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Overstating the Role of Environmental Factors in Success: A Cautionary Note

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Several currently popular areas of research—brain training, mindset, grit, deliberate practice, and the bilingual advantage—are premised on the idea that environmental factors are the overwhelming determinants of success in real-world pursuits. Here, we describe the major claims from each of these areas of research, before discussing evidence for these claims, with a particular focus on meta-analyses. We then suggest that overemphasizing the malleability of abilities and other traits can have negative consequences for individuals, science, and society. We conclude with a call for balanced appraisals of the available evidence concerning this issue, to reflect current scientific discrepancies, and thereby enable informed individual decisions and collective policies.
Overstating the Role of Environmental Factors in Success:
A Cautionary Note
Word count: 2,419
David Moreau
The University of Auckland
Centre for Brain Research
Science Centre
23 Symonds Street, Office 227
Auckland 1010
New Zealand
+64 9 373 7599 ext. 83401
Overstating the Role of Environmental Factors in Success:
A Cautionary Note
David Moreau
School of Psychology and Centre for Brain Research
The University of Auckland
Brooke N. Macnamara
Department of Psychological Sciences
Case Western Reserve University
David Z. Hambrick
Department of Psychology
Michigan State University
Several currently popular areas of research—brain training, mindset, grit, deliberate practice, and
the bilingual advantage—are premised on the idea that environmental factors are the
overwhelming determinants of success in real-world pursuits. Here, we describe the major claims
from each of these areas of research, before discussing evidence for these claims, with a
particular focus on meta-analyses. We then suggest that overemphasizing the malleability of
abilities and other traits can have negative consequences for individuals, science, and society.
We conclude with a call for balanced appraisals of the available evidence concerning this issue,
to reflect current scientific discrepancies, and thereby enable informed individual decisions and
collective policies.
Keywords: abilities, skills, interventions, environment, genetics.
Overstating the Role of Environmental Factors in Success:
A Cautionary Note
I believe that if one always looked at the skies, one would end up with wings.
Gustave Flaubert, Pensées, 1915.
The view that a person’s environment plays a much greater role in determining success in
the world than innate traits has long been a theme of psychological theorizing. Nearly a century
ago, John Watson, the founder of behaviorism, articulated this view when he wrote, “[g]ive me a
dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll
guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might
select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of
his talents…” (Watson, 1930, p. 104). The appealing implication of this view is that anyone can
become highly successful, whether it be in school, work, or a hobby.
While few, if any, contemporary scientists would endorse Watson’s (1930) extreme view,
the idea that individuals’ capabilities are highly malleable, and thus that environmental factors
are the overwhelming determinants of accomplishment in real-world pursuits, remains a
powerful undercurrent in psychological research. Currently, this view is emphasized in five
popular areas of research: brain training, mindset, grit, deliberate practice, and the bilingual
advantage. Thousands of scientific articles have been published on these topics, which have also
captured the popular imagination through books such as Smarter: The new science of building
brain power (Hurley, 2014), Mindset: The new psychology of success (Dweck, 2006), Grit: The
power of passion and perseverance (Duckworth, 2016), and Peak: The new science of expertise
(Ericsson & Pool, 2017). Some of these areas of research have also spawned lucrative
commercial ventures. Brain training is a multibillion-dollar industry, and commercial mindset
interventions are used in schools around the world.
Nevertheless, the central claims of each of these areas of research have been increasingly
called into question in the scientific literature. Here, we briefly summarize evidence from each
area of research, focusing on large-scale studies and meta-analyses. Our intent is not to criticize
individual theorists—misleading statements can find their way to the media and popular beliefs
despite caution expressed by the theorists (see, e.g., Duckworth, 2016). Rather, our goal is to
present current evidence for the claims central to each area of research. We conclude that caution
is warranted when considering both future research on these topics and translations of this
research to real-world applications.
Brain Training
The premise of brain training is that the brain is “like a muscle,” in the sense that it can
be strengthened through cognitive “exercise.” More specifically, the idea is that training in tasks
that target core cognitive functions such as working memory, attention, and spatial ability
generalizes to real-world situations that call on these functions. This claim of far transfer has
been at least implicit in advertising claims by brain training companies (see Simons et al., 2016).
