Genetics, Educational Attainment, and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies
At Traitwell we released our educational attainment product this past week. We’re hard at work making it better still. We thank those of you who have entrusted us. We will be careful stewards—always.
Educational attainment is very much a key to understanding our world today. It has real political consequences. Some of our greatest divides are educational.
Nate Cohn of the New York Times has the story about that widening political rift.
When the Harvard-educated John F. Kennedy narrowly won the presidency in 1960, he won white voters without a degree but lost white college graduates by a two-to-one margin. The numbers were almost exactly reversed for Mr. Biden [a University of Delaware alum], who lost white voters without a degree by a two-to-one margin while winning white college graduates. (Nate Cohn, “How Educational Differences are Widening America’s Political Rift,” New York Times, September 8, 2021.)
If education attainment is heritable, these differences may well prove genetic. We mustn’t let that happen.
At Traitwell we don’t believe in leaving anyone behind. Though college may be out of reach for others – too pricey! – we believe as sci fi writer David Brin does in his new book Vivid Tomorrows that the way forward is clear if we want to improve our world: “Simply stop wasting talent!”
It turns out that great effects are achieved just with remedial measures to end poverty and injustice. And preventing deleterious substances like lead from stunting young brains. Ensuring that ever-increasing fractions of human children get enough to eat, stay healthy and have minds nourished by education and free self-expression. By that simple though ponderously ambitious project, we’ve accomplished more than all previous generations combined.
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If we keep wasting talent, we will tear our country apart. At Traitwell we believe in improving human talent – all of it, wherever it may be.
Furthermore, we believe that that talent wants to be improved.
Don’t you want to be the best version of yourself? Self-mastery comes from self-knowledge. And there’s nothing more you than your DNA.
How Powerful is Knowledge?
What would you do if, the summer before your freshman year of high school, your parents presented you with results from a genetic test that predicted you were likely to get a Master’s degree?
It is silly to think getting Master’s degrees is written into our DNA. But it’s not hard to imagine that people might soon sequence their genome not only to find out where they came from, or what diseases they are susceptible to, but also how far they’re likely to go in school.
“Educational attainment” is often used by behavioral geneticists as a proxy for intelligence, which is itself highly heritable. But as researchers who study the heritability of educational attainment know, it is likely that educational attainment also reflects other personality traits like conscientiousness, which is moderately heritable. Conscientiousness is positively correlated with how long we are likely to stay in school, and how well we are likely to perform in school.
Is it all that surprising that people who do well in school tend to stay in school longer?
Knowing that you’re capable of doing well in school—from experience or from genetic markers—might lead you to plan out a professional career in a field like medicine or law. A high polygenic score for educational attainment and personality assessment could someday play a role similar to the kinds of tests American high schools used to administer to students to gauge what kind of occupation they might enjoy. These tests often include questions about interests and abilities to help guide the career choices high school students make: Do you like to work outdoors? Are you a good writer? How well have you done in your math classes?
But all too often, these tests depend on each teenager’s limited self-knowledge and experience. How would a teenager know whether he’s good at woodworking if he’s never built anything or taken a shop class? How would she know that she has atypical mathematical ability if she’s only ever taken classes from subpar math teachers?
She might look to family history but what if she’s an orphan? Or only knows part of her family line?
Predicting Our Potential?
Many of us dismissed the clunky career assessment tests administered by our high school. Would we also dismiss a high polygenic score for educational attainment or other traits?
Higher education in the West has become a status symbol. Getting a degree in a field like physics or engineering at an elite university signals abilities in ways that are hard to fake. And it gives us valuable skills in the labor market. But all too often education, has become a signaling game aimed at increasing social status. Signaling becomes a sort of academic arms race where there’s little learning but lots of money spent. Like a luxury car, say, or designer clothes.
In Professor Bryan Caplan’s telling the “sheepskin” effect, college dropouts who leave the semester before graduating earn substantially less than those who complete their degree. While much of this effect can be accounted for by the fact that dropouts are likely to have lower grades, and perhaps lower abilities on average, there is also a pure credentialing effect which means that people are usually better off finishing even if they don’t learn anything extra by doing so. We wonder how true that might continue to be.
