Howe, Michael J. A., & Davidson J. W., & Sloboda, J. A. (1998 in press) Innate Talents: Reality Or Myth. Behavioural and Brain Sciences 21 399-442.

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Michael J. A. Howe
Department of Psychology
University of Exeter
Exeter EX4 4QG

Jane W. Davidson
Department of Music
University of Sheffield
Sheffield S10 2TN

John A. Sloboda
Department of Psychology
Keele University
Staffordshire ST5 5BG


Gift, talent, prodigy, expertise, exceptional ability, innate capacity, specific ability, potential, music


Talents that selectively facilitate the acquisition of high levels of skill are said to be present in some children but not others. The evidence for this includes biological correlates of specific abilities, certain rare abilities in autistic savants, and the seemingly spontaneous emergence of exceptional abilities in young children, but there is also contrary evidence indicating an absence of early precursors for high skill levels in young people. An analysis of positive and negative evidence and arguments suggests that differences in early experiences, preferences, opportunities, habits, training and practice are the real determinants of excellence.


In many areas of expertise, ranging from music, dance, art and literature to sports, chess, mathematics, science and foreign-language acquisition, there is abundant evidence that young people differ from one another in their attainments and in the apparent ease with which they achieve them. Even within a family there may be marked differences: a child who struggles at a musical instrument without much success may be overtaken by a younger sibling, for example.

It is widely believed that the likelihood of becoming exceptionally competent in certain fields depends upon the presence or absence of inborn attributes variously labelled "talents" or "gifts" or, less often, "natural aptitudes". According to an informal British survey, in music over three- quarters of the educators who decide which young people are to receive instruction believe that children cannot do well unless they have special innate gifts (Davis, 1994). The judgement that someone is talented is believed to help explain (as distinct from merely describing) their success. It is also widely assumed that the innate talent that makes it possible for an individual to excel can be detected in early childhood. We will refer to the view that exceptional accomplishments depend on a special biological potential that can be identified in some young children but not others as "the talent account". The purpose of this target article is to examine the evidence and arguments for and against this account.

This issue has important social implications. A consequence of the belief that innate gifts are a precondition for high achievement is that young people who are not identified as having innate talents in a particular domain are likely to be denied the help and encouragement they would need in order to reach high levels of competence. Children's progress can be affected negatively as well as positively by adults' expectations (Brophy & Good, 1973).

1.1 Agreeing on a definition of innate talent

Before considering evidence for and against the talent account, we should be as clear as possible about what is meant by "talent". In everyday life people are rarely precise about what they mean by this term: users do not specify what form an innate talent takes or how it might exert its influence.

Certain pitfalls have to be avoided in settling on a definition of talent. A very restrictive definition could make it impossible for any conceivable evidence to demonstrate talent. For example, some people believe that talent is based on an inborn ability that makes it certain that its possessor will excel. This criterion is too strong. At the other extreme, it would be possible to make the definition of talent so vague that its existence is trivially ensured; talent might imply no more than that those who reach high levels of achievement differ biologically from others in some undefined way. Yet those who believe that innate talent exists also assume that early signs of it can be used to predict future success.

For the purposes of this article we will take talent to have five properties: (1) It originates in genetically transmitted structures and hence is at least partly innate. (2) Its full effects may not be evident at an early stage, but there will be some advance indications, allowing trained people to identify the presence of talent before exceptional levels of mature performance have been demonstrated. (3) These early indications of talent provide a basis for predicting who is likely to excel. (4) Only a minority are talented, for if all children were, then there would be no way to predict or explain differential success. Finally (5), talents are relatively domain-specific.

In principle, it is desirable be precise about the indicators of talent, but in practice some imprecision is unavoidable, as in the phrase "relatively domain-specific" in (5). We would have preferred to be able to specify the boundaries between domains, but this is not currently possible. Nor can one specify just how much a trait should facilitate the acquisition of special abilities to qualify as a talent: the available empirical evidence is too coarse. We allow the possibility that an innate talent can take different forms; so saying that each of two children have "a talent for music" need not imply that both are advantaged in precisely the same way. A domain may draw on many different skills, and individuals' competence levels on them may not be highly intercorrelated (Sloboda, 1985; 1991).

1.2 The talent concept in researchers' explanations

Our five properties are meant to provide a working definition that is acceptable to researchers and captures lay intuitions. Like laymen, researchers typically believe that when they introduce the term talent they are predicting or explaining someone's performance, not just describing it. For example, Feldman (1988), writing about child prodigies, remarks that "it is not obvious what their talents will lead to" (p. 281): he insists that "the child must possess talent, and it must be very powerful" (p. 280). For Feldman, talents cannot be acquired; they must be "possessed" innately by prodigies. He believes that they demonstrate "exceptional pretuning to an already existing body of knowledge, one that countless others had spent time and energy developing and refining" (p. 278). Similarly, Gardner (1993a) equates talent with early potential, noting that "a poignant state of affairs results when an individual of high talent and promise ends up failing to achieve that potential" (p. 176). For Gardner, talent is defined as a sign of precocious biopsychological potential in a particular domain (Gardner, 1984; 1993b). The possession of "a strong gift in a specific domain, be it dance, chess or mathematics" is recognised by Gardner when there is a coincidence of factors, the first of which is "native talent" (p. 51). According to him, individuals who accomplish a great deal are people who were "at promise" in relevant areas from early in life.

