There is growing interest among psychologists and economists in the importance of “non-cognitive” skills for doing well in life. In this paper we assess the quality of measures available in US survey data for two specific non-cognitive skills, drive and prudence, which we term “performance character strengths” – non-cognitive skills that relate to outcomes important for economic mobility, such as educational attainment. We evaluate and rank the measures of drive and prudence found in these surveys, categorizing them as broad or narrow, and indirect or direct. Next, we use one of these measures (the BPI-hyperactivity scale in the NLSY) to look at socioeconomic gaps in performance character strengths, and the relative importance of performance character strengths for educational attainment. We find that family income and maternal education are positively associated with higher levels of performance character strengths, and that the influence of the measure on educational attainment is comparable to the influence of academic scores.
A growing body of empirical research demonstrates that people who possess certain character strengths do better in life in terms of work, earnings, education and so on, even when taking into account their academic abilities. Smarts matter, but so does character.
This is hardly a revelation: most of us would think it a matter of common sense that being able to work hard, defer gratification, or get along with others will help somebody to do well in the labor market, school, family and community. Why the interest now? Three reasons: First, there is more concrete evidence for our intuition that character matters, thanks to the work of Jim Heckman, Angela Duckworth, Carmit Segal and others, summarized in Paul Tough’s recent book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. Second, this evidence suggests that character skills may count for a lot – as much, perhaps, as cognitive skills – in terms of important life outcomes. Third, given their proven importance, it seems to many observers (including ourselves) that too little attention is paid by policy-makers to the cultivation and distribution of these character skills. For a longer treatment of this last point, see our accompanying piece “The New Politics of Character” (originally published in National Affairs, Reeves, 2014b).
We need to be clear what we are talking about. For many years, the preferred scholarly terminology among economists has been “non-cognitive” skills – in other words, every skill not captured by cognitive tests. “Non-cognitive” is now a term that almost nobody likes but almost everyone uses. The problem is that it is too broad, lumping together a very wide range of skills, traits and attributes – from stable aspects of personality through to everyday social skills.
In this paper, we:
- Motivate an interest in character strengths from an equality of opportunity perspective.
- Sketch existing evidence for the impact of drive and prudence for life outcomes.
- Describe the distribution of character strengths by socioeconomic background.
- Evaluate existing datasets and measures of character strengths.
- Estimate the influence of one measure of character strengths in the early and middle childhood years for educational and other outcomes.
I’ve seen some pretty awful poverty. [But] There is something about poverty in the U.S. that is worse, even though, materially, people have more.