Like Intelligence, Positive Personality Traits Are Linked With Higher Income

Phrenology head. Scientists have found personality traits are linked with higher earnings as much as intelligence is. Ryan Somma/Flickr

Certain personality traits seem to play as big a role in a person's earning potential as intelligence, researchers have discovered. In a new study, scientists find a positive correlation between self-confidence and sociability and a higher income in later life—and show these traits have become more prevalent in society over recent decades.

One of the most widely documented phenomena in psychology is the Flynn effect—the ongoing rise in cognitive abilities. It shows a sustained increase in intelligence test scores in countries across the globe since the 1930s—although this appears to have come to an end in some developed nations.

Understanding intelligence levels is important as it serves as an indicator for things like education, occupation and income. But what influence personality has on these outcomes is largely unknown.

In their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), researchers from the University of Helsinki and Aalto University looked at data on almost 420,000 men born in Finland between 1962 and 1976. The data came from the Finnish Defense Forces—all men in Finland, if eligible, are drafted into military service at 18 and take standardized cognitive and personality tests when they join.

From this, the scientists were able to assess personality scores on certain traits and link them to what the men would go on to earn. They were then able to use self-confidence and sociability scores to predict higher incomes in later life.

Findings showed a steady increase in these personality traits over the 15 years and that this was linked to a 12 percent rise in earnings. They found the increase in these personality traits was of a similar magnitude to the increase in intelligence levels over the same period—with the authors concluding "there is a 'Flynn effect' for personality that mirrors the original Flynn effect for cognitive ability."

Study author Matti Sarvimäki, Aalto University, Helsinki, tells Newsweek their findings raise many questions about the role of personality in earnings. "This is a short paper that starts our research agenda," he says. "We show there is this trend, and that it's clearly something to study. We are hoping to study why this happens as we go forward."

The researchers say there are several limitations to the study—a major one being that it only includes data on men. "We just don't have the data," Sarvimäki says. "We would love to [conduct similar research on women], but of course the limitation is these sort of data isn't available."

What has led to this upturn in levels of self-confidence and sociability is not known, nor is how it links to higher earnings. And this is what the team plans to look at next.

They will investigate changes in demand for certain personality traits within the labor market, as well as the reasons behind the change in personalities over time. "In particular, we want to understand things like educational reforms, and changes in childcare policies—how do those affect personality?" Sarvimäki says "I think there is some possibilities that this data provide us with some answers, and we are very excited about that."

One suggestion is that the increase in intelligence is linked to the increase in sociability and self-confidence. "We view our work as parallel that examining changes in cognitive abilities," he says. "This discussion [about the Flynn effect in intelligence] has been going on since the 1980s and is not conclusive yet. I think many of the arguments made in that debate may be useful in thinking about personality changes as well.

"We don't know the mechanisms behind the trends yet. Once we start to understand those better, then I'll be able to give a better answer."