For Heller (1993 p. 139) "scientific giftedness" "can be defined as scientific thinking potential or as a special talent to excel in [natural sciences]". Detterman (1993 p. 234) likewise suggests that "innate ability is what you are talking about when you are talking about talent." Eysenck claims a strong genetic basis underlies all the variables associated with giftedness (Eysenck & Barrett, 1993): he insists on the existence of genetically transmitted talents, which he regards as necessary but not sufficient for the emergence of genius (Eysenck, 1995). Benbow and Lubinski (1993) agree that talent is explicitly biological: they claim that "people are born into this world with some biological predispositions" (p. 65). Based on a survey of the use of terms like "aptitude," "giftedness" and "talent" by experts and lay persons, Gagné (1993) concludes that a special ability must have a genetic basis for it to be defined as a gift or aptitude. Winner (1996; Winner & Martino, 1993) regards talents as unlearned domain-specific traits which may develop or "come to fruition" in favourable circumstances but cannot be manufactured. Talents are likely to be identified by parents or teachers or they may be discovered fortuitously (Winner & Martino, 1993, p. 259), but many gifted children go unrecognised.

The above quotations make it clear that researchers and experts do make extensive use of the concept of talent to predict exceptional abilities and to explain their causes. Researchers as well as educators rely upon the talent account, making it important to examine its validity.

Some previous challenges to the talent account have concentrated on the field of music. Sloboda, Davidson & Howe (1994a; 1994b) raised objections to the view that musical expertise arises from talent. They noted, for example, that in some non-Western cultures musical achievements are considerably more widespread than in our own (see Section 3.3), that there are often no early signs of unusual excellence in outstanding adult instrumentalists (Sosniak, 1985), and that very early experiences may be the real cause of what is interpreted to be talent (Hepper, 1991; Parncutt, 1993). Others have challenged this analysis, arguing that the evidence of strong cultural influences on musicality can be reconciled with the existence of innate talent (Davies, 1994; see also Radford, 1994; Torff & Winner, 1994; Hargreaves, 1994).

Criticisms of the talent account in other domains have been raised by Ericsson and Charness (1995a; 1995b), who provide substantial evidence that the effects of extended deliberate practice are more decisive than is commonly believed. They argue that although children undoubtedly differ in the ease with which they perform various skills (a fact to which Gardner, 1995, has drawn attention in challenging their conclusions), no early predictors of adult performance have been found.


Several kinds of findings appear to favour the talent account. (1) There are many reports of children acquiring impressive skills very early in life, in the apparent absence of opportunities for the kinds of learning experiences that would normally be considered necessary. (2) Certain relatively rare capacities which could have an innate basis (e.g., "perfect" pitch perception) appear to emerge spontaneously in a few children and may increase the likelihood of their excelling in music. (3) Biological correlates of certain skills and abilities have been reported. (4) Some especially compelling data comes from the case histories of autistic, mentally handicapped people classified as "idiots savants."

2.1 Evidence of skills emerging unusually early

The literature on child prodigies (see, e.g., Feldman, 1980, 1986; Fowler, 1981; Freeman, 1990; Goldsmith, 1990; Gross, 1993a; 1993b; Hollingworth, 1942; Howe, 1982; 1990a; 1993; 1995; Radford, 1990) abounds with accounts of extraordinarily precocious development in the earliest years. Very early language skills are described by Fowler (1981) in a boy who was said to have begun speaking at five months of age, with a 50-word vocabulary a month later, and a speaking knowledge of five languages before the age of three. Feldman (1986) describes a boy whose parents said he began to speak in sentences at three months, to engage in conversations at six months, and to read simple books by his first birthday. Hollingworth (1942) writes that Francis Galton was reputed to be reading in his third year.

In none of these cases, however, was the very early explosion of language skills observed directly by the investigator, and all the early studies were retrospective and anecdotal. Even the more recent studies have some of these limitations. The boy described by Feldman (1986), for example, was not actually encountered by Feldman himself until he had reached the age of three. Although the boy's parents claimed to be surprised by his swift progress, Feldman was astounded by their absolute dedication and "unending quest for stimulating and supportive environments" (Feldman, 1986, p. 36).

Fowler (1981) notes that the professed passivity of some parents is belied by their very detailed accounts. One pair of parents insisted that their daughter learned to read entirely unaided and claimed that they only realized this on discovering her reading Heidi. It turned out, however, that they had kept elaborate records of the child's accomplishments. Parents who do that cannot avoid becoming actively involved in the child's early learning.

Accounts of the early lives of musicians provide further anecdotes of the apparently spontaneous flowering of impressive abilities at remarkably early ages (Hargreaves, 1986; Radford, 1990; Shuter-Dyson & Gabriel, 1981; Sloboda, 1985; Winner & Martino, 1993). A number of prominent composers were regarded as prodigies when they were young, and in some cases there are reports of unusual musical competence in their earliest years. Mozart's early feats are widely known. It is reported that the Hungarian music prodigy Erwin Nyiregyhazi was able to reproduce simple songs at the age of two and play tunes on a mouth organ at four (Revesz, 1925). Again, however, most of the reports are based upon anecdotes reported many years after the early childhood events in question. Some of the accounts are autobiographical, such as Stravinsky's description of having amazed his parents by imitating local singers as a two-year-old (Gardner, 1984) or Arthur Rubenstein's claim to have mastered the piano before he could speak. The accuracy of such autobiographical reports is questionable considering that childhood memories of the first three years are not at all reliable (e.g., see Usher & Neisser, 1993). The early biographies of prominent composers have revealed that they all received intensive and regular supervised practice sessions over a period of several years (Lehmann, 1995). The emergence of unusual skills typically followed rather than preceded a period during which unusual opportunities were provided, often combined with a strong expectation that the child would do well.

