Back to Top

‘Can personality traits and intelligence compensate for background disadvantage?

‘Character education’ is one of the current hot topics in the education policy world. Personality characteristics such as resilience, conscientiousness, and sociability are thought to have an impact on educational attainment and career success. Many policymakers believe that some socioeconomically disadvantaged children lack the opportunities to develop these traits due to the nature of their upbringing, while those from wealthier backgrounds benefit from home environments that encourage children to develop these characteristics – and that this difference contributes directly to the ‘attainment gap’ between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers. Character education – where schools seek to actively support the development of these ‘desirable’ behaviours – is therefore seen as a possible remedy to reduce the attainment gap.

In an important paper entitled ‘Can personality traits and intelligence compensate for background disadvantage? Predicting status attainment in adulthood’, R. I. Damian, R. Su, M. Shanahan, U. Trautwein, and B. W. Roberts, attempt to answer the question of whether possession of the noted characteristics really makes a difference to educational attainment and success in later life, or whether any positive effects are overshadowed by the impact of socio-economic background. For the first time, therefore, this research seeks to disentangle the impact of personality traits from that of intelligence – and examines the impact of ‘character’ on young people’s educational and life chances compared with the effect of their socio-economic background.

The authors present an analysis of data from Project Talent, a large-scale nationally-representative longitudinal study that tracked US high school pupils until 11 years after graduation. This allows them to evaluate the long-term impact of teenage personality traits on adult outcomes – such as ultimate educational attainment, annual income and occupational prestige – a decade later. The researchers examined the correlations between socioeconomic background, intelligence, and the so-called ‘Big Five’ personality traits (extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness) of the subjects, with their future educational attainment, annual income, and occupational prestige.

The analysis suggests that each of the personality traits has a statistically significant effect on outcomes: a 1 standard deviation (SD) difference in conscientiousness is associated with an extra 2.7 months of education, while a 1 SD difference in extraversion is correlated with around a 4 per cent increase in annual income. An increase in parental SES of 1 SD is in turn associated with an additional 8.3 months of education and 8 per cent of annual income. So character matters – but not as much as socioeconomic (dis)advantage. So far, so unsurprising.

The paper gets really interesting when the authors look at the effects of the interaction between pupils’ socioeconomic background and personality traits. They consider three hypotheses: (1) the independent effects hypothesis, which predicts that character affects educational and life outcomes independently of background, (2) the resource substitution hypothesis, which predicts that personality is more important for outcomes among pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds (i.e. that character ‘compensates’ for disadvantage), and (3) the Matthew effect hypothesis, which predicts a stronger correlation between character and outcomes among pupils from more advantaged backgrounds (i.e. that character reinforces socio-economic advantage).

The research finds that high levels of three of the Big Five characteristics (agreeableness, extraversion and conscientiousness) have a bigger effect on educational attainment among pupils from low socio-economic background. This confirms the resource substitution hypothesis: having these traits makes a bigger difference if you are less well off, thus ‘compensating’ (to an extent) for your socioeconomic disadvantage. The potential impact is significant: going from -2 SD to +2 SD in each of these traits results in the equivalent of about one additional academic year of education among pupils with the lowest socio-economic background, compared with pupils with the highest. Conscientiousness and extraversion showed a similar effect on annual income: among pupils with the lowest socio-economic background, going from -2 SD to +2 SD in the personality traits results in an 18 per cent increase in annual income compared with pupils from the highest socio-economic background. Again, ‘character’ makes a bigger difference for the socioeconomically disadvantaged. Extraversion also has a resource substitution effect on occupational prestige.

In a first for research in this field, the authors then control for intelligence – measured by a composite of Predicting status attainment in adulthood 9 verbal, quantitative and spatial cognitive abilities – to investigate the robustness of these results. Strikingly, the main effects of the personality traits remain statistically significant – and the effect sizes do not change dramatically. However, the interaction between the Big Five traits and pupils’ socio-economic background no longer is no longer statistically significant in terms of educational attainment or occupational prestige, but the effect on annual income of conscientiousness interacting with background remains statistically significant.

So, when controlling for intelligence, character makes a difference to educational and career outcomes. But the effects are independent of pupils’ background: character does not make more difference to the more disadvantaged, with the exception of conscientiousness, which does benefit the annual income of those from lower socio-economic backgrounds more than those from higher socio-economic backgrounds. It is also important to note that even this effect only partially ameliorates the overall impact of background; it is not large enough to fully compensate for socio-economic disadvantage.

Certainly, there are a number of limitations to this research, acknowledged by the authors, chief of which is the age of the data. The Project Talent data were collected between 1960 and 1971, and both the economy and education system have clearly changed considerably since then. But it does nonetheless raise important questions for policymakers.

If (and it remains a big ‘if’) character can be taught – if education can increase the level of the Big Five personality traits demonstrated by young people – this could have a positive effect on pupils’ educational attainment and career success, irrespective of their intelligence. In principle, this effect would be as significant for advantaged children as for the very disadvantaged ones, so it would not help to close the attainment gap if applied universally. However, implementing character-building interventions successfully in schools serving primarily disadvantaged communities could have a considerable effect.

The remaining question, then, is just how to ‘teach’ character and whether it is truly possible to develop particular personality traits through education. The research suggests that the work of Sir Anthony Seldon, Lord James O’Shaughnessy, and others trying to answer that question could have an important impact on our education system and the life chances of our most disadvantaged young people.


Dale Bassett is Head of Product Reform at AQA awarding body. Previously at AQA, he was Director of Public Policy, and prior to that Research Director at the think tank Reform, where he led on research into public service reform, specialising in education policy.

This comment piece originally appeared in the CMRE Annual Research Digest 2015. The piece reviews a paper by R. I. Damian, R. Su, M. Shanahan, U. Trautwein and B. W. Roberts, ‘Can personality traits and intelligence compensate for background disadvantage? Predicting status attainment in adulthood’, which appeared in the November 2014 issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which may be downloaded free here.

CMRE also produce a Monthly Research Digest, edited by our Research Director, Gabriel Heller Sahlgren. You can download back copies of the digest here.

 to subscribe.

Blog Category: 
About the author