Thank Your Parents for Your Soft Skills

Recent job seekers know that “soft skills”—traits related to personality, values, and personal interaction—can be important in receiving a job offer. These so-called noncognitive abilities are important parts of our personalities, and researchers are working to understand how they, as well as cognitive abilities, are formed in children.

While previous work has shown that cognitive abilities are passed along from parents to children, it appeared that the transmission of noncognitive abilities was weaker. A recent study from Erik Grönqvist, Björn Öckert, and Jonas Vlachos takes a deeper look at these two types of traits and comes to a different conclusion. By correcting previous measurement problems, they found that both cognitive abilities and noncognitive abilities are passed along from parents relatively equally, a transmission that includes both heritable and environmental factors. Also, a substantial portion of the resemblance in these traits between siblings can be accounted for by this transmission of parental abilities to children.

Researchers in this study also looked at adopted children to disentangle the social impact of fathers and mothers from the influence of genetics. In adopted children, they found that the transmission of abilities from fathers was modest, while nurturing provided by mothers was more important in shaping the children’s traits.

The transmission of both cognitive and noncognitive traits from parents to children can have profound implications for future generations as these abilities affect schooling, job placement, and salaries. “We show that the transmission of abilities has important implications for social equity in the next generation. Parental abilities are strongly related to the educational and labor market outcomes of their children,” says Gronqvist, one of the authors of the current study.

Read the full study in the Journal of Human Resources:
“The Intergenerational Transmission of Cognitive and Noncognitive Abilities,”, by Erik Grönqvist, Björn Öckert, and Jonas Vlachos.