By Emily Reynolds
“Passion” is a word that appears frequently in job descriptions and interviews. Articles spread online explaining how to adequately express your passion to potential employers. By and large, passionate people – those who have a strong interest in a particular topic, who trust themselves and are dedicated to what they do – are seen in a positive light and seen as likely to achieve their goals.
But how important is passion really when it comes to predicting success? According to Xingyu Li of Stanford University and colleagues in PNASPassion may be less important in certain cultures – and the fact that passion is often seen as the key to success may reflect a “decidedly Western model of motivation”.
The main factor examined in the study was how individualistic a society was: in individualistic cultures, the team argues, people are more motivated to pursue pathways related to their passions, while those in collectivistic cultures are more likely to feel part see a mutual dependency network, often fulfilling obligations to others instead of focusing on their own interests.
The data comes from a large international survey on education that attracted over 1.2 million respondents from almost 60 different countries. The survey measured academic performance in math, science, and reading during multiple closed-book tests, and the team also looked at the individualism or collectivism of each culture.
Passion itself is difficult to measure across cultures – some participating languages, including Mandarin, do not have a direct translation for the word as it is understood in the Western world. Instead, passion was measured using self-report responses on a variety of factors: Passionate students were those who were strong, independently motivated, and demonstrated high levels of joy, interest, and effectiveness.
Passion in science subjects was positively correlated with academic performance: Those with higher levels of enjoyment, interest, and effectiveness also had higher test scores. The strength of this correlation, however, was not the same across cultures: those in individualistic societies like the US, Australia, and the UK showed a stronger connection between passion and achievement than those in more collectivist societies like Colombia or Thailand.
These results were also reflected in performance in both math and reading. Again, high-performing participants from more individualistic societies were more likely to have high levels of passion, while high-performing participants from collectivist societies did not.
To test whether other cultural differences could predict the relationship between passion and performance, the team examined eight other factors that differ between cultures, including the likelihood that people will avoid uncertainty as to whether they appreciate easy survival over self-expression. and how forgiving they are. However, only differences between individualism and collectivism could explain the relationship between passion and achievement between cultures.
The results show that passion isn’t the only thing that motivates people to achieve their goals. Indeed, the team also found that parenting support is a critical success factor in collectivist societies. And these insights could help develop educational support programs that target a wider range of individuals. For example, instead of developing support that focuses solely on self-regulation and passion, institutions could take a broader look at what motivates students to perform well.
It’s also important to note that one type of motivation is no better than another. Although the motivation of others could be viewed as more extrinsic, the team writes, it “doesn’t have to feel like coercive pressure from the outside”: Instead of feeling arrogant, such motivation can be a source of “empowerment, perseverance and resilience”. While passion is key for many students, it is certainly worth considering the other factors that could make people tick.
– Passion is important, but not the same everywhere: Prediction of performance based on interest, joy and effectiveness in 59 societies
Emily Reynolds is an associate at BPS Biomedarticles