The old school headmasters were right; it is both desirable and possible to build character. That's the message of a new paper by James Heckman and Tim Kautz. They show that:
Character skills [such as conscientiousness, sociability and perseverence] change with age and with instruction. Interventions to improve skills are effective to different degrees for different skills at different ages. Importantly, character skills are more malleable at later ages.
This is consistent with some previous research (pdf), which shows that personality varies over time.
This matters, because character is an important influence upon educational attainment and earnings (pdf); one reason why IQ matters little (pdf) for income is that "soft skills" matter as well as cognitive ones.
However, if schooling shapes character, it's likely that other lifetime experiences do so as well. You don't have to be a crude Marxian economic determinism to suspect so. Econ 101 says people respond to incentives. But our preferences are our character: if we call a man hard-working or honest (say), we're describing his character as well as his preferences - and these traits might well be a response to (perceived) incentives.
This poses the question: does capitalism tend to promote "good" character or "bad"?
The case that it promotes good character has been made by Deirdre McCloskey. She's argued that a market economy promotes virtues such as prudence, diligence and even sympathy: if you want to sell a man something, it helps to think about what he wants.
There are, though, counter-arguments:
- Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that a capitalist economy elevates the goods of effectiveness (money, power) over those of excellence, and so destroys the possibility of virtue. You can read the deskilling hypothesis of Harry Braverman as a MacIntyrean one.
- In winner-take-all markets, young people have an incentive to chase celebrity or longshot chances of success, rather than the sort of academic merit that'll give them a higher chance of a middlingly good income.
- Richard Sennett argues that flexible capitalism, with its need that workers change careers undermines virtues such as community feeling and personal integrity.
It's not clear to me what the answer here is. But this is an important question. And it's one that's neglected by the mistaken belief that character is fixed. The causality between economic outcomes and personality runs both ways.