The secular rise in intelligence across birth cohorts is one of the most widely documented facts in psychology. This finding is important because intelligence is a key predictor of many outcomes such as education, occupation, and income. Although noncognitive skills may be equally important, there is little evidence on the long-term trends in noncognitive skills due to lack of data on consistently measured noncognitive skills of representative populations of successive cohorts. Using test score data based on an unchanged test taken by the population of Finnish military conscripts, we find steady positive trends in personality traits that are associated with high income. These trends are similar in magnitude and economic importance to the simultaneous rise in intelligence.Abstract
Although trends in many physical characteristics and cognitive capabilities of modern humans are well-documented, less is known about how personality traits have evolved over time. We analyze data from a standardized personality test administered to 79% of Finnish men born between 1962 and 1976 (n = 419,523) and find steady increases in personality traits that predict higher income in later life. The magnitudes of these trends are similar to the simultaneous increase in cognitive abilities, at 0.2–0.6 SD during the 15-y window. When anchored to earnings, the change in personality traits amounts to a 12% increase. Both personality and cognitive ability have consistent associations with family background, but the trends are similar across groups defined by parental income, parental education, number of siblings, and rural/urban status. Nevertheless, much of the trends in test scores can be attributed to changes in the family background composition, namely 33% for personality and 64% for cognitive ability. These composition effects are mostly due to improvements in parents’ education. We conclude that there is a “Flynn effect” for personality that mirrors the original Flynn effect for cognitive ability in magnitude and practical significance but is less driven by compositional changes in family background.