When the going gets tough, they say the tough get going. This characteristic can be called anything from courage to perseverance to the commonly-used “grit.” This is persistence in the face of adversity and set-backs and the ability to keep focused on a goal. For younger generations not familiar with the adjective grit used in this sense, it’s part of the phrase to grit your teeth—and usually inferred as to grit your teeth, and get on it with it.
Describing yourself or people you know as being gritty is usually meant as a compliment; someone who copes with the less desirable parts of a process, life, or a job, and usually succeeds because they didn’t give up. Not everyone has this ability, so does it come from the heart or from the brain? New research suggests that it is tied to cognitive performance, but not necessarily in the way that we might think it is.
Researchers from Spain’s University of Granada continued previous research into this behavioral characteristic which used the Grit Scale, a reference assessment which evaluates and quantifies grit within someone’s personality. The Grit Scale breaks it down into measuring levels of grit, mindfulness, and impulsivity. The new study focused on 134 participants who took questionnaires and computer tasks which tested their cognitive performance, covering everything from how well the brain filtered down what information was relevant versus irrelevant in working memory to cognitive flexibility and cognitive inhibition.
What surprised researchers is that those who scored higher on the Grit Scale did not have an overall higher cognitive performance score. The participants with high grit did show that their personality included higher levels of mindfulness and lower impulsiveness which they believe is linked to the connection between self-control/regulation and the essence of what it means to have grit.
Interestingly, even though the participants with more grit did not have better cognitive abilities overall, they had a different pattern within their cognitive process. They showed an advanced capability to exercise cautious control, which is the ability to pay close attention to all incoming information in the present moment, filtering out information which did not match the current information. They were less reliant on the information that had come to them previously and instead used careful filtering of what information was coming to them in the present moment.
Having grit is likely associated with a better connection the present moment, being mindful and self-regulated, rather than excelling in all areas of cognitive performance. It’s an example of “it’s not what you do, but how you do it.”
Nuria V. Aguerre, Carlos J. Gómez-Ariza, M. Teresa Bajo. The relative role of executive control and personality traits in grit. PLOS ONE, 2022; 17 (6): e0269448 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0269448