A new psychology study from the University of Texas at Austin suggests that character traits, including the desire to learn — otherwise known as grit — have their roots in genetics and could play a role in future academic success.
While academic achievement is typically the result of cognitive abilities including logic and reasoning, researchers say that particular personality and character traits have the ability to shape and influence the desire to learn.
Performed by UT Austin psychology associate professor Elliot Tucker-Drob, the study noted that genetic differences in people make up close to 50% of the differences in their character. The remaining variation in character was the result of environmental factors outside of the home as well as school environments.
“Until now, parenting and schooling have been suggested by research as likely explanations for character, but our study suggests otherwise,” said Tucker-Drob.
Tucker-Drob looked at how genetic and environmental factors play into character development and its relationship to academic achievement through the study of 811 twins and triplets between the third and eighth grades.
Studies involving twins observe the similarities between identical and fraternal twins in order to determine the influence genetics has over such things as personality, interests, grades obtained in school, and behavioral issues. Comparing siblings allowed researchers to find out that variations in a child’s character could result from unshared environmental effects, as well as genetics. This ruled out any experiences typically shared by siblings such as attending the same school.
“As with intelligence and personality, genetics form a sizable part of the basis for character,” said Tucker-Drob, co-director of the Texas Twin Project.
In order to complete the Texas Twin Project, Tucker-Drob and his colleagues examined seven educationally relevant character measures associated with work ethic, desire to learn, attitudes toward education, and self-appraised abilities. Character measures associated with the “big five” character traits were also taken into consideration, including openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.
Study results show 69% of a person’s general character was due to genetics, while 31% of variance due to environmental factors. In addition, each character measure was correlated with openness (48% heritable) and conscientiousness (57% heritable).
Character measures such as intellectual self-concept that promote intellectual curiosity had more connection with openness and showed an association with academic achievement. Meanwhile, those measures representing work ethic were found to be more connected to conscientiousness, which had a modest connection to academic achievement.
“This may indicate that aspects of character that are associated with interest and desire to learn may be stronger drivers of academic achievement than aspects of character associated with diligence and hard work,” said Tucker-Drob, noting that one way genes influence academic achievement is by influencing aspects of character that are relevant for learning.