Sociologists have long recognized that factors other than cognitive ability play a central role in processes of status attainment. From as early as the 1960s, sociological models of status attainment included social-psychological factors alongside educational credentials and cognitive skills. More recently, economists have highlighted the importance of non-cognitive traits for economic mobility, and as a consequence, research on non-cognitive traits and status attainment has rapidly accrued. In reviewing where this interdisciplinary literature now stands, we focus on three key theoretical issues: the expansive definition of non-cognitive traits, the extent to which such traits are properly described as “skills”, and the institutional context governing the role of non-cognitive traits in the stratification process.
First, we ask which traits should be classified as “non-cognitive”. Often defined in opposition to cognitive ability or intelligence, non-cognitive traits have never themselves been well-defined, or consistently measured. Studies reference widely variable social-psychological constructs, making it challenging to develop a cumulative social science of the role of non-cognitive traits in stratification processes. Definitional issues are thus central to the interpretation of existing empirical results.
Second, we ask whether or not non-cognitive traits should be classified as skills. Skills are commonly understood to be learned, they are associated with increased productivity, and they provide a non-arbitrary basis for stratification. But just how malleable are non-cognitive traits? Do they influence attainment net of class origin, race, and gender? Can they, conversely, help account for socioeconomic inequalities in access to desirable social positions? We argue that non-cognitive and personality traits can reasonably be understood to increase productivity. At the same time, if such traits are rewarded in the stratification process, this is likely to increase inequality because of their association with social group membership.
Third, we ask how institutions condition the development of non-cognitive traits and the returns to these traits through the stratification process. We consider how the role of non-cognitive traits varies across different stages of the stratification process; the effects of non-cognitive traits on test scores, for example, differ from the effects on teacher grades, occupations, and earnings. We also consider the role of policy in the development of non-cognitive traits, and in the regulation of the mobility process.