Rule-breaking in children predicts future success

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A paper was recently released looking into which personality factors in childhood predict success in education and work. The study followed participants over a 40 year period and attempted to control for intelligence and socioeconomic background. Much of it is exactly what you would expect. But here are some quotes that are more surprising (emphases ours). Note of course that the result has not yet been replicated:

In general, we found significant relations for childhood IQ and SES [socioeconomic status] with educational attainment that is in line with the sociological and psychological models (see Blau & Duncan, 1967; Eccles, 2005). As there is much previous research on the validity of these predictors for educational success (e.g., Gottfredson, 2002; Gustafsson & Undheim, 1996; Kuncel et al., 2004), we will focus our discussion on student characteristics and behaviors.

Educational attainment was best predicted by defiance of parental authority, [lack of] sense of inferiority, and teacher-rated studiousness. The effects were still significant after including IQ and parental SES as predictors.

First, students with high rule breaking and defiance of parental authority might be more competitive in the school context and more visible in interactions in the classroom. This might lead to at least higher oral grades compared with students with lower levels of rule breaking and defiance and to more demanding and encouraging teacher behavior. Rosenbaum (2001) demonstrated that teachers used not only the students’ cognitive abilities to determine grades but also students’ noncognitive behaviors. However, because of the archival nature of the data, we consider this finding as preliminary. Further research is needed to replicate this finding using a more comprehensive measurement approach (see below).

Second, a high level of sense of inferiority was associated with lower educational attainment. As the validation study (see the online Supplementary Material) revealed, this scale encompasses a feeling of inferiority in comparison with classmates with regard to exercises, homework, and abilities. It is also highly related to pessimism. Feeling inadequate in school seems to be a repressive and inhibiting factor for educational success. Yates (2002), for instance, demonstrated a negative link between pessimism and achievement in mathematics. Such negative values and beliefs seem to play an important role in learning and achievement; thus, they are expected to negatively influence educational attainment.

In particular, maladaptive perceptions and attitudes might become self-fulfilling prophecies as feeling inadequate in the school context might lead to lower self-esteem and self-concept, both of which are known to be related to lower school achievement (Marsh, 1990; Nolen-Hoeksema, Girgus, & Seligman, 1986).

Third, teacher-rated studiousness was one of the most robust predictors of educational and occupational success. The teacher might be an especially good source of students’ studiousness because teachers’ ratings are based on observable behavior in the classroom and they keep track of how hard students work and students’ willingness to learn. In a sample of high-ability males, Kern and colleagues (2009) demonstrated that teacher and parent ratings of Conscientiousness in childhood showed small but significant associations with occupational success. Our results also revealed an effect of teacher-rated studiousness on educational attainment.

Which Childhood Characteristics Predict Occupational Success and Income?

We found a direct influence of the responsible student scale on occupational success. This direct path may be accounted for by different mechanisms or processes. Being a responsible student may lead to higher task effectiveness (Roberts et al., 2007). Therefore, one could imagine that individuals who work harder and are more studious could also be more effective at accomplishing their organized, act responsibly, work hard, demonstrate task persistence, and complete tasks thoroughly—all of which are aspects of the responsible student scale—are more productive in the longterm than individuals who score lower on such skills and abilities (Andersson & Bergman, 2011; Barrick, Mount, & Judge, 2001).

One surprising finding was that rule breaking and defiance of parental authority was the best noncognitive predictor of higher income after accounting for the influence of IQ, parental SES, and educational attainment. Given the nature of our archival data, the possible explanations are rather ad hoc and our exploratory results need to be replicated.

For instance, individuals who scored low on Agreeableness were also shown to earn more money (Judge, Livingston, & Hurst, 2012). One explanation Judge and colleagues (2012) gave for this finding was that it might be because of the fact that such individuals value competition more than interpersonal relations and therefore want to advance their interests relative to others. Another explanation might be that individuals with higher levels of rule breaking and defiance of parental authority also have higher levels of willingness to stand up for their own interests and aims, a characteristic that leads to more favorable individual outcomes (Barry & Friedman, 1998)—in our case, income. This may be one of the reasons why defiance of parental authority plays a role in determining income—students who show higher levels of rule breaking and defiance are more likely to engage in negotiations about earning and payment (see Judge at al., 2012) and fight more strongly to achieve personal benefits. We also cannot rule out that individuals who are likely or willing to break rules get higher pay for unethical reasons. For instance, research in the field of organizational psychology showed that employees invest in unethical or deviant workplace behavior when they are not satisfied with their income and when they have a high level of love of money (Tang & Chiu, 2003). Thus, this kind of behavior might in turn lead to higher income. Nevertheless, further research is needed to better understand the construct and its mechanisms.

Author: Robert Wiblin

Rob studied both genetics and economics at the Australian National University (ANU), graduating top of his class and being named Young Alumnus of the Year in 2015.

He worked as a research economist in various Australian Government agencies, and then moved to the UK to work at the Centre for Effective Altruism, first as Research Director, then Executive Director, then Research Director for 80,000 Hours.

He was founding board Secretary for Animal Charity Evaluators and is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community.