What Makes a Person Successful? New Research Offers Surprising Findings

By Ellen Carroll

In determining a successful life course, how important are noncognitive skills, such as focusing on team goals, paying attention during important meetings and making connections between new and old data?

A new study notes people inherit genes that affect things other than cognitive ability, and those genes are also important for understanding differences in people’s life outcomes. The study comes from an international team led by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, the University of Texas at Austin, and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. The new findings were published in the journal Nature Genetics.

“Genetic studies of educational attainment were initiated with the goal of identifying genes that influenced cognitive abilities. They’ve had some success in doing that. But it turns out they’ve also identified genetics that influence a range of other skills and characteristics,” said Daniel Belsky, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology, in a press release. ”What was most surprising to me about our results was that these noncognitive skills contributed just as much to the heritability of educational attainment as cognitive ability.”

In the study, noncognitive skills were defined as behaviors and abilities that are not measured by traditional IQ tests but are thought to help people be more successful in school, in their jobs, and in life generally.

Interestingly, the study found cognitive and noncognitive abilities both influence educational attainment: Cognitive abilities accounted for 43% and noncognitive skills accounted for 57% of that outcome.

“These results were important proof of concept,” observed Belsky, who is also with the Robert N Butler Columbia Aging Center. “They showed us that noncognitive skills genetics have implications for economics and public health similar to the genetics of cognitive abilities.”

Michel Nivard, assistant professor of biological psychology at the Vrije Universiteit  Amsterdam and co-leader of the study, said the researchers borrowed a strategy from economists who studied people with the same cognitive ability but different years of education. The strategy “enabled us to associate the variations in how far people go in school above and beyond their association with cognitive test performance,” he said.

“This approach allows us to leverage the power of giant genetic databases like UK Biobank to study the genetics of traits and behaviors that were not directly measured in the research participants,” he added. Using that method, the researchers were able to study noncognitive skills reflected in data from hundreds of thousands of individuals.

“Overall, the genetics of noncognitive skills were associated with higher tolerance of risks, greater willingness to forego immediate gratification, less health-risk behavior, and delayed fertility,” the press release said. “Researchers also observed that noncognitive skill genetics were associated with a constellation of personality traits linked with success in relationships and at work, such as being curious and eager to learn, being more emotionally stable, and being more industrious and orderly.”

Paige Harden, professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and a co-leader of the research, noted there has been a lot debate about what noncognitive skills are and how best to measure them. “Motivation, persistence, grit, curiosity, self-control, growth mindset — these are just a few of the things that people have suggested are important noncognitive skills,” she said. “For personality and risk behavior, we saw relationships we expected; noncognitive skills genetics were associated with less risky behavior and a personality profile we associate with maturity, and social and professional competency. But the results for mental health were a surprise.”

Regarding mental health, the researchers found that noncognitive skills genetics associated with educational attainment were also associated with increased risk for schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and anorexia nervosa.

But Harden added, “Our result warns us against a simplistic view of genetic variants being good or bad. The same genetic variant that predisposes someone to go further in school might also elevate their risk of developing schizophrenia or another serious mental disorder.”

Harden cautioned that, “Genetic influence must always be understood through the lens of history and social structures. These results tell us about what is, not what could be. Nothing about our study should discourage investments in ensuring that all children reach their maximum potential.”

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