It’s a question we’ve asked before in the pages of Gifted Today: “What does it mean to be gifted?”
Test scores tend to jump to parents’ minds first—those of the IQ variety, the ACT and SAT variety, the end-of-grade-assessment variety. After all, those tests purport to quantify how well and how quickly students can analyze problems. Beyond test scores, there’s also Dr. Howard Gardner’s theory of eight distinct intelligences to consider—linguistic, for instance, or spatial, or interpersonal, etc. Different mental capacities, Gardner says, map onto different practical applications in the real world. And beyond multiple intelligences, there’s the question of non-cognitive factors, such as affective and behavioral qualities. How self-aware is your child? How impulsive or spontaneous are they?
And then there’s the question of what becomes of gifted children once they reach adulthood. Do cognitive and non-cognitive factors, however they’re conceived and however they’re tested, determine prolonged success? Are they predictive of socioeconomic status in adulthood? Are there correlations between things like abstract thinking and emotional intensity and such outcomes as education level and career status? For gifted students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, can either cognitive or non-cognitive factors help them “catch up?”
At the University of Illinois-Urbana, Dr. Brent Roberts has worked in recent years to settle the score. His most recent paper, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and co-written by Rodica Ioana Damian, Rong Su, Michael Shanahan, and Ulrich Trautwein, poses the question right in its title: “Can personality traits and intelligence compensate for background disadvantage?” The study took into account data from a sample of 81,000 U.S. high school students.
As a yes/no question, Roberts’s conclusions are clear. Yes, personality traits and intelligence can compensate for background disadvantage. The numbers suggest that individual differences in personality traits and intelligence translate to over $4,000 in annual income and eight additional months of education.
As an either/or question, he’s still confident in his answer:
“Given the independent effects of cognitive abilities and personality traits,” he tells us, “I’d be inclined to argue that both sets of variables are important for education and income. Ultimately, though, cognitive abilities are more important than personality traits.”
Roberts’s work is especially important to consider because he attempts to fully account for the role of intelligence when assessing the impact of other non-cognitive factors. His work provides clues as to where policy interventions can meaningfully have an impact and help people. Still, though, Roberts emphasizes that his study shouldn’t prompt any action on the part of parents.
“As a parent, nothing is probably actionable,” he says. “As a society, though, everything is actionable if you live in a well-run place in which the populace does not expect policy changes to remake the world overnight.”
Roberts says the argument could be made that an education system based less on cognitive development and more on skill-building could help limit the extent to which intelligence alone prevails in determining future success.
As things stand now, though, intelligence reigns supreme.