True Grit

Research on the human condition explains how attributes like grit play a part in overcoming challenges

There’s a scene in the modern classic Western film, True Grit, where the protagonist Rooster Cogburn, rushes on horseback to save the life of a snake-bitten 14-year old Mattie Ross after a life-clenching gunfight with a group of bandits. After what seems like an entire day of riding and goading the horse onwards, Cogburn’s already exhausted mount collapses. Injured and frustrated, he shoots his horse, carries Ross on his back, and continues on foot undeterred. Where the regular movie-goer witnesses a moment of cinematic beauty packed with emotional narrative, Sarah Paul, associate professor of philosophy, sees the defining characteristic of a very interesting philosophical question: what is grit?

On the nose as it may be, that scene was the first image conjured when speaking to Paul, who also serves as the associate dean for research and professional development, about her latest paper, which she co-authored with Jennifer M. Morton. Titled “Grit” and published in the journal Ethics. The research explores how achieving difficult, long-term goals requires perseverance, or grit. They argue that those displaying grit embody the capacity to persevere in the face of difficulty, and view quitting as caused in many cases by a loss of confidence that continued effort can overcome those difficulties.

The paper, which was selected as one of the ten best articles published in philosophy in 2019 by The Philosopher’s Annual, highlights what the researchers refer to as the “epistemic dimension” of grit. That element, Paul says, enables people with grit to overcome lost confidence through perseverance over pain, frustration or emotions of doubt.

She uses the example of someone attempting to become an opera singer, a highly sought-after and difficult job to land. She says that when people don’t persevere in the face of obstacles or difficulties, they sometimes give up on their goals because they lose confidence that they will achieve those goals even if they continue to try. They reach a point whereby they begin to lose the element of perseverance, or grit, and begin to look at alternatives. 

“So, when you keep trying out to be an opera singer and you keep getting rejected and you keep getting negative feedback on your performances, you might reasonably come to conclude, ‘I'm never going to make it. I should give up on this goal and invest in something else that's more likely to work out and that I would also enjoy or value,’” she says.

Exploring that moment of submitting to the evidence  encountered thus far and abandoning the belief that one will  achieve success is a major goal of the paper. They examine  the role that belief and evidence can play in people's ability to either persevere or give up and invest in some other alternative.

After speaking to Paul, I watched True Grit again, but in a completely new light. The grit I had thought was squarely embodied in the gruff, and dangerous Marshall Cogburn, was in fact more evident in the 14-year old Mattie who against all odds is able to employ, track out and eventually capture her father’s murderer. That despite a Texas ranger chasing down the murderer for months and finding herself in a town without any money she was able to successfully complete her task.

The grit on display in the movie is relatable especially in these times as humanity faces one of the most moiling situations, and individuals are challenged with what could be seen as an insurmountable task. Paul says that grit is present around the world today.

“I think that's exactly right. I think many of us are being asked to persevere in the face of great difficulty, being required to give up on socializing or losing our jobs. Many of us are experiencing very difficult obstacles and yet we sort of managed to keep doing our jobs or keep taking care of our families under conditions that are much harder than we initially expected,” she said.