If intelligence is determined by factors outside of your control, what about grit and character?

There is a subreddit I frequent quite often called r/ChangeMyView in which people post an opinion or stance they have on a topic and encourage other users to engage in healthy debate/discussions to try to change their view. It’s an awesome way to show people different perspectives of an opinion/argument without the hateful trash talk you see from internet trolls nowadays. Anyways, I came across a topic which the original poster said,”CMV (Change My View): if intelligence is determined by factors outside of your control, then so is grit and character.” You can see the original post and thread here and the following is the original post:


This is a thing that’s been bothering me for a while. I’ve seen had several arguments on this topic with friends and family members and despite making me uncomfortable I still hold this view. I’ve been browsing reddit for a few days and noticed a lot of posts that touched on the same topic as well.

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that talent and raw intelligence are mostly innate, with the learning environment also playing a significant part. While it is possible to become wiser through experience, I don’t think it is possible to significantly improve your mental abilities. You can change your diet and sleeping habits and maybe prevent fast decay, but becoming a genius or even a superfit sportsman if you don’t have the innate genetics for it is probably impossible. Feel free to correct me if that is wrong.

I’ve noticed that a common response to the idea that talent and intelligence are outside of your control is to say that success is mostly the result of hard work and grit, and that perseverance will beat lazy talent. Essentially, the idea is that you can change your fate through willpower. This is a foundation of several political ideologies and many of our moral rules. The uncomfortable part of my view is that willpower is also determined by factors outside of your control.

Intelligence is a mental function and so is determined by your brain’s development (both genetics and your environment). Character and grit are also mental functions, so why wouldn’t they also be determined in the same way? Why is it uncontroversial that intelligence is beyond your control, but character and grit aren’t, and are magically outside of the brain’s properties? If you are a redditor, you may have heard about the marshmallow experiment, and we’ve all met kids when we were younger that simply had more drive and some that had none to speak of. To give you another example, it’s been theorized that lead levels could have been a factor in the decrease of criminal behavior due to the effect it had on child development. However this is still a controversial theory so probably not the best example.

If your character is also the result of an accident of birth, it calls into question so many things we take for granted, from the idea of personal responsibility to the validity of several political and spiritual doctrines. Needless to say, it’s a very uncomfortable view to hold and I am not opposed at all to changing it, but I need some hard evidence.

This is a great topic that I’m sure many people have thought about. Can you develop grit and willpower, or are you just born with it? If you’re lazy and not a curious person, are you pretty much doomed? Here are snippets of the counter-arguments that I really got a lot out of:

  • The premise I would start with is there is a fundamental difference between intelligence and grit. Intelligence is a limit. You are only so intelligent. You can’t decide to be more intelligent. Grit is a predilection. Some people are predisposed to working harder, some less, but everyone is capable of physically picking themselves up and doing something. It is just easier for some.

    I would say Grit is more like Wisdom. Yes, more intelligent people pick up knowledge easier, but a person can determine they wish to learn more. Because of this, we consider (or at least I do) uninformed individuals who have an opinion on something responsible for their lack of information, but we do not hold them responsible for their lack of intelligence.

  • An incredibly curious person like [Richard] Feynman may have an advantage, but you can find thousands of people in university who are not naturally curious about their field, but because of other motivators (like wanting a more financially secure life), push themselves to learn more. While circumstance might have been a major limiting factor 100 years ago, the internet today provides resources for anyone (with internet access) to be informed about anything. I will agree that someone in a third world country or isolated island is not responsible for their lack of wisdom.


That last point above was enough for the original poster to award a “delta” which basically indicates that his view has been changed. If we take a Nobel prize winning physicist like Richard Feynman, he was indeed one of the most naturally curious people in the field of science. He studied how to pick locks, he played the bongos, painted, and saw truths in the field of physics that others couldn’t due to his beautiful curiosity. However, since he was naturally “born” with that curiosity, is everyone else at a disadvantage? Is the naturally uncurious college slacker doomed to the opposite path of mediocrity forever? I would say no. Many different circumstances and outside factors can cause someone to gain a tremendous amount of motivation, drive, and willpower to study and thrive in a given field or area. On top of that, the internet is one of the most influential inventions in the history of mankind. We have the knowledge of the universe at our disposal through our computers. Nowadays you see self-taught individuals going on to mastering a field. You could learn anything you want through the internet and you can also connect more easily with anyone on the planet than ever before in history.

You can’t blame someone for their lack of intelligence, but you CAN blame them for their lack of effort for trying to learn. Intelligence may be fixed, but grit, character, willpower, and curiosity are all factors that we can control and develop. Don’t let a limiting, fixed-mindset belief that these traits can’t be developed hold you back. And even if it isn’t true, wouldn’t it be a better lived life believing it was?


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