There are also some descriptions of precocious ability in the visual arts, and Winner (1996) has collected a number of drawings by two- and three-year-olds that are considerably more realistic than those of average children. Amongst major artists, however, few are known to have produced drawings or paintings that display exceptional promise prior to the age of eight or so (Winner & Martino, 1993).

2.2 Evidence of special capacities that facilitate acquisition of specific abilities

Some individuals acquire ability more smoothly and effortlessly than ordinary people, but that fact does not confirm the talent account. Differences between people in the ease in which a particular skill is acquired may be caused by any of a number of contributing factors. These include various motivational and personality influences as well as previous learning experiences that equip a person with knowledge, attitudes, skills, and self-confidence. Facility is often the outcome rather than the cause of unusual capabilities (Perkins, 1981).

Perhaps the clearest indication of a special capacity that is displayed by a minority early in life in the apparent absence of deliberate efforts to acquire it and that makes further advances likely, is encountered in the field of music. A number of young children have "perfect" or "absolute" pitch perception. A child thus endowed can both name and sing specified pitches without being given a reference pitch (Takeuchi & Hulse, 1993). Structural differences in brain morphology related to absolute pitch have been observed. Musicians who have absolute pitch show stronger leftward planum temporale asymmetry than non-musicians and musicians without perfect pitch (Schlaug, Jänke, Huang & Steinmetz, 1995). It is not clear, however, whether these differences are the cause of absolute pitch or the outcomes of differences in learning or experience.

One might expect musicians who have absolute pitch to be more successful than those who do not, but that is not always true. Perfect pitch perception has circumscribed utility. It makes no contribution to an individual's interpretative ability, for example. Moreover, there is evidence that it can be learned. It is relatively common in young musicians who are given extensive musical training prior to the age of five or six, perhaps because a young child pays more attention to individual notes before coming to perceive sounds as parts of larger musical structures (Ericsson & Faivre, 1988). Contrary to the view that absolute pitch provides clear evidence of a talent, it is sometimes found in individuals who begin their training late (Sergent & Roche, 1973), and can even be acquired by adults, although only with considerable effort (Brady, 1970; Sloboda, 1985; Takeuchi & Hulse, 1993).

Eidetic imagery has likewise been taken to be a talent. Like absolute pitch, it is observed in some young children but not others, and it appears in the absence of deliberate learning. Eidetic imagery seems to make young children capable of recalling visual information in some detail, but the phenomenon is somewhat fleeting and hard to verify with certainty; and it conveys few practical benefits, if any. Although the phenomenon seems genuine as a subjective experience, evidence that eidetic imagery is correlated with above average remembering has proved elusive (Haber, 1979; Haber & Haber, 1988). There is accordingly little justification for believing that eidetic imagery conveys an advantage.

2.3 Evidence of biological involvement in exceptional skills

There is a large body of mainly correlational research on the relationship between various measures of brain structure, function and activity and behavioural data. Performance has been linked to (a) electrocortical measures such as evoked potentials (Hendrikson & Hendrikson, 1980; Benbow & Lubinski (1993) and their components (McCarthy & Donchin, 1981), (b) hemispheric laterality data (Gazzaniga, 1985), (c) brain images (see Eysenck & Barrett, 1993), and (d) saccadic eye movements (Charlton, Bakan, & Moretti, 1989).

A number of correlates of high ability have been identified, including left-handedness, immune disorders, myopia (see Benbow & Lubinski, 1993), blood flow measures (Horn, 1986), neurohistology (Scheibel & Paul, 1985), prenatal exposure to high levels of testosterone (Geschwind & Behan, 1982), allergy, uric-acid levels, and glucose metabolism rates (see Storfer, 1990), and laterality (Eysenck & Barrett, 1993; Fischer, Hunt & Randhawa, 1982).

Sex differences in spatial abilities (Vandenberg, 1966; Humphreys, Lubinski & Yao, 1993) appear to contribute to sex differences in mathematical performance and are probably based on biological differences (Lytton & Romney, 1991; Collaer and Hines, 1995). Information-processing parameters involved in a number of human abilities, such as response speed, are at least moderately heritable (Bouchard, Lykken, McGue, Segal and Tellegen, 1990). Hereditary factors underlie various other individual differences in competence, such as working memory (Dark & Benbow, 1991). Enhanced ability to manipulate information in short-term memory has been observed in young people who are unusually successful in mathematics (Dark & Benbow, 1990). Moreover, since there are modest positive correlations between measures of special skills and heritable basic abilities such as general intelligence (Ackerman, 1988; Howe, 1989b), it is likely that some of the innate influences that contribute to variability in intelligence test scores also contribute to individual differences in special skills.

