The Genetics of Success

A research team led by Dan Belsky, Avshalom Caspi, and Terrie Moffitt at Duke University reports that a genetic signature previously discovered in a genome-wide association study of educational attainment predicts children’s social and economic success all the way into midlife. The genetic score also predicts children’s upward social mobility, high scorers tended to achieve more prestigious and high-paying occupations than their parents had. The genetic score influenced successful life outcomes by bringing the participants increased intelligence, better self-control, and better interpersonal skill, beginning from the time they were very young children.

NOTE: It has come to my attention (thank you twitter 😉 ) that the final sentence of our abstract strikes some readers as rather ominous. Our intent was to communicate the idea that genetic discoveries have the potential to lead us to interventions that can benefit everyone, regardless of genotype. In other words, the Genetics of Success research is about the how of success, not the who. For a more in-depth explanation, please see my post on the Jacobs Foundation BOLD Blog “Why Should We Study the Genetics of Success?”

By “how” I mean developmental and behavioral pathways that lead from DNA sequence to life success. Studying these pathways helps us learn about mechanisms in the same way pharma research traces a molecular path from a disease-linked DNA sequence to a downstream drug target. The goal is not to modify DNA or even to tailor treatments to it. The goal is to find the agent causing disease so that it can be treated. Our research isn’t about disease. It’s about socioeconomic success. And there are no drug targets for that. But there might be developmental markers or behaviors that help people get ahead in life. For example, in our study, we found that children with more of the “Genetics of Success” started talking and reading at younger ages. That finding is consistent with efforts to promote early language development as means to getting kids off the right start in life.

PUBLICATION SOURCE: Psychological Science, Published online June 1, 2016.

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(1) Genetic discoveries for educational attainment are not related to education only. The same genetics predict socioeconomic success long after the completion of schooling.

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(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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  • 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.


PARTICIPANTS: Participants were members of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, which tracks the development of a birth cohort of 1,037 children born in 1972-1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand. This birth cohort’s families represented the full range of socioeconomic status in the general population. Follow-ups have been carried out at ages 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26, 32, and most recently at age 38 years, when 95% of the living cohort members took part. We examined 918 cohort members for whom genetic information was available.   Dan put this first bec the rest doesn’t make sense unless you first know this was a longitudinal study.

The Genetics of Success – Polygenic Scoring. We took a measurement of the genomes of our Study members using a technique called “polygenic scoring.” Polygenic scores combine information from large numbers of genetic variants all across the genome to measure a continuum of genetic influence. We based the polygenic score on a recent genome-wide association study of educational attainment published by the Social Science Genetic Association Consortium (SSGAC).

Measuring Success. We measured Dunedin Study members’ socioeconomic success at midlife from several data sources. We used electronic record searches to gather information about their credit scores and their use of social welfare benefits. We used New Zealand Census data to evaluate how prestigious their occupations were. We interviewed the Study members themselves about their income and assets, and about their financial problems.

Measuring Pathways to Success. We tracked Study members’ development from birth through midlife using a range of data sources including reports made by their mothers when they were children, direct behavioral observations, reading and standardized testing during the school years, life history calendars tracking where they lived, informant reports, and interviews. A table summarizing measurements is included on the next page.

Genetic Influences on Social Mobility. The children in our study who were born with higher polygenic scores tended to be upwardly socially mobile. We compared the social and economic attainments of our Study members when they were 38 years old with the SES of their parents when the Study members were children. Study members with higher polygenic scores tended to move up in life, even when they were born poor.

Genetic Influences on Early Childhood Development. The genetics we studied were specifically related to children’s intellectual and social development, but not to their physical development or health. Children with higher polygenic scores talked and used sentences earlier than their peers. But they didn’t walk or potty train any sooner. They scored higher on tests of IQ and assessments of self-control and interpersonal skill (e.g. they were more cooperative), but they weren’t any healthier based on measures of lung function, body fat, blood pressure, and balance and motor coordination.


MEDIA CONTACT: Dan Belsky, Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, Department of Medicine, Duke University School of Medicine, Duke University Social Science Research Institute. (t) 919-613-4534 (m) 919-357-8200


UNIVERSITIES INVOLVED: Duke University, Durham, NC, USA; University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ; Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College London, UK; Stanford University, CA, USA.


MAIN FUNDING SOURCES: The research was supported by the US National Institute on Aging (NIH AG032282; AG048895; T32 AG000029; P30 AG028716-08), the UK Medical Research Council (MRC MR/K00381X), and the New Zealand Health Research Council and Ministry of Business, Innovation, and Employment, which supports the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit. Dan Belsky is a Fellow of the Jacobs Foundation.