It was just Brooke Macnamara’s first day as a faculty member at Case Western Reserve University when she had a study published that upended long-held beliefs about the importance of practice on one’s expertise.
Macnamara’s highly publicized research questioned how much deliberate practice accounts for differences among people. Her meta-analysis found that a field’s top individuals are not necessarily the ones who practiced the most, contrary to what Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson asserted in the 1990s and Malcolm Gladwell promoted in Outlier: The Story of Success.
And she didn’t just leave it there—she delved deeper and debunked the popular 10,000-hour rule, which claimed that anybody could be an expert with 10,000 hours of practice.
Not long after making those headlines, Macnamara did it again, with a study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science that found that practice accounts for just 1 percent of the difference in performance among elite athletes. With the 2016 Olympics on the horizon, Macnamara’s work again was met by major media attention, this time from the likes of Scientific American, ESPN and The Cut.
Since then, Macnamara has continued to explore cognitive differences, and she’s also recently begun to research mindset—looking at both “growth” and “fixed” mindsets.
Last year, she found no evidence for the “bright girl effect”—in which girls limit themselves because they believe their intelligence to be fixed—at least among adults.
Now, fewer than four years after earning her PhD, the Association for Psychological Science is recognizing Macnamara as a “rising star.”
The recognition is bestowed upon psychological science scholars from around the world who, though in the early stages of their research careers, have already made an impact on the field and whose trajectory points them toward continued success.
A previous career ultimately inspired Macnamara to explore her line of research on how people acquire skills. As an American Sign Language-English interpreter, she wondered why so many students struggled to find success in the program.
“I became very curious about why was I seeing my classmates falling left and right and there were just a few of us who managed to continue,” she said.
That prompted her to pursue a master’s degree in which she could look into the driving forces behind cognitive abilities.
After completing the program, which was akin to independent study, Macnamara was captivated by research, pointing her toward a PhD. But in order to pursue a doctorate, she knew she would have to leave her career as an interpreter.
She did so with the intention of returning to interpreting after completing the degree.
But she never did.
“Research just continued to be addictive, and so, while I loved my previous career, I couldn’t imagine a life without research,” she said.
Get to know Macnamara better in this week’s five questions.
1. What’s your favorite place to grab a bite to eat in Cleveland?
My favorite restaurant in Cleveland is Red, but it’s a bit more than just a bite to eat. So I would say Piccadilly in University Circle and Barrio up the hill.
2. Where would you like to travel that you’ve never been to?
3. What is your biggest goal for 2018?
To submit a successful tenure packet.
4. If you had to pick another field to work in or study, what would it be?
That’s easy—I’d go back to interpreting.
5. What’s your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
My departmental colleagues—they’ve been very supportive in the work that I’m doing and pursuing. I also really like my office.