Intelligence and conscientiousnessi have long been considered the pillars of academic success in higher education, but curiosity also deserves a seat at the educational outcomes table.
Recently on The Science of Personality, cohosts Ryne Sherman, PhD, chief science officer, and Blake Loepp, PR manager, spoke with Sophie von Stumm, PhD, professor of psychology in education at the University of York, about the influence of personality on educational outcomes.
As learners move into higher education, the influence of personality on academic success increases. Why?
Let’s dive into this fascinating conversation about intelligence, conscientiousness, curiosity, genetics, and personality in educational outcomes.
The Effect of Personality on Intelligence and Conscientiousness
Cognitive ability is generally predictive of success across all educational levels. However, that association tends to decrease in higher education. There are two reasons for this. The first is simply that as we progress through educational levels, we are increasingly selected for our cognitive abilities. As a result, intelligence becomes less predictive of differences in achievement, while personality becomes a more powerful differentiating factor.
The second reason that intelligence matters less than personality in higher ed is that personality becomes more important in and of itself. “Personality has a strong influence on the environment that we select for ourselves,” Sophie explained. “It informs the niche or place that we want to pick for ourselves—and it does more so than intelligence.” Someone who is highly social isn’t likely to prefer solitary research in an isolated academic office, for example.
Just as intelligence bows to personality at higher levels of education, so does conscientiousness. Higher education tends to place less emphasis on sheer hard work and more on critical thinking. In a transformation of our cognitive skills, positive educational outcomes no longer rely on the standardized-test type of thinking in which we must figure out the right solution in the given time. Instead, we face the entirely different intellectual challenge of reading information, analyzing it, extracting what is important, and combining it with other information to create new ideas. “What we learn as we go through university is to think differently about information,” Sophie said.
It’s true that intelligence and conscientiousness are proven to correlate positively to academic success. These two predictors are largely independent of each other, however. One student may earn an A by studying for many hours, while another earns an A by skipping class but acing the test. Same grade, different method.
“Intelligence assesses what we can maximally do, whereas personality focuses more on what we typically do,” Sophie said. When everyone in a doctoral program is intelligent and conscientious, personality emerges as a key differentiator.
The Case for Intellectual Curiosity
Historically in psychological science, intelligence and hard work have been the only two pillars of educational outcomes. You have to be clever, and you have to work hard to make it at the top.
Now, however, we’ve seen a massive change in the way we work. The expectation of what a working life looks like is different than it was 60 years ago. It’s no longer reasonable to assume that your education or apprenticeship will carry you through your entire working life. “Careers don’t last 30 years anymore,” Sophie said. People work more years at more companies and even across industries, meaning that learning and adaptation are necessary for career success.
“Lifelong learning has suddenly become a fundamental element of surviving in modern society,” Sophie explained. “Curiosity could potentially matter more than being smart and working hard. Curiosity is the one thing that allows you to embrace novelty, and there’s a lot of novelty coming our way these days.”
The emergence of the third pillar indicates that wanting to learn and innovate is a crucial domain for educational outcomes and career success.
The era of curiosity is evident in higher education where students are encouraged to be independent learners, to question everything they encounter, and to seek out more information. It also aligns closely with success in leadership. We need leaders who can find creative solutions to problems, adapt to changing circumstances, and be open to experimentation.
The Role of Genetics in Educational Outcomes
If we are to consider intelligence, conscientiousness, and curiosity as the pillars of educational success, what role does genetics play across them?
The first point about behavioral genetics is that all traits are heritable, but that doesn’t make them innate. Children differ in their ability to read—but they aren’t born knowing how.They need reading instruction. It’s similar for intelligence, conscientiousness, and curiosity. Some proportion of the differences we can observe between people in psychological characteristics can be attributed to their genetic differences, but those develop differently depending on their environments.
The second point is that genetics always references differences between people, not within-person differences. Children who grow up in homes with a lot of books in the house tend to be more interested in reading and learning, but that’s not to say that the books alone are responsible for their curiosity. They tend to have parents with higher levels of education who create an environment that supports intellectual achievement and exploration.
It’s the age-old question of nature versus nurture. There’s no sharp line to say that half of a person’s curiosity is genetic and half is environmental. Growth has too many organic variables to allow us to assert much more than that both genetics and circumstances influence our personality.
Ways to Nurture Curiosity
Educational systems need to reward those who are intellectually curious, not only those who are intelligent and conscientious. “To help people be curious and value curiosity and learn to behave in curious ways, it would be important to deemphasize achievement in educational settings,” Sophie said. This means prioritizing independent study, student choice, and learning above grades.
Education for the sake of career preparation is arguably harmful to developing intellectual creativity in students. When we separate the acquisition of knowledge from profit, gain, achievement, or other traditional educational outcomes, we celebrate curiosity and critical thinking for their own sake.
On a positive note, Sophie observed that our nearly unlimited access to information has created a rich environment for curiosity. “Try something new at least once a week,” she said, giving advice for developing curiosity. “Do something that you normally wouldn’t do–and do it fully conscious.”
- For the purposes of this particular podcast episode and blog, we use “conscientiousness” to refer to hard work—i.e., behavior, not a personality characteristic—in alignment with the research of our guest. Elsewhere, Hogan may use the term “conscientiousness” to refer to one of the dimensions in the five-factor model of personality, which forms the basis for the Hogan Personality Inventory’s Prudence scale.