Previous research has suggested that, in addition to cognitive skills such as intelligence or a good memory, social or non-cognitive skills such as aspirations, confidence and personality can have an important effect on career success.
These non-cognitive skills are likely to be related to family background, with the conditions of a more advantaged upbringing being more beneficial in their development. These characteristics may therefore have a substantive role in social mobility.
In this project, conducted by Robert de Vries and Jason Rentfrow, we used two separate approaches to examine the association between family background and characteristics related to personality and aspirations, 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 type ever conducted in the UK
- In terms of personality, the literature review identified extraversion (sociability, confidence, assertiveness), self-esteem, and a positive outlook as particularly beneficial for career success, and an external locus of control (a belief that one’s successes and failures are outside one’s control) to be particularly detrimental.
- Our analysis of the BBC data confirmed the importance of extraversion. We found that highly extraverted people – those who were more confident, sociable or assertive – had a 25% higher chance of being in a high-earning job (over £40,000 per year), with the odds being higher for men than women. We also found that people who scored high for conscientiousness (thoroughness, and a preference for planning and order) had approximately a 20% higher chance of having a high-paying job.
- Both the literature review and our analysis of the BBC data showed a clear positive relationship between economic/occupational aspirations and career success. Again, some of the association observed in the BBC data may be due to the effect of current circumstances on future aspirations. However, long-term studies included in the literature review confirmed a strong effect of aspirations on future attainment. These studies also showed this effect to be independent of cognitive ability.
- Personality and aspirations were found to be strongly affected by social background. Our analysis of the BBC data showed that people from more advantaged backgrounds (those whose parents had professional jobs) had significantly higher levels of extraversion and very substantially higher economic aspirations (particularly for men). These findings were largely consistent with the findings of the literature review.
- Schools should work to improve knowledge and awareness of professional careers among less advantaged students
- Schools should use good feedback to improve pupils’ social skills
- Intervention programmes aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged young people should be broad-based – focusing on wider skills as well as academic attainment
- Schools and universities should provide students with suitable training in employability skills and interview techniques
- More research is required on interventions to improve beneficial personality traits