Interventions from early childhood onwards can improve character according to new research

Character skills rival IQ


We rely an awful lot on achievement tests in our schools. They are used to sift and sort people, to evaluate schools, and to assess the performance of entire nations (PISA etc). But new research from the States finds that school achievement test scores predict only a small fraction of the variance in later-life success.

For example, adolescent achievement test scores only explain about 15% of the variance in later-life earnings.  So its unlikely that measurement error accounts for most of the remaining variance. Something very fundamental is missing.

A new paper ‘Fostering and Measuring Skills-Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition,’  from the National Bureau of Economic Research’posits that achievement tests do not adequately capture character skills such as conscientiousness perseverance, sociability, and curiosity  despite the fact that character skills are clearly valued in the job market and elsewhere.

Employers, while looking for technical and practical skills, value general communication skills, social skills- evidenced ,for example, in  customer handing,-and teamwork skills. But they often complain that evidence of these skills is  in short supply, in school leavers .Indeed, until recently, these skills and support for them in schools, have largely been ignored.

However, economists and psychologists have constructed credible measures of these skills and provide evidence that they are stable across situations and predict meaningful life outcomes.

What is meant specifically by the term character skills? In this study researchers use the term character skills to describe the personal attributes not thought to be measured by IQ tests or achievement tests. These attributes go by many names in the literature, including soft skills, personality traits, non-cognitive skills, non-cognitive abilities, character, and socio-emotional skills.

Psychologists primarily measure character skills by using self-reported surveys or observer reports. They have arrived at a relatively well-accepted taxonomy of character skills called the Big Five, with the acronym OCEAN, which stands for: Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

The proposition here is that ‘Skills are not set in stone at birth. They can be improved. Cognitive and character skills change with age and with instruction. Interventions to improve skills are effective to different degrees for different skills at different ages. Importantly, character skills are more malleable at later ages.’  So, the clear message is, on the development of character skills- interventions really can and do help . Character skills also predict later-life outcomes with the same, or greater, strength as measures of cognition.

This paper reviews the recent evidence on the predictive power of cognition and character and, crucially the best available evidence on how to foster them. A growing body of empirical research shows that character skills rival IQ in predicting educational attainment, labour market success, health, and criminality.

The paper says ‘Character is a skill not a trait. It can be enhanced, and there are proven and effective ways to do so. Character is shaped by families and social environments. At any age, character skills are stable across different tasks, but performance on any task depends on multiple skills as well as the effort expended on it. Effort, in turn, depends on the incentives offered to perform the task. Since all measures of character and cognition are measures of performance on some task, it is necessary to standardize for incentives, effort, and other skills in measuring any particular character or cognitive skill. Despite these difficulties, reliable measures of character have been developed, although there is always room for improvement.’

‘Though stable at any age, skills are not set in stone over the life cycle. Both cognitive and character skills can change. Parents, schools, and social environments shape them, although there are important genetic in influences. Skill development is a dynamic process. The early years are important in laying the foundation for successful investment in the later years.’

While there is hard evidence on the importance of the early years in shaping all skills, some character skills are more malleable than cognitive skills at later ages.

‘Fostering and Measuring Skills-Interventions that Improve Character and Cognition-   from the National Bureau of Economic Research’  James J. Heckman, Tim Kautz Working Paper 19656 Cambridge Massachusetts

November 2013



  1. I was relatively unconvinced by this report. It makes the claim that character ‘skills’ are malleable but I find the evidence for this to be underwhelming. Some of the adolescent interventions – e.g. QOP – actually seemed to make things worse.

    There is also a bigger point here. Even if we find that personailty is malleable – and fundamentally it is personality that we are talking about – should it be the business of schools to try to intervene? I am more comfortable with schools working on intelligence and remaining agnostic about children’s personalities. Perhaps such interventions should be independent of the school system?

    • I think is a fascinating area that needs more research. THE KIPP chain in the States claim that those students who succeed in life are those who have positive character ‘skills’ not those who are good at passing tests, and they focus particularly on resilience. The proposition is that you can support the development of resilience through targeted interventions at school. Given that the parents of disadvantaged pupils cant often give them the support they need for obvious reasons (lack of education, poverty etc) then schools have to take up the slack. It is difficult to envisage where such interventions would come from if not the school. What are schools for and is it the place of schools to intervene? I think there is a process going on now, perhaps its always going on, of rethinking schooling and the purpose of schooling because employers are not happy with what they are getting out of the system nor are admissions tutors . I rather like the idea of University Technical Colleges (undersubscribed at the moment) and studio schools because they accept that schools are not just exam/qualifications factories (not their choice but what the accountability framework demands of them) but places where you prepare for the challenges you face in life and where you marry academic with practical ‘skills’. I do think though that what happens in schools is determined by the accountability framework and the incentives and disincentives built into that system, and until that framework changes we are probably broadly stuck with what we have got! Interesting that James O’shaughnessy a former adviser to David Cameron has set up Floreat Education which aims to sponsor Primary Free Schools and Academies focused specifically on the development of ‘character’

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