Which cog turns the wheels of success?

Which skills form the base of the elusive elixir for achievement?

There has been much noise of late surrounding the value of standardised testing in schools and the merits of cognitive vs. non-cognitive skills in general. The idea that the trajectory of your academic future, professional direction and self-schema is often so strongly linked to the experience of undertaking such tests, the results achieved and ultimately the outcome of those results is sobering. The current structure informs our options directly as it effects submission to colleges and eligibility for employment and indirectly in the beliefs we form about our abilities and competencies. It has been found that non-cognitive skills are the most important determinants of lecture attendance and independent study, which are key determinants of academic achievement, and disparities in non-cognitive skills contribute to the academic achievement gap separating wealthy from disadvantaged students. Society has developed a disturbingly limited view in terms of human value assessment and appraisal, creating a detriment of unrealised potential and missed opportunity.

As the old saying goes ‘If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid’. Focus is beginning to broaden and shift to examine a spectrum of skills, other than cognitive crystallised intelligence, and it is becoming apparent that non-cognitive skills may be just as important, if not more so, in determining success in the long term. A meta-analysis of over 200 interventions increasing social and emotional learning of children ages 5–18 resulted in overall positive association between interventions and higher academic achievement.

Studies have shown that achievement test scores predict only a small fraction of the variance in later-life success, and that these tests do not adequately capture non-cognitive skills. Yet non-cognitive or soft skills have been proven to predict meaningful life outcomes. Boosting non-cognitive skills early in life increases the benefits of education later in life and these skills are more malleable than cognitive skills at later stages, due to slow development of the prefrontal cortex.

Angela Duckworth has carried out much work in this area, and has identified that ‘grit’, a measure of perseverance and passion for long-term goals, may be as essential as IQ and more important than conscientiousness in predicting achievement. More educated adults are found to be higher in grit, and it has also been found to be positively correlated with conscientiousness, academic achievement and performance. For example, one study showed that grit predicted completion of a summer training program at the West Point military academy better than any other predictor.

David Mc Clelland emphasised the importance of motivation and incentive value for predicting achievement performance in his Human Motivation Theory. Recent research has identified that the responsiveness to incentives on IQ and achievement tests depends on a person’s non-cognitive skills, and that motivation of test takers predicts IQ scores, which some psychologists assume are good measures of intelligence. This suggests that non-cognitive skills contribute to performance on standardised tests and may be indirectly assessed in the process. Individual differences in grit account for significant incremental variance in success outcomes over and beyond that explained by IQ. However, ‘smarter’ individuals are no ‘grittier’, therefore grit is not assigned as a cognitive skill, nor an apparent bi-product of fluid intelligence. Grit and self-discipline are highly correlated but grit predicts accomplishment of very high challenges among high-achievers better than self-discipline.

The concept of a growth mindset is the acknowledgment that limiting self-beliefs can shape our reality. Whether people believe core qualities fixed or can be developed directly effects their personal development and progression. Growth mindset measures the implicit theory of intelligence; the extent to which an individual believes that their ability and performance can improve with effort, rather than being fixed by factors outside of their control. This belief informs the amount of effort a person will invest in development and improvement, and ultimately the degrees of progression and increased ability. Put simply, one’s belief in the ability to improve informs the desire and effort invested in improvement and the acquisition of new skills. The outcome results in a reinforcement of the underlying belief, as those who believe improvement is possible and whom put in the effort, will experience increased ability and this confirms their belief that development is possible. On the other hand, those who believe that their ability to progress and succeed is dictated by factors outside of their control will allocate little to no effort to improvement, which will often result in stagnation and thus their belief is also reinforced. Growth mindset interventions have proven to improve performance and people who cultivate a positive mind-set demonstrate superior performance and elicit favourable business outcomes. Engagement, motivation, choice, ownership, and a growth mindset are intimately related. Individuals with a growth mindset experience positive affect, and these individuals differ systematically in the cognitive and motivational strategies they employ, displaying higher levels of creativity and productivity.

A recent survey by the CBI found that non-cognitive skills such as team working and problem-solving are the most prominent deficiencies in graduates’ skill sets, despite 81% employers placing more emphasis on these skills than degree type and grade. The Buffer Hypothesis suggests that high self-esteem assists people in coping with stress and adversity. In a time where corporations require 110% from their employees, and the demands of life have increased exponentially, the ability to keep composure, rise to the challenge and persist in the face of pressure is invaluable. The ability to perpetuate this intrinsically, maintaining a calm internal equilibrium and honing the skills to effectively and adaptively deal with stress and pressure rather than simply the external appearance of composure, is crucial for long-term mental and physical health. Closely linked to self-esteem are self-efficacy beliefs, which are imperative to a growth mindset. Self-efficacy beliefs influence motivation, persistence and resilience and ultimately the realisation of success.

Conscientiousness and self-control provide the strongest evidence of predictive power over academic and life outcomes, even when controlling for cognitive ability and demographics.

There are strong correlations between self-control and higher academic performance, better adjustment, better relationships and interpersonal skills. Mischel’s Marshmallow Test discusses Hot and Cool systems, Cool representing the trigger of cognitive functions to enable an individual to assert delayed gratification and the Hot system as quick, reflexive responses to certain triggers. When a hot stimulus overrides the cool system, this results in impulsiveness. Susceptibility to emotional responses influence behaviour throughout life.

The prefrontal cortex (performs executive functions such as decision making) and ventral striatum (which processes desires/rewards) showed more activity in those with low self-control.

It is becoming more apparent that, as with the Nature vs. Nurture debate of times gone by, the overarching solution is that the matter should not be viewed as a one versus the other debate, but acknowledged that the focus should be placed on nurturing the development of both skill sets, as concomitant factors, and that traditional values of merit assignment should be revised to incorporate the vital importance of non-cognitive soft skills in development, success and academic and professional achievement.

Originally published at

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