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Damian, Rodica Ioana; Su, Rong; Shanahan, Michael J.; Trautwein, Ulrich; & Roberts, Brent W. (2015). Can Personality Traits and Intelligence Compensate for Background Disadvantage? Predicting Status Attainment in Adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109(3), 473-489. PMCID: PMC4433862


This study investigated the interplay of family background and individual differences, such as personality traits and intelligence (measured in a large U.S. representative sample of high school students; N = 81,000) in predicting educational attainment, annual income, and occupational prestige 11 years later. Specifically, we tested whether individual differences followed 1 of 3 patterns in relation to parental socioeconomic status (SES) when predicting attained status: (a) the independent effects hypothesis (i.e., individual differences predict attainments independent of parental SES level), (b) the resource substitution hypothesis (i.e., individual differences are stronger predictors of attainments at lower levels of parental SES), and (c) the Matthew effect hypothesis (i.e., "the rich get richer"; individual differences are stronger predictors of attainments at higher levels of parental SES). We found that personality traits and intelligence in adolescence predicted later attained status above and beyond parental SES. A standard deviation increase in individual differences translated to up to 8 additional months of education, $4,233 annually, and more prestigious occupations. Furthermore, although we did find some evidence for both the resource substitution and the Matthew effect hypotheses, the most robust pattern across all models supported the independent effects hypothesis. Intelligence was the exception, the interaction models being more robust. Finally, we found that although personality traits may help compensate for background disadvantage to a small extent, they do not usually lead to a "full catch-up" effect, unlike intelligence. This was the first longitudinal study of status attainment to test interactive models of individual differences and background factors.


Reference Type

Journal Article

Year Published


Journal Title

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology


Damian, Rodica Ioana
Su, Rong
Shanahan, Michael J.
Trautwein, Ulrich
Roberts, Brent W.