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The Swedish Psychologist K. Anders Ericsson has published many reports stating that talent is "made and not born". In his book 'The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance', he has stated that "Consistently and overwhelmingly, the evidence showed that experts are always made, not born."

On the other hand, a recent twin study has stated that on average, a human's ability is 50% influenced by genetic factors, and 50% influenced by environmental factors. This seems to contradict Ericsson's experiment, as he has asserted that genetic factors influence a person's abilities by less than 1%.

Does the twin study contradict Ericsson's assertions, and if so, why would there be such a large contradiction? What factors could have caused these large differences in findings?

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While both Ericsson's work and the twin study feed into the nature-nurture debate, the twin study does not contradict Ericsson's assertions.

The misconception is in the following quote:

a recent twin study has stated that on average, a human's ability is 50% influenced by genetic factors, and 50% influenced by environmental factors. This seems to contradict Ericsson's experiment, as he has asserted that genetic factors influence a person's abilities by less than 1%.

The results from Polderman et al. (2015) and the assertions made by Ericsson are not this simple. Polderman et al. (2015) is a massive meta-analysis that looked at 28 general domains of performance, including things as broad as "psychiatric" and "cognitive". They analysed close to 3000 studies to do this.

Ericsson's claims on the other hand are specifically about expert ability. This means that his assertions are limited to specific domains of performance, such as expert musical ability, which the twin study does not look at. His assertions are also limited to studies that actually have experts in them. The vast majority of twin studies in the meta-analysis do not have experts involved in them.

Ericsson and Harwell (2019) discusses objections based on studies like Polderman et al. (2015) in a section of the paper titled, "Inferring Genetic Limits for the Effects of Practice on Attained Performance".

In addition, the ACE model the meta-analysis uses has limited power when talking about gene x environment interactions. This is important because Ericsson's models often incorporate the idea that genetic factors exist but are less important than practise for experts. This is less important than the points mentioned above, but still relevant when critically evaluating the paper.

Thus, the twin study only shows that for most people, if we look broadly at general abilities, they can be explained (nearly 50%) by heritable genetic factors. However, Ericsson claims that for experts, if we look at domain-specific abilities, they are best explained by practice and not genetic factors. They are talking about slightly different things and thus one does not contradict the other.

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Ericsson’s studies have repeatedly ignored the genetics of performance in any field. His favourite study of expert performance - the London taxi driver experiment - also failed to control for prior genetic attributes that may have led these taxi drivers into their professions in the first place. A good place to start perhaps

Reference

Macnamara, B. N., Hambrick, D. Z., & Oswald, F. L. (2014). Deliberate practice and performance in music, games, sports, education, and professions: A meta-analysis. Psychological science, 25(8), 1608-1618. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614535810

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  • $\begingroup$ Ok, Ericsson may have repeatedly ignored genetics, but you haven't provided any strong evidence within your answer to prove that. What is your answer anyway? Does the twin study successfully disprove Erisson? $\endgroup$ Sep 22, 2019 at 11:51
  • $\begingroup$ Did you read the paper referenced? It’s in there $\endgroup$
    – Nick H
    Sep 22, 2019 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ @NickH Thank you for your answer. Adding an explicit extracted quote from the paper which addresses this question directly would be a nice improvement to this answer! $\endgroup$
    – Steven Jeuris
    Oct 12, 2021 at 12:33

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