What do you need to succeed in life?

The answer is of course sheer luck, besides talent and intelligence. This new systematically review doesn’t say intelligence and talent aren’t needed, but suggests that non-cognitive skills can also be important, although there are also some serious warning lights surrounding the existing body of evidence.

From the press release:

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour is the first to systematically review the entire literature on effects of non-cognitive skills in children aged 12 or under, on later outcomes in their lives such as academic achievement, and cognitive and language ability.

“Traits such as attention, self-regulation, and perseverance in childhood have been investigated by psychologists, economists, and epidemiologists, and some have been shown to influence later life outcomes,” says Professor John Lynch, School of Public Health, University of Adelaide and senior author of the study.

“There is a wide range of existing evidence under-pinning the role of non-cognitive skills and how they affect success in later life but it’s far from consistent,” he says.

One of the study’s co-authors, Associate Professor Lisa Smithers, School of Public Health, University of Adelaide says: “There is tentative evidence from published studies that non-cognitive skills are associated with academic achievement, psychosocial, and cognitive and language outcomes, but cognitive skills are still important.”

One of the strongest findings of their systematic review was that the quality of evidence in this field is lower than desirable. Of over 550 eligible studies, only about 40% were judged to be of sufficient quality.

“So, while interventions to build non-cognitive skills may be important, particularly for disadvantaged children, the existing evidence base underpinning this field has the potential for publication bias and needs to have larger studies that are more rigorously designed. That has important implications for researchers and funding agencies who wish to study effects of non-cognitive skills,” says Professor Lynch.

Abstract of the study:

Success in school and the labour market relies on more than high intelligence. Associations between ‘non-cognitive’ skills in childhood, such as attention, self-regulation and perseverance, and later outcomes have been widely investigated. In a systematic review of this literature, we screened 9,553 publications, reviewed 554 eligible publications and interpreted results from 222 better-quality publications. Better-quality publications comprised randomized experimental and quasi-experimental intervention studies (EQIs) and observational studies that made reasonable attempts to control confounding. For academic achievement outcomes, there were 26 EQI publications but only 14 were available for meta-analysis, with effects ranging from 0.16 to 0.37 s.d. However, within subdomains, effects were heterogeneous. The 95% prediction interval for literacy was consistent with negative, null and positive effects (−0.13 to 0.79). Similarly, heterogeneous findings were observed for psychosocial, cognitive and language, and health outcomes. Funnel plots of EQIs and observational studies showed asymmetric distributions and potential for small study bias. There is some evidence that non-cognitive skills associate with improved outcomes. However, there is potential for small study and publication bias that may overestimate true effects, and the heterogeneity of effect estimates spanned negative, null and positive effects. The quality of evidence from EQIs underpinning this field is lower than optimal and more than one-third of observational studies made little or no attempt to control confounding. Interventions designed to develop children’s non-cognitive skills could potentially improve outcomes. The interdisciplinary researchers interested in these skills should take a more strategic and rigorous approach to determine which interventions are most effective.

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