Scientists have made similar claims, arguing that working memory training improves fluid
intelligence (Jaeggi, Buschkuehl, Jonides, & Perrig, 2008) and that videogame playing enhances
visuospatial abilities (Green & Bavelier, 2003).
Nevertheless, after more than a decade of intensive research on brain training, it is clear
that far transfer is elusive. Several meta-analyses have demonstrated that the benefits of brain
training are limited to the trained task, or to very similar tasks (near transfer). For example, a
meta-analysis by Melby-Lervåg and Hulme (2013), found “no convincing evidence of the
generalization of working memory training to other skills” (p. 270). They also noted that
working memory training studies are often plagued by major methodological problems,
including use of research designs without appropriate control groups. More recently, Simons and
colleagues conducted an exhaustive review of the available evidence for benefits of brain
training and concluded that “the evidence that training with commercial brain-training software
can enhance cognition outside the laboratory is limited and inconsistent” (Simons et al., 2016, p.
173). Finally, in a meta-analysis examining brain training in the form of playing video games,
Sala, Tatlidil, and Gobet (2017) “found no evidence of a causal relationship between playing
video games and enhanced cognitive ability” (p. 111).
Whereas the idea of brain training is to directly strengthen cognitive abilities, the aim of
mindset interventions is to increase people’s beliefs that they can be strengthened. Dweck and
colleagues have argued that people who hold a growth mindset believe that intelligence (and
other traits) can be improved with effort (Dweck, 2000), and thus will persist to overcome
obstacles and work hard; by contrast, people with a fixed mindset believe intelligence is
relatively stable and are “devastated by setbacks” (Dweck, 2008). In a typical mindset
intervention, participants are told that the brain is like a muscle and can grow with effort. As
Dweck (2007) explained, students learn about “how they can make their brains work better and
grow smarter" (p. 38). These brief interventions are touted for “striking effects on educational
achievement” (Yeager & Walton, 2011, p. 268; see also Boaler, 2013; Dweck, 2008).
Mindset interventions are used in schools around the world. However, evidence for the
impact of mindset on real-world outcomes is equivocal. Large-sample research has failed to
replicate findings of beneficial effects of mindset interventions. As a case in point, across three
studies with a total sample over 600 participants, Li and Bates (2017) found “no support for
mindset-effects on cognitive ability, response to challenge, or educational progress” (p. 2).
Furthermore, in a recent meta-analysis, Sisk, Burgoyne, Sun, Butler, and Macnamara (2018)
examined the effectiveness of growth mindset interventions on academic achievement and
identified a number of methodological shortcomings among mindset studies, such as many
instances of manipulation checks either not being successful or not being reported. Sisk et al.
found that the effectiveness of mindset interventions on academic achievement was very weak
overall, with almost all analyses yielding small or null effects. They concluded that "those
seeking more than modest effects or effects for all students are unlikely to find them" (p. 568).
Grit refers to perseverance and passion for long-term goals (Duckworth & Eskreis-
Winkler, 2013; Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007). Gritty people maintain “effort
and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress” (Duckworth et al.,
2007, p. 1088), whereas less gritty people are easily discouraged (Duckworth & Eskreis-Winkler,
2013). Duckworth (2016) argued that “you can grow your grit” (p. 269), and Duckworth and
Gross (2014) stated they were “optimistic that a better understanding of the psychological
processes underlying self-control and grit could, in fact, lead to high-impact, cost-effective
interventions" (p. 323).
However, in a study of 4,642 twins, Rimfeld, Kovas, Dale, and Plomin (2016) found that
grit was substantially heritable, but found no evidence for a shared environmental influence on
grit. Rimfeld et al. explained that "[t]he most limiting finding, for any possible intervention, is
that shared environmental influence is negligible" (p. 786). In other words, current
environmental factors such as how parents raise their children or approaches schools take to
teaching do not appear to influence grit. They also noted that, despite a lack of evidence that grit
can be trained, training grit has been established as a priority by the U.S. Department of
Education (see http://
andperseverance-report) and the U.K. Department of Education (see
Rimfeld et al. (2016) caution, "[t]he effectiveness of training programs should be rigorously
researched before they are rolled out widely" (p. 781).