The point is that the amount of education worth pursuing will be partly determined by the premium associated with certain degrees at any particular time. The labor market at any particular time will almost certainly affect what kind of degree we pursue, and how long we stay in school, regardless of how high or low our educational attainment scores are.
If the current credentialing arms race continues in higher education, and if generous subsidies remain available to anyone who wants to go to college, it may be that people with lower polygenic scores for educational attainment will pursue college degrees simply because they need them to be competitive even for unrelated work, like selling houses or managing a restaurant. This is a clear collective action problem that we are already seeing play out with growing student debt and high drop-out rates. This must stop. The student debt burden is unconscionable and a form of debt slavery.
Many of those with a low potential for educational attainment would be better off attending a technical or trade school or Lambda school, taught by our friend Austen Allred, rather than trying to attain an expensive university degree. And taxpayers would be better off not financing an arms race. But, as long as the arms race exists, even among those who think college is a waste of time, many will continue their schooling. What a waste!
On the flip side, some of those with higher polygenic scores might choose less schooling than they’re capable of because they recognize the value the labor market places on narrow degrees requiring skills that only a few can realize, such as a certificate in computer science. Having a high polygenic score for educational attainment does not mean we’ll seek out many additional years of education: a lot depends on the labor market, social norms surrounding schooling, and the ability to develop and effectively signal skills quickly.
Genomic Prediction From Your Educational Attainment Score
Having a sense of our abilities and personality traits can be a powerful way of helping us chart a future path. Educational attainment is but one of many different ways in which self-knowledge can increase the range of options that we pursue.
A high educational attainment score could boost the confidence of people who are born to disadvantaged parents to pursue opportunities they might otherwise ignore.
People who have a low educational attainment score might be better off cultivating concrete skills that lead to success – learning how to fix computers or organize information on spreadsheets, for example – without assuming they will become a physician or professor or software engineer. Of course, we shouldn’t assume a score tightly constrains these decisions. Maybe our persistence and conscientiousness will be enough to push us through complex jobs despite our average educational attainment score. (Expect to see some Traitwell apps that show conscientiousness and persistence shortly!)
As valuable as the Traitwell educational attainment score is, however, it might be even more valuable for teenagers to understand the ways in which their personality and cognitive ability will likely develop. And these traits, too, can be partially gleaned from genetic data. Although the ability to predict personality traits using polygenic scores is not (yet) especially strong, there appears to be a small positive correlation (.2) between educational attainment, on one hand, and bipolar disorder and autism, on the other. Educational attainment is also positively correlated with a variety of health indexes like having a healthy body mass index and cholesterol levels, and negatively associated with other psychiatric disorders like Alzheimer’s.
Sorting out the extent to which these correlations are causal can be tricky, and it is probably not a good idea for teenagers (or anyone else!) who are nervously planning their future to focus on every available genetic predictor. Nevertheless, some of the stronger genetic predictors, especially educational attainment itself, could be useful tools for guiding choice by giving us a rough sense of our relative strengths. Think of it as one factor among many others.
Once again, they should not take this to mean their destiny is fixed by their genes. Parents and genetic counselors should always emphasize the role of (often poorly understood) environmental forces in shaping the development of our traits. But knowing that we are (or are likely to become) extraverted and risk-seeking may draw us toward a career in business or entrepreneurship, whereas introversion and risk-aversion may lead us to become scholars or accountants.
Genomic predictors like educational attainment scores can help us develop the skills we’re likely to be best at – or mitigate those we are weakest about – no matter our genetic endowments. By leveraging this knowledge with an eye toward which skills other people are most likely to pay us to develop as well as our individual preferences and inclinations, we can create more value for everyone and find more satisfying vocations. How much schooling we pursue will always be a function of norms – to say nothing of funding!— which lead us to think of schooling as conferring more or less social status. But knowing our potential for educational attainment, and understanding some of our core personality traits, may help us achieve our individual potential and, as if by an invisible hand, help promote the common good.