If we want to improve the life chances of the worst-off, should we try and change their character?
Two very different things suggest so.
One is Jamie’s Dream School. The thing about the kids in this show is not that that they lack qualifications. It’s that they lack the personal characteristics that would get them qualifications - namely, the ability to sit still and shut up. It is the lack of these features that makes them unattractive to employers. Their lack of qualifications is just a symptom of the underlying problem, which is one of personality. What these kids need is not qualifications and skills, but the sort of personalities that would enable them to get such skills.
This anecdotal evidence is supported by a huge, and hugely important, new paper by James Heckman and colleagues.
They show that aspects of personality, such as conscientiousness, can influence earnings. This is largely because it influences educational achievement; they cite one study which suggests that a better predictor of test scores for ninth graders is self-control in the fourth grade rather than IQ then. But it might also matter directly. If you’re, say, a shelf-stacker your earnings depend more upon whether you turn up in the morning than upon your IQ and qualifications.
Of course, the effect of personality upon earnings would not matter if personality were fixed. But it isn’t. We know that drugs and brain injuries significantly affect it. And there’s evidence that personality changes more from adolescence onwards than does IQ. If personality is changeable, then perhaps it is malleable by teaching or policy interventions.
Perhaps those Victorian schoolmasters who obsessed over changing boys’ characters were onto something after all. And perhaps they knew more than today’s orthodox economists, who assume that personality is either fixed, or irrelevant, and so think only about incentives or nudges.
Now, there are two big objections here. One is about practicality; what can teachers or parents do to improve conscientiousness? There’s much we don’t know here. But there is one thing that is known - that the Perry Preschool programme seems to have had huge long-lasting effects upon its subjects earnings, even though its impact upon their IQ was short-lived. This at least tells us where to look.
However, 100% success is not necessary here (nor possible - correlations between personal traits and earning or educational attainment fall well short of unity). After all, conventional education fails tens of thousands of people, but we still spend billions upon it.
The second objection is that there is something sinisterly totalitarian about policies to change personality. It’s redolent of Maoist self-criticism or Orwellian thought-control.
I don’t want to deny this. I just want to suggest that there might be a trade-off between liberty on the one hand and economic efficiency on the other.