Evidence further suggests that, even if grit is found to be trainable, it may have no impact
on academic achievement above and beyond other personality factors. For example, Rimfeld et
al. (2016) stated that "[g]rit adds little phenotypically or genetically to the prediction of academic
achievement beyond traditional personality factors, especially conscientiousness" (p. 780).
Similarly, Credé, Tynan, and Harms (2017) conducted a meta-analysis investigating the
influence of grit and other traits on academic achievement, and found that while
conscientiousness explained variance in academic achievement after controlling for grit, "overall
grit explains no variance in either overall academic performance or high school GPA after
controlling for conscientiousness" (p. 501).
Deliberate Practice
The concept of deliberate practice emphasizes the importance of environmental factors in
the context of acquiring expertise in a specific domain. The deliberate practice view claims that
“individual differences in ultimate performance can largely be accounted for by differential
amounts of past and current levels of practice" (Ericsson et al, 1993, p. 392). More generally,
Ericsson (2007) claimed that “it is possible to account for the development of elite performance
among healthy children without recourse to unique talent (genetic endowment)—excepting the
innate determinants of body size” (p. 4). A further claim of this view is that "it is impossible for
an individual with less accumulated practice at some age to catch up with the best individuals,
who have started earlier and maintain maximal levels of deliberate practice not leading to
exhaustion" (Ericsson et al., 1993, p. 393).
There is no question that deliberate practice can lead to major improvements in
performance within an individual. The controversial claim is that deliberate practice can largely
explain differences in performance across individuals. This claim is not supported by empirical
evidence. In a recent meta-analysis, Macnamara, Hambrick, and Oswald (2014) found that
deliberate practice leaves the majority of variance in performance across individuals unexplained
and potentially explainable by other factors (see also Platz et al., 2014). In another meta-analysis,
Macnamara, Moreau, and Hambrick (2016) found that deliberate practice accounted for a non-
significant 1% of the variance in performance among elite-level athletes, inconsistent with
Ericsson and colleagues’ (1993) claim that “[i]ndividual differences, even among elite
performers, are closely related to assessed amounts of deliberate practice” (p. 363). Furthermore,
Macnamara et al. (2016) found that higher-level athletes were no more likely to have begun
practicing their sport at a younger age than their lower-level counterparts. Together, this
evidence indicates that deliberate practice is not the only important contributor to individual
differences in expertise.
Bilingual Advantage
Finally, there is currently a great deal of scientific interest in the benefits of bilingualism
for cognitive functioning—the so-called bilingual advantage (Bialystok, 1999). The idea behind
the bilingual advantage is that prolonged experience maintaining multiple languages in working
memory and inhibiting the inactive language(s) improves executive functioning. As Bialystok
(2009) explained, "The effect of bilingualism on cognitive functioning as evidenced by lexical
access, executive control, and working memory, is part of a growing body of research
demonstrating the powerful role of experience on cognitive function and cognitive organization"
(p. 9).
However, multiple researchers have pointed out that the literature on the bilingual
advantage research suffers from a high degree of publication bias, favoring statistically
significant, positive effects (de Bruin, Treccani, & Della Sala, 2015). Indeed, a recent, large-
scale meta-analysis showed no evidence for the bilingual advantage in any executive functioning
domain after correcting for publication bias (Lehtonen et al., 2018). Similarly, in a detailed
critique of the literature, Paap, Johnson, and Sawi (2015) pointed out that over 80% of the tests
assessing the bilingual advantage since 2011 yielded null findings.
What’s the Harm?
The evidence that we have just reviewed notwithstanding, one might argue that there is
no harm in people believing in the overwhelming importance of environmental factors in
success. What, for example, is the harm in leading the elderly to believe that “brain games” will
have broad benefits for cognitive functioning, even if that is unlikely given the available
evidence? Or what is the harm in enrolling children in mindset interventions (touted as relatively
inexpensive), even if the available evidence casts serious doubt on the effectiveness of these
We think there is potential harm in the form of opportunity costs. Some of these
opportunity costs impact society. For example, time that students spend completing ineffective
interventions could be spent on learning mathematics, science, language, arts, and other school
subjects. Similarly, money spent on brain training or mindset programs for a school—even if the
program is cheaper than other interventions—could be spent on more effective interventions or
on needs such as hiring additional teachers. Other opportunity costs impact science. For example,
at the cost of pursuing other areas of research, young scientists excited about these topics might
dedicate their formative training years to pursuing effects that they are unlikely to find. Likewise,
researchers spending time and effort attempting to reproduce, validate, or meta-analyze these
claims do so at the expense of pursuing other research endeavors. Finally, funding dedicated to
these areas could go to more promising areas.