In general, the correlational evidence linking performance to brain characteristics suggests that innately determined biological differences do contribute to the variability of expertise in specific areas of competence. However, there is a large gulf between identifying neural correlates of behavioural differences and finding a neural predictor of talent. The relations between neural and performance measures are too weak to warrant conclusions about talent, and correlations diminish as tasks become more complex (Sternberg, 1993).

To provide support for the talent account, neural correlates of exceptional skills would have to be accompanied by (1) clarity about the direction of causality and evidence that the neural measure is (2) innately determined (rather than the outcome of differences in experience), (3) specific to an ability, and (4) selectively facilitates expertise in a minority of individuals. We are unaware of any neural measures that even come close to meeting these criteria. Nor has firm alternative evidence of early physical precursors of specific abilities emerged from studies of either pre-natal capacities or post-natal cognition (Hepper, 1993; Lecanuet, 1995; Papousek, 1995; Trehub, 1990).

Ericsson (1990; Ericsson & Crutcher, 1988) has argued that apparent indicators of structural precursors of ability may need to be interpreted with caution. He points out that individual differences in the composition of certain muscles are reliable predictors of differences in athletic performance, and that this fact has been widely held to demonstrate genetic determinants of athletic excellence. Ericsson notes, however, that differences in the proportion of the slow-twitch muscle fibres that are essential for success in long-distance running are largely the result of extended practice in running, rather than the initial cause of diferential ability. Differences between athletes and others in their proportions of particular kinds of muscle fibres are specific to those muscles that are most fully exercised in athletes' training for their specific specialisation (Howald, 1982).

Some individual differences in brain structure and function are the outcome of differences in experiences rather than being a primary cause. Experience can lead to changes in various parts of the mammalian brain, including the somatosensory, visual, and auditory systems (Elbert, Pantev, Wienbruch, Rockstroh & Taub, 1995). In violinists and other string players the cortical representation of the digits of the left hand (which is involved in fingering the strings) is larger than in control subjects. The magnitude of the difference is correlated with the age at which string players began instruction. Differences in early musical learning experiences may also account for the atypical brain asymmetries observed in musicians by Schlaug et al. (1995).

Although the evidence of a genetic contribution to human intelligence is consistent with the talent account, the correlations between general intelligence and various specific abilities are small (Ceci, 1990; Ceci & Liker, 1986, Howe, 1989c; 1990b; Keating, 1984). General intelligence need not limit final levels of achievement (Ackerman, 1988) and general intelligence may have little or no direct influence on specific abilities (Brynnner & Romney, 1986; Horn, 1986; Howe, 1989c). Moreover, there is no evidence of specific gene systems affecting high-level performance at special skills in the predictive and selective manner required by the talent account. Psychological traits are more likely to be influenced indirectly by genes in a probabilistic way (Plomin & Thompson, 1993). Even in the case of general intelligence, most of the research addresses the aetiology of individual differences in the normal range of ability. Relatively little is known about the genetic origins of high-level ability.

Knowledge about the genetic basis of specific high-level abilities is particularly limited (Plomin, 1988, Thompson & Plomin, 1993). In the Minnesota Study of twins reared apart self-ratings of musical talent correlated .44 among monozygotic twins reared apart, considerably less than the correlation of .69 for monozygotic twins reared together (Lykken, in press), suggesting that family experience makes a substantial contribution to self-ratings of musical ability. Similarly, in a study of musical abilities in twins, Coon & Carey (1989) concluded that among young adults musical ablility was influenced more by shared family environment than by shared genes. On a number of measures the correlations between dizygotic twins, which ranged from .34 to .83, were not much lower than those between monozygotic twins (.44 to .90).

The importance of general processing constraints diminishes as levels of expertise increase (Ackerman, 1988; Krampe & Ericsson, 1996), and some differences in basic skills are predictive of unskilled performance but less so of skilled performance (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993). In Coon & Carey's study all eight relevant estimates of the heritability of musical ability were lower for participants who had taken some music lessons than for those who took no lessons at all; the average was less than .20 in the former group. Genetic differences that are initially relevant to expertise may be less important when large amounts of training and practice have been provided.

2.4 Evidence of unusual capacities in autistic savants

In most case-histories of idiots savants it is apparent that the emergence of special skills is accompanied by obsessive interest and very high degrees of practice (see, for example Sloboda, Hermelin & O'Connor, 1985; Howe & Smith, 1988; Howe, 1989a; 1989b). There a few reports, however, of mentally handicapped children who display remarkable specific skills that seem to have been acquired in the absence of deliberate training or instruction. Among the well-documented cases are those of two child artists and a young musician; all three were described as being autistic.

From the age of four, one of the artists, a girl named Nadia, was unusually slow, clumsy, and unresponsive, and spoke hardly at all, but drew many remarkable pictures, usually of horses, birds and other animals. These pictures used advanced techniques to represent perspective, proportion, foreshortening and the illusion of movement; they also showed impressive manual dexterity (Selfe, 1977). The drawing skills of the other child artist, Stephen Wiltshire, are equally impressive (O'Connor & Hermelin, 1987; Sacks, 1995).

A five-year-old autistic boy was described in Leon Miller's (1989) study of musical abilities in the mentally handicapped. He too was largely unresponsive to his physical environment and very severely retarded in language development, with practically no speech. However, when confronted with a piano keyboard he could not only reproduce a heard melody but also transform the piece by transposing it to a different key. He could improvise in ways that conformed to the conventions of musical composition.

