Brent Roberts is a member of our IP and ECI networks. A Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his research primarily focuses on understanding the patterns of continuity and change in personality during adulthood and what mechanisms affect these patterns. He also studies the development of conscientiousness as well as personality assessment. Roberts serves as the Chair of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Initiative at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Describe your area of study and how it relates to current policy discussions surrounding inequality.
I’m a personality psychologist by training. I specialize in the study of personality development. So my area of interest is in figuring out why people stay the same and why people change over time, mostly in adulthood, though we’ve started to carve off some research with kids as of late. But I was most interested, at least initially, in studying the personality development from age 20 to age 60 when you’re an adult, and whether experiences like those you find at work registered an indelible mark on your character over time. Does it change you to become a researcher or to become a teacher or another type of occupation? Those are the types of questions I pursued early. It inevitably entailed becoming more concerned with how to assess personality. So if you wanted to study whether something changes and develops, you better do a good job of assessing what it is. And then I backed my way into a topic that got me roped into your shop. So, you study the development of something. You study how to assess it. Then, a number of people will come back to you at some point and say, “Well why should I care?” I was actually not interested in that question when I was young, because that wasn’t my leitmotif. I wasn’t really concerned with whether personality or some other thing was important. I wanted to know why it developed. Nonetheless, it became clear to me that it would probably be a good question to answer as best as we could. I’ve been fortunate enough to come of age during a period where a lot of panel studies and longitudinal studies also came of age. We didn't have the data when I was a graduate student, for example, to answer some of those questions. But, after a couple of decades, some of the studies bore fruit. You now have 20-year lagged correlations between childhood conscientiousness and adult outcomes, like income and educational attainment and health. We became cognizant of those studies and decided we should probably synthesize them at one point. We did so and that’s when Jim Heckman got a hold of us, and said, “Hey, you’re doing interesting work. We’re interested in the same thing.” That being, of course, what economists might refer to as non-cognitive factors - so anything that’s not cognitive ability or family background - and how it might contribute to success in life. I was more interested in success in life in a much broader sense than what you typically find in economics, but along the way I discovered things like: the way you behave in terms of traits like conscientiousness played a significant role in how well you did in school, which played a significant role in how much education you gained, which of course as we all know, plays out in the life course quite significantly in things like income, and success in the labor market, and also things like health, which also helps in the labor market. So I backed my way into the study of soft skills and non-cognitive traits that help in the human capital space, and by doing so, can contribute to the conversation about inequity. Though, I’m not sure if it should, or if it’s the primary thing to consider. But, we know, for example, that people who are more conscientious do better in school, do better in the labor market, stay married longer, have happier marriages, do better in terms of their physical and mental health. They’re actually contributing more to the labor market when they’re adults than other individuals. How you treat that is an interesting question. Some economists call things like conscientiousness the poverty trait. The inference being that, if you grow up to be low in conscientiousness, you are more prone to use and abuse the system. This becomes a developmental question, like, did you get low conscientiousness, because of your family or do you get it because of your poverty? We started to look back at childhood a little bit more because of those questions. We don’t find a huge relationship between things like family background and your personality. Surprisingly, your parents personality and their socialization practices don’t actually predict your personality very well. Your personality is very much because of your unique genetics and your unique experiences. The development of personality is a really interesting question in terms of human capital and inequality, because how you address that inequality through the lens of personality is a developmental question. Do you bother to intervene early or assess early? Is it really an adult phenomenon? Most of our work has been more focused on adulthood and finds it to be more relevant there. So dealing with inequities in families won’t necessarily make the next generation more self-controlled or more conscientious, for example, but making people more conscientious probably will help them in their life course. That’s a link that I see to something like inequity. It’s something where, if you have the attributes or don’t have the attributes, you might have a higher probability of doing well or not doing well. That’s something you should probably be concerned with, your parents probably should be too. They’re your benefactors, but not because they’re necessarily responsible directly for your personality.
What areas in the study of inequality are most in need of new research?