We further argue that overemphasizing the role of environmental factors in success may
lead to failure being stigmatized, despite the fact that individual differences in many real-world
endeavors may in part reflect factors that are not under people’s control. That is, by
overemphasizing the influence of environmental factors, we may unintentionally hold
individuals accountable for conditions, events, or outcomes beyond their control, including
learning disabilities and neurological disorders. If, for example, the brain is “like a muscle” and
cognitive functions can be dramatically increased through brain training, then why should any
child suffer from learning disabilities or ADHD? Likewise, if deliberate practice is the
overwhelming determinant of expertise, why should anyone who devotes thousands of hours of
practice to a given sport not become an Olympic gold medalist? In short, we argue that
overemphasizing malleability while minimizing the role of stable traits in success may burden
individuals and families with responsibilities that are largely not theirs to bear.
There is no doubt that environmental factors play an important role in determining
success in real-world domains. At the same time, it now seems clear that environmental factors
have a more limited impact on individual differences in success than some theories suggest.
Views that emphasize malleability over the influence of stable traits on success are appealing,
particularly in modern, democratic societies, which place great emphasis on equal opportunities
across individuals. However, acknowledging the role of factors that are difficult to change is
important, because it enables the allocation of resources where they can have a real impact,
taking into account individual needs, to allow meaningful improvements.
In our view, continuing to accept claims that are unsupported by evidence hinders
scientific progress and prevents evidence-based policies. The scientific community should
therefore consider current evidence and direct research toward endeavors that provide insight on
the complex and interacting factors that contribute to individual differences in success in real-
world domains. Ultimately, recognizing and understanding individual differences, rather than
denying or undermining their importance, leads to politics of equity—providing individuals with
the means to thrive—rather than equality—treating everyone uniformly regardless of their
specific needs.
Recommended Readings
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Full-text available
Although growing up in stressful conditions can undermine mental abilities, people in harsh environments may develop intact, or even enhanced, social and cognitive abilities for solving problems in high‐adversity contexts (i.e., ‘hidden talents’). We examine whether childhood and current exposure to violence are associated with memory (number of learning rounds needed to memorize relations between items) and reasoning performance (accuracy in deducing a novel relation) on transitive inference tasks involving both violence‐relevant and violence‐neutral social information (social dominance vs. chronological age). We hypothesized that individuals who had more exposure to violence would perform better than individuals with less exposure on the social dominance task. We tested this hypothesis in a preregistered study in 100 Dutch college students and 99 Dutch community participants. We found that more exposure to violence was associated with lower overall memory performance, but not with reasoning performance. However, the main effects of current (but not childhood) exposure to violence on memory were qualified by significant interaction effects. More current exposure to neighborhood violence was associated with worse memory for age relations, but not with memory for dominance relations. By contrast, more current personal involvement in violence was associated with better memory for dominance relations, but not with memory for age relations. These results suggest incomplete transfer of learning and memory abilities across contents. This pattern of results, which supports a combination of deficits and “hidden talents,” is striking in relation to the broader developmental literature, which has nearly exclusively reported deficits in people from harsh conditions. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
Full-text available
In 2014, two groups of scientists published open letters on the efficacy of brain-training interventions, or “brain games,” for improving cognition. The first letter, a consensus statement from an international group of more than 70 scientists, claimed that brain games do not provide a scientifically grounded way to improve cognitive functioning or to stave off cognitive decline. Several months later, an international group of 133 scientists and practitioners countered that the literature is replete with demonstrations of the benefits of brain training for a wide variety of cognitive and everyday activities. How could two teams of scientists examine the same literature and come to conflicting “consensus” views about the effectiveness of brain training? In part, the disagreement might result from different standards used when evaluating the evidence. To date, the field has lacked a comprehensive review of the brain-training literature, one that examines both the quantity and the quality of the evidence according to a well-defined set of best practices. This article provides such a review, focusing exclusively on the use of cognitive tasks or games as a means to enhance performance on other tasks. We specify and justify a set of best practices for such brain-training interventions and then use those standards to evaluate all of the published peer-reviewed intervention studies cited on the websites of leading brain-training companies listed on Cognitive Training Data ( ), the site hosting the open letter from brain-training proponents. These citations presumably represent the evidence that best supports the claims of effectiveness. Based on this examination, we find extensive evidence that brain-training interventions improve performance on the trained tasks, less evidence that such interventions improve performance on closely related tasks, and little evidence that training enhances performance on distantly related tasks or that training improves everyday cognitive performance. We also find that many of the published intervention studies had major shortcomings in design or analysis that preclude definitive conclusions about the efficacy of training, and that none of the cited studies conformed to all of the best practices we identify as essential to drawing clear conclusions about the benefits of brain training for everyday activities. We conclude with detailed recommendations for scientists, funding agencies, and policymakers that, if adopted, would lead to better evidence regarding the efficacy of brain-training interventions.
