Intelligence, Education, Personality, and Social Mobility: what predicts upward social mobility?

Intelligence - balloonsThe gap between the poor and rich of the world has been widening over the past few decades. Differences in health between social classes are becoming greater and the combined effects of social inequality and low socio-economic status are shown again and again to have a negative effect on physical, psychological, and social well-being of individuals. It’s not easy to escape intergenerational cycles of poverty and low socio-economic status, particularly when free market ideologies reinforce the idea that social inequality is a ‘natural’ feature of our societies.  But social inequality is a problem that cries out for intervention and many international organizations, including the World Health Organisation, highlight the need for intervention in this context. Naturally, this requires a deep understanding of the dynamics at play, such that targets for intervention can be identified.

Research findings reveal a predictable pattern in the population data on socioeconomic status: At the population level, research highlights what is often described as intergenerational reproduction and maintenance of social, economic and health inequalities.  Notably, as people develop from childhood through to old age, we see (a) increasing diversity within groups across a range of social, economic, and health outcomes, which is coupled with (b) a systemic pattern of cumulative advantage/disadvantage (Dannefer, 2003). In other words, for any group of people born around the same time, as they develop from childhood to old age, the increased diversity we see within the group is not purely random – there is a systemic pattern of divergence of developmental outcomes whereby the gaps between the haves and the have-nots increase. Again, what we’re seeing is an intergenerational reproduction and maintenance of social, economic and health inequalities.

But there is a slight glimmer of hope in the data — within this broader population pattern of cumulative advantage/disadvantage, there are also unique and varied trajectories of upward (and downward) social mobility – individuals can rise (or fall) in wealth and status.  In a recent published study, we were interested in discovering what predicts upward social mobility.

Social mobility is defined as “the movement of an individual between social classes over his or her life course” (Forrest et al., 2011). Although it is unclear if upward social mobility can improve health and wellbeing, there is some optimism that it might (Hart et al., 1998). But the dynamics of upward social mobility are not well understood, as this requires a developmental and longitudinal lens of inquiry that is not commonly used in the social sciences.

In the past, it was not unusual to encounter arguments that the lower social classes carried personal responsibilities for their poor position made worse by their bad habits and bad attitudes. Over time, opinion gave way to empirical research and the study of both individual differences and social circumstances on social mobility (Mackenbach, 2010). From the perspective of psychological science, a number of studies that focused on individual differences are of particular interest.

In one study, Cassidy and Lynn (1991) tracked young people from age 16 to 23 and found that higher levels of educational attainment and achievement motivation predicted upward social mobility. Another study tracking people from age 5 to approximately 50 years (Forrest, Hodgson et al. 2011) found that both childhood intelligence and educational attainment predicted upward social mobility.

Focusing on personality, Elder (1969) examined a small sample of 69 men from high school through adulthood and found that, during adolescence, the upwardly mobile were more ambitious and scored higher on personality measures of ego integration and competence.

While longitudinal studies are sorely lacking, cross-sectional studies have found that higher scores on personality traits of Neuroticism and Agreeableness and lower scores on Conscientiousness, Extraversion and Openness are more frequent in lower status occupations (Chapman et al., 2010). However, a limitation of cross-sectional studies is that they don’t track social mobility. Longitudinal studies are needed.

In a recent study, we examined how social mobility in adulthood is related to childhood socioeconomic status, childhood intelligence, educational attainment, and adult personality. We were very fortunate to have data on Aberdeen residents who had taken part in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1947 when aged about 11 years (Whalley et al., 2011). We were thus able to conduct a life course analysis of the movement of individuals between social classes from early childhood to late life.

We used a statistical model to examine the relative influence of childhood socioeconomic status, childhood intelligence, education, and adult personality and cognitive ability on socioeconomic status in adulthood. Our model revealed some interesting effects. As expected, childhood socioeconomic status predicted adult socioeconomic status. The relative wealth and status of parents of the children who had taken part in the Scottish Mental Survey of 1947 predicted the relative wealth and status of those same children as adults. However, childhood socioeconomic status was not an all-controlling factor in our model. While statistically controlling for the effect of childhood socioeconomic status, we found two additional strong and significant effects on upward social mobility – specifically, educational attainment and childhood IQ. Children with higher IQs and those who obtained more education achieved higher socioeconomic status as adults.

Two personality traits also predicted higher socioeconomic status in adulthood. In particular, participants in our study who scored lower on Neuroticism and higher on Openness had higher socioeconomic status in adulthood. The effect of neuroticism was direct, but the effect of openness was indirect and was mediated by both educational attainment and adult cognitive ability. We had previously found an effect of openness on adult cognitive ability (Hogan, Staff et al., 2012). The current study extended this analysis by establishing a link between the accumulation of cognitive abilities and social mobility in adulthood. Openness to experience is clearly a driver of both adult cognitive abilities and social mobility in adulthood.

The results of our study suggest that the provision of good educational infrastructure is critical to support upward social mobility.  What is less clear is how educational infrastructures might foster equality of opportunity in the context of variation in personality. Although personality is often considered to be largely stable, openness to experience can increase as a result of interventions in adulthood (Jackson et al., 2012), and negative emotions linked to neuroticism can be reduced (Kemeny et al., 2012). Naturally, there is a question as to whether or not we should seek to change aspects of personality, or how we might work with key stakeholders to design these interventions, or any intervention designed to promote greater societal wellbeing (Hogan et al., 2015). In a healthy democracy, we might assume that all key stakeholders would engage in some form of structured dialogue or deliberation to arrive at a consensus view as regards the best policies to pursue in this context. This ideal has yet to be realized.  Nevertheless, the results of our study provide some social science input into any such deliberation. In moving from descriptive social science to applied social science, our findings suggest possible intervention options that could be empirically tested. In particular, interventions designed to enhance educational opportunities, reduce the negative influence of neuroticism, and promote greater openness may support upward social mobility. As always, more work is needed, but I have no doubt that psychology can contribute to the interdisciplinary and societal effort.

Featured Research Paper


CASSIDY, T. and LYNN, R., 1991. Achievement-Motivation, Educational-Attainment, Cycles of Disadvantage and Social Competence – some Longitudinal Data. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 61, pp. 1-12.

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