marriage. Frontiers in Psychology5, 36.

James, W.(1907). The energies of men. Science 25(635):321–332.

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55(1), 5-14.

Seligman, M. E. P. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. NewYork: Free Press.

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Terman, L. M., & Oden, M. H. (1947). The gifted child grows up: twenty-five years follow-up of a superior group. Genetic studies of genius (Val 4). Stanford, CA: Stanford U niversity Press.

Williams, G. C., McGregor, H. A., Sharp, D., Levesque, C., Kouides, R. W., Ryan, R. M., et al. (2006). Testing a self-determination theory intervention for motivating tobacco cessation: Supporting autonomy and competence in a clinical trial. Health Psychology, 25(1), 91- 101.

Williams, G. C., McGregor, H. A., Zeldman, A., Freedman, Z. R., & Deci, E. L. (2004). Testing a self determination theory process model for promoting glycemic control through diabetes self management. Health Psychology, 23(1), 58-66.


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This article was written by Blessing Iyamadiken

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