Full-text available
Grit has been presented as a higher order personality trait that is highly predictive of both success and performance and distinct from other traits such as conscientiousness. This paper provides a meta-analytic review of the grit literature with a particular focus on the structure of grit and the relation between grit and performance, retention, conscientiousness, cognitive ability, and demographic variables. Our results based on 584 effect sizes from 88 independent samples representing 66,807 individuals indicate that the higher order structure of grit is not confirmed, that grit is only moderately correlated with performance and retention, and that grit is very strongly correlated with conscientiousness. We also find that the perseverance of effort facet has significantly stronger criterion validities than the consistency of interest facet and that perseverance of effort explains variance in academic performance even after controlling for conscientiousness. In aggregate our results suggest that interventions designed to enhance grit may only have weak effects on performance and success, that the construct validity of grit is in question, and that the primary utility of the grit construct may lie in the perseverance facet.
Full-text available
Grit-perseverance and passion for long-term goals-has been shown to be a significant predictor of academic success, even after controlling for other personality factors. Here, for the first time, we use a U.K.-representative sample and a genetically sensitive design to unpack the etiology of Grit and its prediction of academic achievement in comparison to well-established personality traits. For 4,642 16-year-olds (2,321 twin pairs), we used the Grit-S scale (perseverance of effort and consistency of interest), along with the Big Five personality traits, to predict grades on the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams, which are administered U.K.-wide at the end of compulsory education. Twin analyses of Grit perseverance yielded a heritability estimate of 37% (20% for consistency of interest) and no evidence for shared environmental influence. Personality, primarily conscientiousness, predicts about 6% of the variance in GCSE grades, but Grit adds little to this prediction. Moreover, multivariate twin analyses showed that roughly two-thirds of the GCSE prediction is mediated genetically. Grit perseverance of effort and Big Five conscientiousness are to a large extent the same trait both phenotypically (r = 0.53) and genetically (genetic correlation = 0.86). We conclude that the etiology of Grit is highly similar to other personality traits, not only in showing substantial genetic influence but also in showing no influence of shared environmental factors. Personality significantly predicts academic achievement, but Grit adds little phenotypically or genetically to the prediction of academic achievement beyond traditional personality factors, especially conscientiousness. (PsycINFO Database Record
Full-text available
Other than talent and opportunity, what makes some people more successful than others? One important determinant of success is self-control—the capacity to regulate attention, emotion, and behavior in the presence of temptation. A second important determinant of success is grit—the tenacious pursuit of a dominant superordinate goal despite setbacks. Self-control and grit are strongly correlated, but not perfectly so. This means that some people with high levels of self-control capably handle temptations but do not consistently pursue a dominant goal. Likewise, some exceptional achievers are prodigiously gritty but succumb to temptations in domains other than their chosen life passion. Understanding how goals are hierarchically organized clarifies how self-control and grit are related but distinct: Self-control entails aligning actions with any valued goal despite momentarily more-alluring alternatives; grit, in contrast, entails having and working assiduously toward a single challenging superordinate goal through thick and thin, on a timescale of years or even decades. Although both self-control and grit entail aligning actions with intentions, they operate in different ways and over different timescales. This hierarchical goal framework suggests novel directions for basic and applied research on success.
