Personality, academic success and culture

It is an intuitive idea to think that personality has an effect on academic success. After all, some people can plan better, others are distracted easily, yet others might be intelligent but cannot “follow the book”. One would think all these are correlated with academic success.

The answer is indeed yes. Various studies have found significant relationships between personality and academic success. But how do these relationships arise? What traits are correlated with success? Is there a one-size-fits-all rule or does it depend on the environment, field-of-study or age?

Nye, Orel and Kochergina (2013) investigate the effect of personality on academic success in a Russian university setting. They use the Big Five personality traits to group their students. These include

  • Conscientiousness. The ability to plan ahead, stick to a schedule, act responsibly and not be distracted.
  • Openness to Experience. Being unconventional, creative, coming up with new ideas and not following the book.
  • Agreeableness. Being warm, considerate of other people’s feelings. Being empathic instead of blunt and cold.
  • Extraversion. Being talkative, the center of attention, cheerful, enthusiastic.
  • Neuroticism. Worrying about things, being stressed out often.

People are rated according to each criterium, so you do not need to belong in only one category. (If you’re interested in your personality, there’s a lot of tests out there to choose from.)

Meta-analyses of studies on the links between academic achievement and personality suggest that we have the following relationships:

  • Conscientousness (+++)
  • Openness to Experience (++)
  • Agreeableness (+)
  • Extraversion (0 or -)
  • Neuroticism (- -)

where a plus (minus) indicates a positive (negative) relationship between the trait and academic achievement. The amount of pluses (minuses) show how strong/persistent the relationship was found across studies.

The above results are based on very large samples, one for instance uses 70,000 college students. So one would be inclined to conclude that the relationship above holds no matter what. However, it seems that cultural, environmental or perhaps even field-of-study-specific effects might alter the results.

Nye, Orel and Kochergina (2013) administered the Big Five personality test to 176 Russian college students at a mid-tier university. The students were either economics or IT majors.

The authors studied the effect of personality on two sets of variables: Unified State Examination (USE) results and GPA in college. USE is the Russian equivalent of the SAT, i.e. it is a standardized, high-stakes test students take towards the end of high school, which ultimately determines their chances of admission into college.

There are two interesting conclusions.

Personality unimportant in the long-run. It appears that at least in the Russian college setting, one’s personality does not affect long-term academic achievement. I.e. when one looks at the GPA (which is the result of a myriad of smaller, low-stakes tests), personality is unimportant. Personality cannot explain GPAs in this sample with one exception.

On the other hand, personality can explain USE results in almost all cases. Since USE tests are one-time, high-stakes tests, it might be the case that how one handles such a unique and stressful situation comes down to personality. But with GPA, it’s a whole different story. I wonder how other studies compare on this GPA/high-stakes-test difference. The literature review doesn’t identify any study like that.

Environment can destroy the general results. The general results quoted above, which say for instance that conscientousness is always positively correlated with academic achievement, are destroyed by this sample. This seems to indicate that there is a big cultural/environmental component in this relationship.

For instance, neuroticism is almost always negatively and never positively correlated with academic achievement. Not here. Here, neuroticism is the only variable that can consistently explain USE results (and GPAs in the case of females, this is the one exception mentioned above).

The authors postulate that this may be due to the fact the Russian educational system is rigid with many rules and regulations. In a system like this, if one worries (about deadlines and formal requirements), then one is more likely to succeed. If one takes these things more lightly, it can be disastrous because the system is so rigid, there are no exceptions, rules are followed to the letter.

Basically, no other trait is consistently significant in the sample, which is not hugely surprising for all traits but one. What’s interesting indeed is that conscientousness is not significant. The authors again argue that this may be due to the different environment.

In a rigid environment where almost all of your college curriculum and schedule is handed to you by the administration, your planning and forward-looking personality may not be all that important for success.

This all seems plausible to me, but the interesting conclusion I can make then is that academic achievement is affected by personality not so much via a direct channel, but via a more indirect channel, which is the administrative and cultural environment in which the educational institution functions.

Now, I am pretty sure there are field-of-study-specific effects. For instance, extraversion might be positive in certain business or law schools. But after controlling for those effects (or if one is looking at an environment where all students have the same curriculum, like in high school), it appears that the effect of personality on academic success is environment-specific, and as such it depends on the culture and the country in question.

In other words, a small thing such as personality can make an enormous difference in a person’s success depending on where that person lives. A person who’s open to experiences and is ready to think out of the box may find it hard to succeed in the rigid Russian education system while he may be a star student in the US. On the other hand, it may be the other way around for a neuroticist.

But then again, institutons might shape personality as people who want to succeed will pick up the traits necessary to succeed. Then in the long term culture will change too (institutions do shape culture). So such a “small” decision as how rigid an educational system is (which by the way probably reflects the nature of other institutions as well) might have deeper consequences. This might also account for the notorious pessimism of former Eastern bloc countries.


5 thoughts on “Personality, academic success and culture

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