I finally found the time to read “The Power of Personality: The Comparative Validity of Personality Traits, Socioeconomic Status, and Cognitive Ability for Predicting Important Life Outcomes.”  [new working link!] It’s a meta-analysis, so you’ve really got to trust the authors to be confident in the results.  But if the world works the way the authors say it does, all social scientists ought to be paying attention.

According to this article, you can measure personality with a simple survey, then use it years or decades later to make good predictions about mortality, divorce, and occupational status.  The research team usually reports results from studies with decent control variables, but of course the quality of past research varies.  The paper ends with three key graphs.

The first shows correlations between mortality and (a) socioeconomic status, (b) IQ, and (c) four of the Big 5 personality traits:


In The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and Murray showed that IQ almost always out-predicts SES.  If this paper is right, conscientiousness alone out-predicts IQ for mortality.

The second key graph shows the correlation between divorce and (a) SES, and (b) three of the Big 5 personality traits:


Many of us (Arnold for example) think of divorce as a low-SES problem.  If this paper is right, though, divorce is much more of a low conscientiousness, high neuroticism, low agreeableness problem.

Finally, in the last graph, we see the correlation between occupational status and (a) SES, (b) parental income, (c) IQ, and (d) various personality traits. 


The specific personality traits are unspecified because the desirability of traits varies from job to job – think salesmen versus librarians.  I do wonder, though, why they didn’t show a separate bar for conscientiousness, which is supposed to predict job performance in almost any line of work.

Overall, I’m inclined to believe these results.  In my experience, people are highly yet predictably different in their preferences.  Since luck usually averages out in the long run, it seems like these predictable differences should lead to large average differences in people’s lives.  The fact that prominent personality specialists will stick their necks out and make these generalizations makes me marginally more confident in my initial intuitions.  Does anyone else want to read the whole piece, and tell us how convincing you found it – and why?