Personality, economics, and human development

Just back from the Association for Research in Personality 2009 conference in Evanston. Lots of interesting stuff.

One of the main themes underlying the conference was integration with economics. There were (nominally) 2 symposia on personality and economics, as well as a keynote from James Heckman.

I say “nominally” because one of the symposia was really just a bunch of psychologists using an economics panel study (the SOEP) to study personality and life satisfaction. Very interesting stuff — the size of the dataset allows them to use some very sophisticated quantitative models (though I had some quibbles with them not including systematic growth functions) — but it didn’t feel to me like it was very far outside of the mainstream personality psychology paradigm.

One of the highlights for me, though, was Heckman’s keynote address.

First, what it wasn’t: when I first heard that a big-shot economist was getting interested in personality, I assumed he wanted to use personality traits to predict economically relevant behaviors, like how people form preferences and deal with uncertainty. It sounded like a good idea, because many economists (and their psychologist cousins in decision-making) have traditionally been strong situationists and thus resistant to thinking that personality matters. And in fact, that’s what one of the talks in the actually-about-economics symposium was about (as well as some emerging work elsewhere in DM) — how personality predicts economic decisions. It’s good and important stuff, if maybe a little unsurprising as a general direction to go.

But Heckman is interested in personality in a different way. In particular, he is interested in personality development and change. His interest grows out of research showing that interventions designed to lift people (esp. young kids) out of poverty (like the Perry Preschool Study, a precursor to Head Start) are working — kids who receive early care and educational help are more likely to go on to graduate from high school, more likely to be employed full-time as adults, less likely to get involved in crime, etc. Where Heckman got involved is in understanding the mechanisms. His work has shown that these programs don’t just boost cognitive skills (that’s economist-speak for IQ) — in fact, gains in tested IQ fade a few years after the intervention. Instead, the interventions seem to be mediated by lasting changes what economists call “noncognitive skills,” which is a slightly hilarious (if you’re a psychologist) term for personality. Enduring changes in things like diligence, cooperation, positive social relationships, etc. are what seem to be driving the effects. In Big Five terms, agreeableness and conscientiousness.

Not only is it refreshing to see an economist getting interested in personality (and as a sidenote, with what I took as a very authentic interest in making it a true 2-way street), but it’s refreshing to see anybody view personality as something that is subject to change via environmental inputs. That’s a drum I’ve been banging for a while, and the field is starting to come back to that as an interest (not only or even substantially because of my drum-banging — people like Brent Roberts, Ravenna Helson, Rebecca Shiner, Dan Mroczek, Avshalom Caspi, etc. have been banging it way longer than I have). But the Q&A showed that there’ll be some resistance. One of the presenters from the life-satisfaction panel — in fact, the one who seemed somewhat resistant to including systematic growth in his models — tried to challenge Heckman on that point, suggesting (wrongly in my view) that traits are too stable to be meaningful targets for intervention.

The same questioner also raised what I thought was a more interesting point, which is, isn’t a bit creepy to be thinking about public-policy interventions designed to mold personality? Heckman’s answer was a good start though maybe a little unsatisfying. He basically said that he sees what he’s doing as empowering people to act on their preferences. (Hence the economists’ “skills” rather than “personality.”) If you’re more capable of being cooperative and diligent, you can still choose a life of poverty and crime if you want it, but you are now empowered with the wherewithal to obtain and keep a decent job if that’s what you would really prefer. This harkens back to Wallace’s (1966) abilities conception of personality, which maybe could stand for a dusting-off.