Adults who are assertive, talkative and enthusiastic – what psychologists call highly extroverted – are less likely to come from low income backgrounds than those who do not share this personality trait. But extroverted adults are 25% more likely to earn over £40,000 a year, with the odds being higher for men than women (30% v. 20%).

This is according to a new Sutton Trust report that analyses data from the BBC Big Personality Test. A Winning Personality, by Dr Robert de Vries at the University of Kent and Dr Jason Rentfrow at the University of Cambridge, uses information on the personality characteristics of more than 150,000 UK residents to examine the link between family background and character traits, and between these traits and career success.

The report shows that people who are conscientious, displaying traits like self-discipline, efficiency and organisation, are 20% more likely to secure a high-paying job.

However, the researchers found that non-cognitive skills like personality traits and aspirations are strongly affected by social background. Analysis of the BBC Lab UK data found that adults who come from more advantaged backgrounds, defined as those whose parents had a professional job, had significantly higher levels of extraversion than those who did not. They were also more likely to display high levels of openness, including imagination and intellectual curiosity.

In addition, aspirations in almost all areas of life were significantly higher for respondents who grew up in comfortable homes. Out of aesthetic, social, hedonistic, religious and relationship aspirations, religious goals were the only ones not to differ significantly by social background. Men’s economic aspirations and women’s aesthetic aspirations – or their desire to create good artistic work – were found to be the most influenced by social background.

Today’s report by Dr Robert de Vries and Dr Jason Rentfrow shows that, by influencing career success, personality traits and aspirations play an important part in social mobility. With social skills becoming increasingly important in the labour market, efforts must be made to address the disadvantages that less advantaged young people face.

The report recommends that:

  • Schools should use good feedback to improve pupils’ social skills, including encouraging self-confidence and cultivating a sense that students’ can improve their results with commitment.
  • Schools should work to improve knowledge and awareness of professional careers among less advantaged students as career aspirations are often driven by family knowledge and social contacts.
  • Intervention programmes aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged young people should be broad-based and focus on wider skills as well as academic attainment.
  • Schools and universities should provide students with suitable training in employability skills and interview techniques.
  • More robust research is required to find out the best ways to instil positive personality traits in young people.

Sir Peter Lampl, Chairman of the Sutton Trust and of the Education Endowment Foundation, said today:

“To get the best jobs you need the best grades.  But is that enough?  Recent Harvard research shows that almost all the job growth in the United States over the last 20 years has come from jobs which require social skills and this trend is likely to accelerate.

“Our research shows that there is a clear correlation between social and other skills and earnings.  We must therefore build the career aspirations of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and foster the more intangible qualities that they need to succeed and which are not taught in the curriculum such as confidence, aspiration, resilience and creativity.”
Dr Robert de Vries, lecturer at the University of Kent, said today:

“We know that, in the UK, even more than in many other countries, a privileged upbringing is likely to lead to better grades at school, and a better chance at a successful career. But, along with the previous research we review, today’s analysis of the BBC Big Personality Test shows that those from better off backgrounds have yet another advantage when it comes to non-academic factors like extraversion and career aspirations.”


  1. The Sutton Trustis a foundation set up in 1997, dedicated to improving social mobility through education. It has published over 160 research studies and funded and evaluated programmes that have helped hundreds of thousands of young people of all ages, from early years through to access to the professions.
  2. The Education Endowment Foundationis currently running randomised controlled trials of six different projects to find the best ways to instil character traits like grit, self-confidence and motivation. To find out more about these projects, go here.


This report uses two separate approaches to examine the association between family background and several key non-cognitive characteristics, and between these characteristics and adult career attainment:

  • A review of the existing evidence from 90 peer-reviewed academic studies.
  • An analysis of information on the non-cognitive characteristics of more than 150,000 UK residents, based on data from the BBC Big Personality Test – the largest survey of this kind. The survey measures personality across several characteristics, which are well-established in academic psychology literature. The four focussed on here are extraversion (sociability and assertiveness), agreeableness (altruism and sympathy), conscientiousness (competence and thoroughness) and openness (curiosity and imagination), which have been linked to the potential of earning a salary of over £40,000.


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