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What Does It Take to Succeed in Life?

A new study takes a comprehensive look at the American Dream.

Michael Jung / Shutterstock
Source: Michael Jung / Shutterstock

Can people really go from rags to riches?  

While Horatio Alger's classic stories of poor boys overcoming terrible poverty to rise to great success later in life are legendary, we tend to be more cynical about whether this can happen in real life.  Despite the enduring belief in the classic "American success story", the general belief tends to be that having rich parents guarantees success later in life while children of poor parents tend to stay poor no matter what they do.  

But is that necessarily true?   While socioeconomic status (SES) does seem to have  a powerful influence on the kind of success people attain later in life, other traits such as intelligence and personality can often be important as well.  Children with the right qualities can do very well for themselves no matter how disadvantaged their backgrounds might be.  For that matter, even children of parents who are financially well-off may find themselves doing more poorly than their parents might hope depending on their own abilities or personality traits.  

There is certainly a great deal of research showing that personality traits such as conscientiousness can predict grade point average both in high school and in college, not to mention how much income is earned later in life.  Cognitive ability is also a powerful predictor of educational achievement and academic success (even if it doesn't seem to be so important in terms of long-term success or life satisfaction). 

Still, the relationship between parental SES, personality factors, and long-term success isn't so straightforward.  Having good intelligence and the right personality traits can compensate for a disadvantaged background while while even the children of very wealthy parents may have difficulty succeeding in life.  On the other hand, children from well-off backgrounds are also under more pressure to succeed and often get much more assistance, whether it be financial or in terms of intellectual stimulation.

So which personality traits will be most important in later success?  I've already mentioned conscientiousness but research has also linked other personality traits such as agreeableness, emotional stability, self-efficacy, and openness to experience to success in school and, possibly, later in life.  Along with cognitive skills such as analytic reasoning, they can be especially important for children coming from homes in which they don't receive the kind of intellectual stimulation found in many middle-class settings.    

This ties into what John Mirowsky and Catherine E. Ross described as the resource substitution hypothesis in which the effects of positive resources such as a good education are more beneficial for people coming from deprived backgrounds with few other resources that can ensure success.  Given the enormous disparities in terms of the kind of upbringings many children have in the United States alone,  it seems more important than ever to determine what it means for children being able to get ahead in  life.

A new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology describes one of the most comprehensive studies to date looking at the effects of family background, personality, and intelligence on later success.    Conducted by a team of psychologists led by Rodica Ioana Damian of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign their study uses data taken from a national longitudinal research project first developed by the American Institutes for Research. 

Project Talent has been in continuous operation since 1960 gathering information on students in grades nine to twelve across the United States.  Over 440,000 high school students from over one thousand schools have taken part in two days of testing to measure student competency in core subjects as well as gathering information on family background,  personal educational experiences, occupational interests, and and plans for the future.  They also completed tests of personality and cognitive ability. 

After the original testing, the participants were recontacted by mail on three different occasions, one year, five years, and eleven years later.   In the later mailings, the participants were questioned about academic and occupational achievement as well as later problems that developed.  Even with a large attrition rate, over 88,000 participants still participated in all three later mailings.  As part of their analysis of the Project Talent data, Damian and her fellow researchers created personality composites for each participant based on the Big Five personality traits which were used in their research. 

What they found was that personality traits and intelligence were strong predictors of later academic and occupational success.  There was also evidence for the influence of parental SES on later effect, especially in conjunction with other factors such as personality and intelligence.  Even when controlling for parental SES and personality traits, though, level of intelligence predicts educational success, annual income and occupational prestige later in life. 

Specific personality traits such as extraversion and conscientiousness  also correlated well with  life achievement, especially for adolescents from poorer backgrounds (which was evidence for resource substitition).  Unfortunately, parental SES was still more important in terms of later income. For example, people high in conscientiousness did better than people low in conscientiousness from the same background but their average income was still less than what people from more well-off backgrounds earned, regardless of personality.

So, what do these results mean in terms of the American Dream?  While people with high intelligence were often able to succeed despite the disadvantage of low parental SES,  having a good personality tends not to be as useful, at least in terms of later income or occupational achievement.  One of the biggest barriers faced by people coming from low-income backgrounds is the high cost of education in the United States.  While high-income parents can afford to pay for their children's university education, lower income children need to pile up enormous student loan debts and compete for often-scarce scholarship dollars.    Many otherwise qualified young people are often forced to delay their education while they earn enough to pay for it themselves or else forego higher education altogether.  Only the most intelligent candidates seem able to overcome these kind of barriers to get ahead in life.

Rodica Damian and her co-authors conclude their paper with one of George Carlin's more cynical (and prophetic) quotes.  "The reason they call it the American Dream is that you have to be asleep to believe it."     Unless of course, you happen to be extraordinarily intelligent.