The abilities Miller observed seem to be based on a capacity to encode the fundamental units quickly and efficiently and to represent musical items in a complex knowledge system incorporating sensitivity to harmonic relationships, scale or key constraints, melodic structure, and stylistic norms.

The remarkable capacities of autistic musicians and artists may seem to call for something close to the talent account. At least in the cases of Nadia and the five-year-old boy described by Miller, their observed level of performance was beyond anything encountered in nonautistic children of comparable ages. Exactly why these children could do things that others cannot remains largely a matter for speculation, although it is noteworthy that in many documentated cases the individuals concerned spent many hours each day concentrating on their special interest. There is no direct evidence that the causes are innate, and if they do have an innate component its main direct effect may be to augment the individuals' obsessionality rather than their specific skills as such.


Following Section 2, which examined various kinds of evidence that appears to be consistent with the talent account, this section cites a variety of findings in the opposite direction. Other reasons for questioning the innate talent viewpoint are also introduced.

3.1 Lack of early signs

As noted in Section 2.1, much of the evidence pointing to very early indications of unusual abilities is either retrospective or based upon records supplied by parents whose claims to have played no active role in stimulating their child's progress are belied by other information. Except in the case of a small number of autistic children mentioned in Section 2.4, there is no firm evidence of exceptional early progress without above- average degrees of parental support and encouragement. This is not to say that parental support or special opportunities and training account for all instances of excellence.

Innate influences might operate in ways that do not produce early signs, but to predict progress early evidence of talent is necessary. Unidentifiable early influences cannot be regarded as instances of talent, for the reasons given in Section 1.1.

We will first consider some studies of whether children identified as unusually able by midchildhood or later had displayed any early signs of special qualities other than those induced by early parental training or special encouragement.

It is important to keep in mind that early ability is not evidence of talent unless it emerges in the absence of special opportunities to learn. For example, it was once thought that the ability of infants in certain parts of Africa to sit and walk appreciably earlier than European children must have a genetic basis, but Super (1976) showed that this inference was wrong. Studying infants in a Kenyan tribe, he confirmed that they did indeed display motor capacities such as walking, standing and sitting without support a month or so earlier than children in other continents, but he also discovered that the only skills these infants acquired earlier than others were those that their mothers deliberately taught them. When genetically similar infants from the same tribe were brought up in an urban environment in which parents did not provide the special training given in traditional villages, the infants displayed no motor precocity. Super reported a correlation of -.9 between the age at which a baby began to crawl and a measure of the extent to which parents encouraged crawling. These findings do not rule out the possibility that some early differences have biological bases (Rosser & Randolph, 1989), but they do show that this cannot be automatically assumed.

Retrospective interview studies of the early progress of individuals who eventually excel have provided little evidence of early signs of promise. Sosniak (1985; 1990) interviewed at length 21 outstanding American pianists in their mid-thirties, on the brink of careers as concert pianists. She also talked to their parents. There were few indications of the musicians displaying signs of future excellence while they were still very young. In most cases, unusually fast progress followed rather than preceded a combination of good opportunities and vigorous encouragement. Even by the time the young pianists had received around six years of relatively intensive training, it would have been possible to make confident predictions about their eventual success in only a minority of the cases. Similarly, a biographical study of 165 professional musicians in Poland produced very few reports of any preschool behaviour predictive of unusual musicality (Manturzewska, 1986). A longitudinal study of elite German tennis players likewise found no early capacities that predicted tennis performance in early adulthood (Schneider, 1993; see also Monsaas, 1985). Interview studies of the childhood progress of accomplished artists (Sloane & Sosniak, 1985), swimmers (Kalinowski, 1985) and mathematicians (Gustin, 1985) reported very few early signs of exceptional promise prior to deliberate parental encouragement being given.

Howe, Davidson, Moore & Sloboda (1995) studied the form and frequency of early signs of musical ability in 257 children, only some of whom made superior progress as performing musicians. The investigators asked the parents to indicate whether or not specific indicators of musical promise had occurred, and if so, when. The parents were asked when their child first sang, moved to music, showed a liking for music, were attentive to music, or sought involvement in a musical activity. Only with the first of these behaviours, early singing, did those who were eventually most successful display (slightly) earlier onset than the other children. In most of these cases a parent regularly sang to the infant well before any singing by the infant was observed. (See also Howe & Sloboda, 1991a; 1991b; 1991c; Sloboda & Howe, 1991.)

Some authors have suggested that interest and delight in musical sounds may be the marks of innate musical potential (Miller, 1989; Winner & Martino, 1993), but a questionnaire found that they failed as predictors of later musical competence (Howe, Davidson, Moore & Sloboda, 1995). In any case, the assumption that even very early preferences must be innate rather than learned is questionable. Small differences in the amount of attention infants give (for any of a number of reasons) to different kinds of stimuli may elicit increasingly different actions and responses, which eventually produce marked preferences and contribute to differences between young children in their patterns of abilities (Renninger and Wosniak, 1985).

3.2 Evidence pointing to an absence of differences in ease of learning between "talented" individuals and others

Differences in rate or ease of acquisition could reflect a specific talent, but only if other influences are ruled out. This is not easy to do. Confounding variables such as the degree of familiarity of task items may influence performance even in simple memory tasks based on highly familiar numbers (Chi & Ceci, 1987; Miller & Gelman, 1983).

