Success at school and in life is about more than just IQ

Study offers view of genetics of noncognitive skills influencing educational success

01/08/2021 | 9:16 AM

Noncognitive skills and cognitive abilities are both important contributors to educational attainment -- the number of years of formal schooling that a person completes  -- and lead to success across the life course, according to a new study by researchers at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, the University of Texas at Austin, and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. The research provides evidence for the idea that inheriting genes that affect things other than cognitive ability are important for understanding differences in people’s life outcomes. Until now there had been questions about what these noncognitive skills are and how much they really matter for life outcomes. The new findings are published in the journal Nature Genetics.

“Genetic studies of educational attainment were initiated with the goal of identifying genes that influenced cognitive abilities. They’ve had some success in doing that. But it turns out they’ve also identified genetics that influence a range of other skills and characteristics.,” said Perline Demange, VU Amsterdam PhD biological psychology. ”What was most surprising to me about our results was that these noncognitive skills contributed just as much to the heritability of educational attainment as cognitive ability.” Of the total genetic influence on educational attainment, referred to as the heritability, cognitive abilities accounted for 43% and noncognitive skills accounted for 57%. 

Similar to the genetics of cognitive abilities, the genetics of noncognitive skills were related to achievements outside of schooling, including holding more prestigious jobs, earning higher incomes, and living longer. And, genes associated with noncognitive skills showed relationships with these other life outcomes that were as strong or stronger than the relationships seen with cognitive genetics. 

The study used a method called a “genome-wide association study,” or GWAS, to study what economists have called “noncognitive skills,”defined as behaviors and abilities that are not measured by traditional IQ tests but are thought to help people be more successful in school, in their jobs, and in life generally. The study builds on results from a previous study that conducted a GWAS of educational attainment. The researchers applied a new statistical method to develop an understanding of the substance of noncognitive skills, and how genetic correlations with noncognitive skills diverged from genetic correlations with cognitive abilities, as measured by standardized tests of IQ. 

“Borrowing a strategy from economists who studied people with the same cognitive ability but different years of education enabled us to associate the variations in how far people go in school above and beyond their association with cognitive test performance.  We were able to conduct this type of analysis using a new method we developed called Genomic Structural Equation Modeling, which is a way of combining data from multiple GWASs at the same time”, said Michel Nivard, assistant professor of biological psychology at VU Amsterdam and co-leader of the study. “This approach allows us to leverage the power of giant genetic databases like UK Biobank to study the genetics of traits and behaviors that were not directly measured in the research participants.”   Using this novel method, the researchers were able to conduct GWAS of noncognitive skills in data from hundreds of thousands of individuals.

This research was led by Michel Nivard (VU Amsterdam), K. Paige Harden (UT Austin), Daniel Belsky (Colombia U), Margherita Malanchini (Queen Mary U, London), and Perline Demange (VU Amsterdam). The study was supported by funding from the Jacobs Foundation, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development.