A happy accident occurred this month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Three articles appeared in succession, one immediately after the other, each addressing a different aspect of a major social issue: Can children with poor beginnings in life achieve later success? The answer is yes. The three articles break that yes down into three components.
- 1. Can personality traits compensate for poor beginnings? YES. In a longitudinal study of 377,000 high school students begun in 1960, Damien et al (2015) reported in this month’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that personality traits of disadvantaged adolescents predict future income, education level, and occupational prestige. Using the Big Five model of personality structure, the researchers found that disadvantaged teens who were more extraverted, more agreeable, and more conscientious were more likely to attain a higher education level. They also found that disadvantaged teens who were more extraverted and more conscientious would earn higher income later in life. Finally, they found that
disadvantaged teens who were more extraverted were more likely to wind up in occupations associated with greater prestige (i.e., doctor, lawyer, and so forth). Across all of these analyses, Big Five “C” (for conscientiousness or consolidation) was the best single predictor of future success for disadvantaged youth. Higher “C” entails perfectionism, a penchant for being well-organized, reliability, ambition, concentration ability, and certain degree of methodicalness.
- So, if you don’t have these key traits, can you acquire them? MAYBE. In a study of 135 undergraduate students, Hudson & Fraley (2015) reported on a 16-week study to see if late adolescents could change their personality traits, e.g., from more introverted to more extraverted. To assist students in setting goals, they took questions on which students scored lower and wanted to score higher and converted them into goal statements. Accordingly, the questionnaire item “Is talkative” became the goal “I want to be more talkative.” The researchers found that the students were able to achieve small gains during this four-month experiment. However, I found several weaknesses in the study. First, it is relatively easy for someone to adapt their behavior for a short period, but whether they can turn that short-term adaptation into long-term permanent behavior change is another matter. I have always used as a rule of thumb that it takes about six months to see significant, permanent changes in behavior. 16 weeks is too soon to claim victory. Also, all of the subjects in the experiment shared the same context—they were in the same psychology class—so it becomes tricky to generalize these results to other contexts—physics class, community centers, sports team, religious groups, family, and so forth. In addition, all the students in the class were trying to change and benefitted from the mutual support. Finally, the average age of the students was 20, and personality was likely to be still changing for many—traits tend to reach their adult set point in the late 20s. While this is a promising line of investigation, I do not place great hope in trait level changes as a path to future success. Learning compensatory behaviors is more promising, and that is precisely what the third article explores.
- Can learned habits compensate for low self-control in predicting positive life outcomes? YES. We have long known that low self-control (i.e., resisting distractions, withstanding temptation, and adjusting one’s behavior according to the demands of the situation) does not bode well for achieving future success in life. Across six different studies with both adult and college student samples, Galla & Duckworth (2015) found that beneficial habits could offset the success-obstructing effects of low self-control. Specifically, they found five habits that, if executed consistently over time, would compensate for lack of self-control:
- Meditation practice—Yoga, naps, or prayer on a regular basis are centering and calming
- Exercise routine—could be as simple as a brisk 2-mile walk to and from school daily, or gym workouts, or home workouts—same time every day
- Study/homework routines—the clearer the routine, the easier to say “no” to tempting distractions—e.g., “7-9 is homework/practice/study/reading time—no exceptions”
- Healthy snacking—real cheese not Cheetos and Cheez Whiz, fruit not French fries, nuts not Nachos
- Consistent sleep—same time to bed, same time to rise, with enough hours in between
It is interesting to note that all five of these beneficial habits come more naturally for persons with higher levels of Big Five “C”, which was identified earlier as the best single predictor for future success of disadvantaged youth. The more of these five habits that kids can acquire, the greater the odds of future success. To help remember them, perhaps you could use the acronym MESSS—avoid a “mess” by meditation, exercise, study, (healthy) snacking, and sleep!