Investigations of long-term practice effects provide some relevant evidence. Sloboda, Davidson, Howe & Moore (1996; see also Sloboda, 1996) found no significant differences between highly successful young musicians and other children in the amount of practice time they required in order to make a given amount of progress between succesive grades in the British musical board examinations. Group differences in average progress were no greater than would have been expected from the differences in the amount of time spent practising. Consistent with these results, Hayes (1981; Simonton, 1991: see also Ericsson & Lehmann, 1996; Howe, 1996a; 1996b; in press) found that that all major composers had needed long periods of training. Hayes (1981) concludes that at least ten years of preparation are necessary. Simonton (1991) considers this an underestimate of the amount of time required. He estimates that, on average, prominent composers produced the first of their compositions to gain a secure place in the classical repertoire between 26 and 31, having begun music lessons around the age of 9 and started composing at around 17. Chess players likewise need at least ten years of sustained preparation to reach international levels of competitiveness (Simon & Chase, 1973); and those who begin in early childhood take even longer (Krogius, 1976). Comparable periods of preparation and training are essential in various other areas, including mathematics (Gustin, 1985), X-ray and medical diagnosis (Patel & Groen, 1991), and sports (Monsaas, 1985; Kalinowski, 1985; see also Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993).

3.3 Exceptional levels of performance in "untalented" people

A body of findings hard to reconcile with the talent account comes from experiments on ordinary adults who are given large amounts of training at skills that make heavy demands on memory (Chase & Ericsson, 1981; Ceci, Baker & Bronfenbrenner, 1988) or perception (Ericsson & Faivre, 1988). In some instances, the trained subjects achieved performance levels far higher than what most people (including experts in the psychology of learning and memory) had believed possible. Uninformed observers assumed that the participants must have had a special innate aptitude. There have been similar findings in studies of job-related skills in waiters (Ericsson & Polson, 1988) and bar staff (Bennett, 1983). The cocktail waitresses in Bennett's study could regularly remember as many as twenty drink orders at a time: their performance was considerably better than that of a control group made up of university students. It is conceivable that people who are employed as waiters and bar staff gravitate to such jobs because of an inborn memory skill, but the Chase & Ericsson findings make it far more likely that employees excel in recalling orders because of on-the-job practice.

Accomplishments that are rare in one culture but relatively commonplace in another culture also implicate learning rather than gifts. In certain cultures very high levels of skill (by Western standards) have been observed in children's swimming and canoeing (Mead, 1975), land navigation over apparently featureless terrains (Lewis, 1976) and maritime navigation across open water. Certain musical accomplishments are also considerably more widespread in some non-Western cultures than in our own (Blacking, 1973; Feld, 1984; Marshall, 1982; Merriam, 1967; Messenger, 1958; Sloboda, Davidson & Howe, 1994a; 1994b), and Australian desert aboriginal children perform better than white subjects on certain visual memory tasks (Kearins, 1981). The fact that such precocious development of some skills in infants disappears when parents do not apply traditional training customs (Super, 1976, see Section 3.1) suggests that cultural variability in performance is caused by differences in opportunities to learn.

3.4 Conceptual difficulties with the notion of talent

There are certain conceptual and logical problems with the idea that talent contributes to exceptional human abilities. In everyday discourse reasoning about talent is often circular, for example: "She plays so well because she has a talent. How do I know she has a talent? That's obvious, she plays so well!"

Even among researchers who use the concept of talent for explanatory purposes, the supporting evidence is based on its alleged effects. Like many scientific constructs, talent is not observed directly but inferred.

There is nothing wrong with this, but one must be sure that the findings cannot be accounted for more plausibly without introducing the talent concept (Howe, 1988a; 1988b; 1990b; 1990c, 1996b; Sloboda et al., 1994a; 1994b).


The causes of exceptional abilities may not be qualitatively different from those of less exceptional abilities in ordinary people. The links between high abilities and experiences that promote learning have been extensively discussed elsewhere (e.g, Berry, 1990; Howe, 1990a). Here we will consider the contribution of training and practice to various kinds of expertise.

Many dimensions of human variability may influence people's learning experiences and their eventual patterns of ability: (1) relevant prior knowledge and skills, (2) attentiveness, concentration and distractibility, (3) interests and acquired preferences, (4) motivation and competitiveness, (5) self-confidence and optimism, (6) other aspects of temperament and personality, (7) enthusiasm and energy level and (8) fatigue and anxiety. Variations in opportunities and experiences, and in the appropriateness of training and the effectiveness of learning, practice and testing procedures are also influential.

4.1 Evidence from studies of practising

Dramatic effects of training and practice on ordinary people were discussed in Section 3.3. Even those who are believed to be exceptionally talented, whether in music, mathematics, chess or sports, require lengthy periods of instruction and practice (Ericsson, Krampe & Tesch-Römer, 1993; Ericsson & Charness, 1994; Charness, Krampe & Mayr, 1996; Starkes, Deakin, Allard & Hayes, 1996). Music is an area of competence thought to be especially dependent upon talent (Davis, 1994; O'Neill, 1994); hence practice effects in other areas of competence are likely to be at least as strong as in music.

