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Money: The Wages of Personality

How your character interacts with your paycheck and tips for those with debt anxiety.

Sure, education, experience, skills, and natural ability all contribute to the salary you can expect to make. But your personality affects your paycheck, too. How much? Here's a close look at how character interacts with compensation.—Katherine Schreiber


  • Agreeableness Nice guys rake in about $10,000 less than coworkers who aren't shy about stepping on a few toes, finds organizational behavior researcher Charlice Hurst. Kinder people are also more likely to gravitate towards socially rewarding, less lucrative professions like social work.
  • Neuroticism Social psychologist Daniel Spurk notes that more adaptable employees may leapfrog over rigid and easily defeated neurotics on their way to the top. Cornell researchers found that executives one standard deviation above the mean on neuroticism and agreeableness pulled in $36,011 less than their peers.
  • Ethicism Businessmen who openly embrace ethics make 3.4 percent less than their immoral peers, econometrics researcher Andrew Hussey finds. They may be penalized for being less aggressive, but that lack of aggression is valued in women, who earn more when their morals are intact.


  • Extraversion Extraverted subjects in Spurk's study were more likely to earn six figures. Why? "They set higher career advancement goals," he suggests. "Plus, they're more confident." People who naturally excel at schmoozing can also get a boost from a strong professional network.
  • Optimism Keeping your chin up fosters persistence in the face of educational or career setbacks. Psychologist Susan Segerstrom has found that 10 years after graduating, law students who were optimistic earned an average of $32,667 more than their glass-half-empty peers.
  • Team Spirit Getting involved early on in group activities is associated with a pay bump later in life. A study from the University of Arizona found that students who regularly volunteered, played sports, and joined clubs were, at 24, more likely than less-involved peers to be on a career path rather than just in a job.

Dreading Red

Is financial phobia sinking debtors further under water?

An inclination to avoid money matters is common. But it's an especially dangerous strategy for people already in debt. In a set of studies in the Journal of Neuroscience, Psychology, and Economics, those with more financial anxiety took longer to react to words like "debt," "overdraft," and even "bonus."

Such reflexive avoidance mirrors some of the key symptoms of a phobia. When people start ignoring unpleasant bank statements, their debt and anxiety feed on each other, creating a negative loop. Though no one is saying that "financial phobia" should be a diagnosis, the study's authors suggest that therapists could apply proven phobia treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy to correct the avoidant thought patterns that afflict financially anxious patients. —Matt Huston