That’s a really good question. I want to give two answers. One is, back to the idea of what we do with this knowledge of non-cognitive factors, or soft skills, or 21st century skills or whatever you want to call it. Do you want to intervene on it, or do you want to select on it? And, it’s clear that you could select on it, to good effect. From my perspective, I don’t find that to be a satisfactory answer, because we already have the information and that’s not really interesting. The interesting question is: Can you intervene and what should you do? Obviously, Dr. Heckman’s research has shown that, if an intervention is done, it can have a positive effect on non-cognitive factors and that can then pay dividends later on in life. And I’ve done similar work where we’ve shown, for example, that seeing a therapist changes your personality. And that, therapists have been changing our personality traits for decades, and we just didn’t know it. So the possibility is now known that you can change character, so to speak, through an intervention. What we really don’t know, at this point, is how to change particular character traits and especially, how to change them for the better, not to make up for deficits. For example, typically you see a therapist because something is going wrong in your life and you’re suffering, and suffering at least in terms of non-cognitive factors is housed in the domain of neuroticism, high anxiety, depression, worry, and the like. Clinicians are good at treating that, that’s what they do. But that’s kind of a deficit model. So, if you happen to be burdened with high neuroticism early, you’re more likely to see a therapist, and they’re likely to do something for you. But that’s bringing you back to baseline, or average, and the real question we don’t know the answer to is: Ok, so you want to build something, so let’s take you from being neurotic to emotionally stable, or resilient in some cases. I don’t know the answer to that question because we don’t really test that yet. We haven’t thought about it that way, so what kind of schooling practices, what kind of experiences would you want to give kids and when, to help them be more resilient in the face of stressful life events, for example. We don’t know the answer to that. If you want to help people be more planful, because that’s a component of conscientiousness that seems to pay dividends, what do you do? We don’t know. We don’t have that type of intervention design because clinicians don’t think in that way. We’re asking how to build your planning skills so that when you get out in the world, you’ll be able to really thrive, so to speak. We really don’t know what to do to build positive character and we need to have some creative and interesting thinking on what kind of interventions we can do to help people become better in those cases. I still think making up for the deficits is really important, because if you think about it from an economics perspective, the people who are low in conscientiousness are the ones caught in snares that really cost us as a society. If they get caught up in criminal activities and get arrested, they’re going to cost us more and you really want to avoid that. We really need to know more about how to help people get better.
The other thing, as a psychologist that I would love to see worked on, is how to disentangle inequity from dignity. This is based not on research, just on my observations. This is based on my anecdotal travels abroad. What you see in the United States is that the covariation between inequity and dignity is too high. In the US we decide that people who don’t earn a lot of money or who aren’t in high prestige jobs, or who are in manual labor or blue collar jobs, aren’t deserving of our respect. We seem to have a very Calvinistic perspective on what kind of dignity and respect we give people. In the current times, we seem to say, if you’re rich, for whatever reason, you deserve our respect and our dignity. If you’re not rich, you don’t deserve our respect and dignity, and it strikes me as a choice we make. That part of the issue with inequity could be resolved to the betterment of the people by providing them opportunities for dignity, despite the fact that they’re not rich. Because you don’t need to be rich to survive, and even thrive in many ways. If you look at people from a psychological perspective, money doesn’t bring a whole lot of happiness so it’s not the answer to all things. Dignity and self-respect are far more important for how you perceive your life, and it’s what most people are trying to pursue. And what I find somewhat problematic, at least in the American culture, is the tie between inequity and affluence and dignity. But if we provide some type of resource or culture or perspective that, even if you’re not earning 6 figures per year, you’re still a worthy individual, and we seem to have lost that.
I see in other countries, for example Germany where I visit a lot, that they respect people who are artisans, they respect people who are laborers. They have a very unique setup. If you become a car mechanic there, you’re working for BMV and Porsche, and companies that people really think are great, but they’ve also kind of designed their economy around that type of structure. That’s I think a good thing for their populace as a whole. I’d like to see people do research on that. Psychologists especially.
What advice do you have for emerging scholars in your field?
To the extent that they can, look outside of their own field. One of the joys of being involved with the economists is getting the opportunity to broaden your perspective on what’s an important question, what’s an interesting question, and how to approach research questions. We can still do a lot of interesting research within our own guild, there’s no question about that. There are lots of important questions to ask and answer. But by working with people outside of your social science tribe, your research world is so much more rich and interesting. You get challenged in ways you could never foresee. I know that’s difficult at times, especially if you’re young, because you’re still just trying to get your own act together, but to the extent that you have the opportunity to interact with those people, the long-term success and enjoyment of the job becomes much greater.