Ericsson and his coworkers (Ericsson, Krampe & Heizmann, 1993, Ericsson, Tesch-Römer & Krampe, 1990) have found strong correlations between the level of performance of student violinists in their twenties and the number of hours of formal practice they had engaged in. By the age of 21 the best students in the performance class of a conservatoire had accumulated around 10,000 hours practice, compared with less than half that amount for students in the same institution who were training to be violin teachers. Differences of similar magnitude were found in a study comparing expert and amateur pianists (Krampe, 1994). Measures of the accumulated amount of practice since instrumental lessons began were good predictors of within-group as well as between-group differences in performance. Studies of expert musicians by Manturszewska (1990), Sloboda & Howe (1991) and Sosniak (1985) provide further evidence that regular practice is essential for acquiring and maintaining high levels of ability. Furthermore, considerable help and encouragement is required by all young players, even those thought by their teachers and parents to be highly talented, if they are to maintain the levels of practice necessary to achieve expertise (Sloboda & Howe, 1991; see also Section 4.2).

Sloboda, Davidson, Howe & Moore (1996) supplemented retrospective data on practice with concurrent diary-based information. They confirmed the strong positive correlation between practice and achievement, which was largest for the more formal and deliberate kinds of practice activities, such as scales and exercises. To achieve the highest level (Grade 8) of the British Associate Board examinations in performing music required an average of around 3300 hours of practice irrespective of the ability group to which the young people in the study were assigned. This suggests that practice is a direct cause of achievement level rather than merely a correlate of it.

Correlations between measures of performance and amounts of practice by music students range from around +.3 to above +.6 (Lehmann, 1995). It is likely that these figures substantially underestimate the real magnitude of the relationship between performance and practice, for the following reasons: (1) the performance measures provided by grade levels are inexact indicators of attainment; (2) global measures of practice time do not take into account the effectiveness of the particular practice strategies or (3) the role of other potentially influential factors such as the student's level of alertness, enthusiasm and determination to do well. Kliegl, Smith & Baltes (1989) have confirmed that the intensity and quality of practice are as important as the sheer amount of it. Of course, the finding that practising is a major determinant of success does not rule out inherited influences; some traits that affect practising, such as the capacity to persist, may have innate components, but such components would not constitute "talents," as required by the talent account.

To summarise, there may be little or no basis for innate giftedness for the followng reasons: (1) the lack of convincing positive evidence (Section 2); (2) the substantial amount of negative evidence (Section 3); (3) the finding that even crude retrospective measures of practice are predictive of levels of performance (Section 4.1); (4) the observation by both Hayes and Simonton that "talented" individuals do not reach high levels of expertise without very substantial amounts of training (Section 3.2); (5) the evidence of Ericsson and others that people who are assumed to possess no talent are capable of very high levels of performance when given sufficient opportunities for training (Section 3.3); and (6) the apparent absence of differences in the amount of practice time required by the most- and least-successful young musicians to make an equivalent amount of progress (Sections 3.2 and 4.1). The conclusion is reinforced when some of the other measurable factors known to contribute to variability in performance are taken into account: opportunities, preparatory experiences, encouragement, support, motivation, self-confidence, perseverance, single- minded concentration (Howe, 1975; 1980). To these influences must also be added differences in quality of instruction, effectiveness of practice strategy, and degree of enthusiasm.

4.2 Criticisms and counter-arguments

There has been considerable opposition to the suggestion that the influence usually attributed to talent can be accounted for by the many known determinants of performance levels (including hereditary ones) that fall outside the definition of talent (Davidson, Howe, Moore & Sloboda, 1996; Ericsson, Krampe & Heizmann, 1993; Sloboda & Howe, 1991; 1992; Sloboda et al., 1994a; 1996). A first objection is that the evidence linking practice to progress is largely correlational. Most of the findings take the form of data showing that the more a person trains and practices, the higher their level of performance. These correlations could merely indicate that those individuals who are successful in a field of expertise and committed to it are likely to spend more time practising than those who are less successful.

One counterargument is that the findings closely parallel those obtained in training studies in which amounts of practice have been deliberately manipulated (Ericsson, Tesch-Römer & Krampe, 1990). Also relevant is the finding by Sloboda et al. (1996) that the rate of progress of young musicians in a given year is most highly correlated with the amount of practice and teacher input in that same year, whereas if the correlation simply reflected differing lifestyles of more and less successful performers the amount of progress in one year would be more highly correlated with the amount of practice in the following year.

It is conceivable that some children practice more than others because they have some kind of innate potential that encourages them to do so. However, as Sloboda & Howe (1991; Howe & Sloboda, 1991b) discovered, even among highly successful young musicians, the majority freely admit that without strong parental encouragement to practice they would never have done the amounts of regular practising needed to make good progress. Strong and sustained parental encouragement to practise was evident in virtually all successful young musicians (Davidson et al., 1996). It is conceivable that the parents who gave the most support did so because they detected signs of special potential, but that seems unlikely in view of the failure to find early signs of excellence in those children who later excelled (Section 3).

Parents' beliefs about their children's putative talents can of course affect parental behaviours; hence such beliefs may have indirectly affected children's performance (e.g., Brophy & Good, 1973). As noted in Section 1, it is also true that self-beliefs can be predictors of future performance (Dweck, 1986; Sloboda et al., 1994a; Vispoel & Austin, 1993). However, the question at issue is whether talent as such, as distinct from individuals' beliefs about its presence, has an influence on a child's attainments.

