The Genetics of Success

  • How Single-Nucleotide Polymorphisms Associated With Educational Attainment Relate to Life-Course Development
  • Daniel W. Belsky, Terrie E. Moffitt, David L. Corcoran, Benjamin Domingue, HonaLee Harrington, Sean Hogan, Renate Houts, Sandhya Ramrakha, Karen Sugden, Benjamin S. Williams, Richie Poulton, Avshalom Caspi
  • Psychological Science, June 2016, SAGE Publications
  • DOI: 10.1177/0956797616643070

The Genetics of Success

What is it about?

We followed 1000 people from birth through midlife to study how a genetic signature previously discovered to predict education related to social and economic success. Kids with higher genetic scores grew up to achieve more. Critically, the genetic score also predicted children’s upward social mobility -- high scorers tended to achieve more prestigious and high-paying occupations even if they were born poor. The genetic score influenced successful life outcomes by bringing the participants increased intelligence, better self-control, and better interpersonal skills (like being friendly), beginning from the time they were very young children. FINDINGS: (1) Genetic discoveries for educational attainment are not related to education only. The same genetics predict socioeconomic success long after the completion of schooling.  (2) Genetic discoveries were associated with upward social mobility — children with higher polygenic scores tended to achieve more socioeconomic success even if they were born poor.  (3) Psychological characteristics that accounted for genetic associations with life outcomes included intelligence, but also self-control and interpersonal skills, for example being friendly and outgoing. (4) The pattern of characteristics and behaviors that connects DNA sequence with life outcomes begins early in life and extends through adulthood. Kids with higher polygenic scores started talking and reading earlier, and they had higher IQ scores, more self-control, and were more skilled interpersonally. As they grew into adolescence and adulthood, they were more ambitious, more willing to move away from home in search of opportunity, able to attract a better-educated and higher-earning spouse, and better at managing their money.

Why is it important?

• Genetic discoveries for educational attainment offer clues to the traits and behaviors that produce success across life. The genetics we studied affected our Study members’ life choices ranging from whether they moved abroad, to who they partnered with, to how they managed their finances. However, we caution that the degree of genetic influence was small; genes do not provide a formula foolproof enough to make predictions about individual children. • Genetic discoveries can provide clues to effective intervention targets. For example, we found that children who carried more of the education-associated alleles started talking and reading earlier than their peers, which lends support to efforts to help children acquire language at younger ages. Such efforts could benefit all children, regardless of their genetic background. • Although existing genetic knowledge is not sufficient for so-called “precision” education, findings suggest such a thing may one day be possible. Policy makers and the public need to engage in an open dialogue to ensure research serves the public interest.


Dr. Daniel W Belsky
Duke University

To me, the most interesting results were what children's genetic scores did not predict. Even though kids with higher genetic scores grew up to be wealthier and more successful, they weren't any more satisfied with their lives. Going back to childhood, kids with higher polygenic scores talked earlier and learned to read sooner, but they didn't start walking or potty training any earlier. And they weren't physically more healthy. So the characteristics conferred by these advantageous genetics were apparent above the neck -- but not below, i.e. they were related to brain function, but not to more general physical health.

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The following have contributed to this page: Dr. Daniel W Belsky