Mind-sets (aka implicit theories) are beliefs about the nature of human attributes (e.g., intelligence). The theory holds that individuals with growth mind-sets (beliefs that attributes are malleable with effort) enjoy many positive outcomes—including higher academic achievement—while their peers who have fixed mind-sets experience negative outcomes. Given this relationship, interventions designed to increase students’ growth mind-sets—thereby increasing their academic achievement—have been implemented in schools around the world. In our first meta-analysis (k = 273, N = 365,915), we examined the strength of the relationship between mind-set and academic achievement and potential moderating factors. In our second meta-analysis (k = 43, N = 57,155), we examined the effectiveness of mind-set interventions on academic achievement and potential moderating factors. Overall effects were weak for both meta-analyses. However, some results supported specific tenets of the theory, namely, that students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk might benefit from mind-set interventions.
Because of enduring experience of managing two languages, bilinguals have been argued to develop superior executive functioning compared with monolinguals. Despite extensive investigation, there is, however, no consensus regarding the existence of such a bilingual advantage. Here we synthesized comparisons of bilinguals’ and monolinguals’ performance in six executive domains using 891 effect sizes from 152 studies on adults. We also included unpublished data, and considered the potential influence of a number of study-, task-, and participant-related variables. Before correcting estimates for observed publication bias, our analyses revealed a very small bilingual advantage for inhibition, shifting, and working memory, but not for monitoring or attention. No evidence for a bilingual advantage remained after correcting for bias. For verbal fluency, our analyses indicated a small bilingual disadvantage, possibly reflecting less exposure for each individual language when using two languages in a balanced manner. Moreover, moderator analyses did not support theoretical presuppositions concerning the bilingual advantage. We conclude that the available evidence does not provide systematic support for the widely held notion that bilingualism is associated with benefits in cognitive control functions in adults.
As a result of considerable potential scientific and societal implications, the possibility of enhancing cognitive ability by training has been one of the most influential topics of cognitive psychology in the last two decades. However, substantial research into the psychology of expertise and a recent series of meta-analytic reviews have suggested that various types of cognitive training (e.g., working memory training) benefit performance only in the trained tasks. The lack of skill generalization from one domain to different ones—that is, far transfer— has been documented in various fields of research such as working memory training, music, brain training, and chess. Video game training is another activity that has been claimed by many researchers to foster a broad range of cognitive abilities such as visual processing, attention, spatial ability, and cognitive control. We tested these claims with three randomeffects meta-analytic models. The first meta-analysis (k � 310) examined the correlation between video game skill and cognitive ability. The second meta-analysis (k � 315) dealt with the differences between video game players and nonplayers in cognitive ability. The third meta-analysis (k � 359) investigated the effects of video game training on participants’ cognitive ability. Small or null overall effect sizes were found in all three models. These outcomes show that overall cognitive ability and video game skill are only weakly related. Importantly, we found no evidence of a causal relationship between playing video games and enhanced cognitive ability. Video game training thus represents no exception to the general difficulty of obtaining far transfer.
Why are some people more skilled in complex domains than other people? According to one prominent view, individual differences in performance largely reflect individual differences in accumulated amount of deliberate practice. Here, we investigated the relationship between deliberate practice and performance in sports. Overall, deliberate practice accounted for 18% of the variance in sports performance. However, the contribution differed depending on skill level. Most important, deliberate practice accounted for only 1% of the variance in performance among elite-level performers. This finding is inconsistent with the claim that deliberate practice accounts for performance differences even among elite performers. Another major finding was that athletes who reached a high level of skill did not begin their sport earlier in childhood than lower skill athletes. This finding challenges the notion that higher skill performers tend to start in a sport at a younger age than lower skill performers. We conclude that to understand the underpinnings of expertise, researchers must investigate contributions of a broad range of factors, taking into account findings from diverse subdisciplines of psychology (e.g., cognitive psychology, personality psychology) and interdisciplinary areas of research (e.g., sports science).