A recent study by Nicholas Papageorge demonstrated that certain bad behaviors in school are associated with a range of positive outcomes in life. To policymakers and schools, who recently have become obsessed with “noncognitive” outcomes in education (like grit), this result is devastating. Not only are schools ignoring traits that lead to success, they are suppressing them.
Papageorge’s insight was to separate bad behavior into two camps: externalizing and internalizing. The kids with externalizing bad behaviors, like aggression, ended up more successful in life.
There is theoretical justification to this split between externalizing and internalizing (depression, anxiety) behaviors, but it is not in the DSM.
In fact, personality psychology, from which education researchers draw their ideas about these “non-cognitive” outcomes, has a complicated history with new perspectives gaining credence all the time.
Researchers currently draw on the “five-factor” model, which has distilled personality into the OCEAN traits (Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). There is also a considerable amount of interest in Angela Duckworth’s research on “grit.”
Both of these models have received a strong amount of criticism. Recent studies show that “grit” is a mere rebranding of “conscientiousness.” Critics of the five-factor model point out that the five traits are largely heritable and stable over the course of a person’s life, making changing them a silly goal for schools.
Other personality researchers connect temperaments to neurotransmitters and hormones. Dr. Helen Fisher’s work in this area is enlightening; she asserts that people have four main temperament dimensions (dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen/oxytocin).
The externalizing behaviors that are punished in school but rewarded in life correspond to the temperaments associated with testosterone and dopamine.
The testosterone dimension includes such bad behaviors as rage and bullying, but also helpful ones like intensified focus and social dominance. The dopamine dimension includes bad behaviors like a lack of inhibition, but also curiosity, creativity, and energy.
Other personality researchers take an evolutionary focus. There has been recent focus on the effect of a person’s “disgust sensitivity” on his overall personality. People with a heightened sense of disgust are cleaner and adhere closely to rules. They are also more homophobic and racist, as they are literally disgusted by things that are different than they are.
Two main problems with the recent obsession with “noncognitive” outcomes present themselves. Lurking variables will hurt any study done that draws on half-baked theories. Are the researchers measuring grit and conscientiousness, or are they measuring a heightened sense of disgust and a lack of curiosity and social dominance?
The second problem is more devastating. Helen Fisher draws a distinction between temperament and character. Temperaments are the emotional styles that come from your hard wiring. These may be somewhat malleable, but only within a range. Character, on the other hand, is the result of what you do with your experiences.
Much of the recent writing on character and education does not draw this distinction. An analogous situation would be an economist studying health outcomes and telling doctors to focus on (adult) height, because they found a strong correlation between height and health. Wouldn’t that be ridiculous?
(To hear more about a less ridiculous take on character and education, click here.)
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