A second objection is that although differences in training, practice, and other aspects of individuals' experiences can go a long way towards accounting for differences in technical skills, they fail to account for those differences in less tangible traits, such as expressivity or creativity, that separate the most exceptional performers from others. This objection represents a certain shifting of the goalposts when it is introduced as an argument for the existence of talent. Nevertheless, it needs to be considered. Expressivity in music has been discussed by Sloboda (1996) who argues that although technical skills must be acquired ab initio by extensive instrument-specific practice, some expressive accomplishments may occur rather early through an application of existing knowledge (such as emotional signals, gestures and other bodily movements) to the domain of music. People might differ in musical expressivity in the absence of any differences in music-specific practice for a variety of reasons, one being that people differ in their levels of non-musical expressivity. Expressive ability may thus appear to arise in the absence of overt evidence of practice or teaching, but this does not mean it is innate.

A third possible objection is that although practice, training and other known influences may jointly account for performance differences in the majority of people, there could be a small number of individuals to whom this does not apply. Evidence to support this objection is lacking, however.

The fourth criticism is that although comparisons between more and less successful groups of people may not have revealed differences in the amount of practice needed to achieve a given amount of progress (Sloboda, Davidson, Howe & Moore, 1996), this does not demonstrate that such differences do not exist at an individual level, and there is some evidence that they do (Charness et al. 1996). In future research on practising it would be desirable to pay more attention to individual differences. However, as reported in Section 3.2, no case has been encountered of anyone reaching the highest levels of achievement in chess-playing, mathematics, music or sports without devoting thousands of hours to serious training.


We began this target article by describing the widespread belief that in order to reach high levels of ability a person needs to have an innate potential called talent. Because the belief in talent has important social and educational consequences, affecting selection procedures and training policies, it is important to establish whether it is correct. Belief in talent may also act as a barrier to further exploration of the causes of excellence in specific domains of ability.

To ensure that our use of the term coincided with that of scientific researchers as well as teachers and practitioners, we suggested that (1) a talent has its origin in genetically transmitted structures, (2) there are early indicators of talent, (3) talent provides a basis for estimating the probability of excelling, (4) only a minority of individuals have special talents, and (5) the effects of a talent will be relatively specific.

In examining the evidence and the arguments for and against the talent account, we began in Section 2 by considering positive findings. We examined evidence that certain young children excel without special encouragement and that some children are born with special capacities that facilitate the acquisition of particular abilities. There proved to be little evidence of early accomplishments that could not be explained by other known determinants of early progress. We also found no evidence of innate attributes operating in the predictable and specific manner implied by the talent account, apart from autistic savants with exceptional skills that appear to stem from an involuntary specialization of their mental activities.

Section 3 surveyed evidence contrary to the talent account. The absence of early signs of special ability was discussed. Where early precocity is encountered it is invariably preceded by ample opportunities and encouragement. In addition, when prior differences in knowledge, skills, motivation, and other factors known to affect performance are controlled for, there is little evidence of individual differences in ease of learning. High levels of accomplishment invariably require lengthy and intensive training, and even people who are not believed to have any special talent can reach, purely as a result of training, levels of achievement previously thought to be attainable by innately gifted individuals (Section 3.3). There are also logical and conceptual arguments against the notion that talent is explanatory (Section 3.4).

Section 4 examined alternatives to the talent account. Large amounts of regular practice were found to be essential for excelling. Studies of long-term practice and training suggest that individual differences in learning-related experiences are a major source of the variance in achievement.

The evidence we have surveyed in this target article does not support the talent account, according to which excelling is a consequence of possessing innate gifts. This conclusion has practical implications, because categorising some children as innately talented is discriminatory. The evidence suggests that such categorization is unfair and wasteful, preventing young people from pursuing a goal because of teachers' or parents' unjustified conviction that they would not benefit from the superior opportunities given to those who are deemed to be talented.

To the question, "If talents do not exist, how can one explain the phenomena attributed to them?", we do not claim to have a full or precise answer. However, we have listed a number of possible influences, and evidence of their effects.

Innate talents are inferred rather than observed directly. One reason for assuming that they exist at all has been to explain individual differences, but these can be adequately accounted for by experiential ones such as training and practice, as well as biological influences that lack the specifity and predictable consequences associated with the notion of talent.

It could be argued that the talent account is not totally wrong, but simply exaggerated and oversimplified. In our list of the five defining attributes of innate talents (Section 1.1), two are relatively unproblematic: (1) individual differences in some special abilities may indeed have partly genetic origins, and (4) there do exist some attributes that are only possessed by only a minority of individuals. Talents in this very restricted sense may be said to exist.

One might argue for retaining the concept of talent even though the other three criteria are not met. If the underlying issues were exclusively academic this would be reasonable. "Talent" would be the place-holder for the as-yet-unmapped influence of biology on special expertise. In practice, however, the other three attributes - (2) being identifiable before the emergence of high ability, (3) providing a basis for predicting excellence, and (5) being domain-specific - are crucial, because it is precisely these attributes that are the ones regarded by practitioners as justifying selectivity and discrimination.


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