One of my take-aways from Why You Are Who You Are, Investigations into Human Personality, a 24-lecture course (also available from Audible) by Mark Leary, a professor at Duke, is that the characteristics that make someone a good worker are fundamental to personality and highly heritable. One of the “Big Five” personality traits is conscientiousness. “Achievement motivation” is one of the top 3 that researchers look at for understanding why people do what they do.
The fourth member of the big five is the trait of conscientiousness, which reflects the degree to which people are responsible and dependable. Conscientiousness comes down to whether people usually do what they should and whether they try to do it well.
Conscientiousness also involves industriousness and persistence. Conscientious people work harder because getting things done and doing them well takes effort. And they are more likely to persist when tasks become difficult, boring, or unrewarding.
Achievement motivation is the motive to be competent and to perform at a high level, whether that is with regard to professional success, doing well in school, or being a successful athlete. You can think of achievement motivation as the priority that people place on achievement relative to other motives that they might have.
People high in achievement motivation have a more energetic approach to their work, whether it’s their job, schoolwork, or practicing some skill they want to learn. They’re hard workers, and they tend to stay on whatever task they’re doing longer than people who are lower in achievement motivation.
People who are higher in achievement motivation tend to work more hours—on the job or in school, for example—because that’s how one achieves: by doing more than other people. People on the low end of the continuum tend to work just hard enough to get by.
About 40% of the variability that we see in how achievement-oriented different people are has some sort of genetic basis.
How about people nobody wants to have in the workplace?
Personality disorders appear to be more heritable than most normal personality characteristics. About 50% to 80% of the variability that we see in these disorders seems to be genetic.
Consider Tracey Richter-Roberts. Though intellectually and physically capable of work, her penchant for making sexual harassment and sexual assault/abuse claims eventually forced her to earn her income through family court litigation rather than W-2 wages. That she ultimately resorted to murder as a way of preserving her cashflow seems to have been a sign of a personality disorder (she was not mentally ill). “Does Having a Dysfunctional Personality Hurt Your Career? Axis II Personality Disorders and Labor Market Outcomes” (Ettner, et al., 2012) concludes that that a personality disorder is statistically correlated with unemployment.
Suppose that you wanted to create a generation of people who did not enjoy working and whom employers did not want to hire. What would you do? You’d provide financial incentives for people without jobs to have as many children as possible, e.g., free apartments with extra bedrooms as extra children are born, free health care, free food, and a free smartphone. You’d provide disincentives to people with demanding jobs to have children by concentrating jobs in a handful of cities with expensive market rents (even a two-income couple in a coastal U.S. city probably can’t afford a 3 BR or 4 BR apartment) and providing comfortable welfare benefits to anyone who might otherwise have been motivated to work as a nanny for working parents.
Statistically we know that women with demanding jobs tend to have few kids (see also Pew for “Moms with Less Education Have Bigger Families”) and that women on welfare tend to have high fertility. What does it look like on the ground? From Medical School 2020, regarding the first week of OB/Gyn rotation:
Tiffany: “My patient is 29 years old with six kids, soon to be seven, who doesn’t speak a word of English after living in the US for over 10 years. I have nothing against refugees or old people who are not going to be able to learn a new language. But she has been here for over 10 years and doesn’t work. I did my training in Miami and I use Spanish here more than there. Everyone speaks English [in our city]. How does she take care of her kids?” She added: “Geez, I’m sounding Republican now that I make money. Mom always said I would become one. But I’m not, I am a hardcore Democrat. Weird. I just can’t stand lazy people.” Teacher Tom: “Better get used to it.”
Tom and I go see a 25-year-old pregnant mother, father, and cute chubby 3-year-old twins. Nobody in the family speaks English. She is 26 weeks pregnant and complaining of chest pain so was admitted despite being apparently healthy. We struggle to convey basic information about acid reflux and anxiety through a Swahili interpreter on the phone. Tom complains to the team in the resident lounge: “I just spent 30 minutes telling a patient how to take Pepcid. Why the hell is this patient in the hospital? This could all be done in clinic.”
[Note that these are Medicaid patients. By regulation, our M3 student hero is not allowed to assist with privately insured births.]
How about immigrants? They’re coming into the world’s most generous welfare state (Washington Post, which says that only France spends more as a percentage of GDP) so maybe, at least since the inception of the Great Society welfare system in the mid-1960s, we’re attracting people who are lower in conscientiousness and achievement motivation than immigrants of 100 or 200 years ago. The physicians above were struck by their patients’ lack of motivation to learn English, but Professor Leary would tell them to appreciate human diversity in personality, including in achievement motivation.
So… we’ve had two generations of Americans born since the U.S. established a generous welfare system and middle-class-and-above women entered the workforce. Is that enough time for us to see a genetically-driven change?
Readers: Could the fall in U.S. labor force participation rate be genetic? Countries such as Singapore with similar aging demographics, but without a big welfare state, haven’t experienced this kind of dropping labor force participation (data).
- The Son Also Rises: economics history with everyday applications (looking at a possible genetic basis for “family success”)
- The Son Also Rises: Policy Implications
- The Son Also Rises: Tips for Optimizing Your Life
- “ACT Scores Show Drop in College Readiness, Especially in Math” (WSJ): “A greater percentage of U.S. high-school graduates who took the ACT college-entrance exam aren’t ready for college-level coursework, with math readiness at a 14-year low. ACT on Wednesday released its annual report, the Condition of College and Career Readiness, that shows only 40% of 2018 graduates taking the ACT met a benchmark indicating they could succeed in a first-year college algebra class. That is down from 41% last year and a high of 46% in 2012. The percentage of students meeting college-ready benchmarks dropped slightly in all subjects tested—English, math, reading and science.”