UT researchers find strong link between genetics and academic success

Eva Frederick

New research from UT’s College of Liberal Arts suggests that factors influencing a student’s academic performance may be more “nature” and less “nurture.”

The research shows that almost 70 percent of character, which can predict academic performance, is genetic. This could affect the way schools handle differing levels of academic achievement, according to the study.

Co-author Elliot Tucker-Drob, a UT psychology associate professor and co-director of the Texas Twin Project, collected data from more than 811 sets of twins and triplets. He analyzed how seven character measures, including grit, intellectual self-concept and test motivation, affected known predictors of academic achievement.

“We used a variety of measures,” Tucker-Drob said. “Some measures represented the tendency to work toward goals over long stretches of time. Others represented enjoyment of learning and desire to learn.”

Twin studies have been used for over a century to test how much of behavior is caused by the genes people are born with. Identical twins are excellent test subjects because they share all of their genes — as opposed to fraternal twins or siblings, who share only 50 percent.

 “Researchers have hypothesized that differences in the ways that parents raise their children and the ways that they are taught in schools are important for producing individual differences in character,” Tucker-Drob said. “However, we find that once genetic sources of variation in character are taken into account, children raised together are no more similar in their character than would be expected by chance.”

In other words, students who grew up with the same family and went to the same school can still differ substantially in character, even when environmental conditions are the same.

When it came to the character measures, the researchers found 69 percent of character score variation could be chalked up to genetic differences.

In order to make predictions about academic performance, the scientists linked these seven character measures to the “Big Five” personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, extroversion and agreeableness. These five traits have been shown in the past to be predictors of academic achievement.

Three character measures in particular had the biggest influence on academic performance “need for cognition,” which Tucker-Drob defines as the desire to learn and think through challenging problems, “intellectual self-concept,” or how smart a student sees themselves being, and “educational attitudes,” or whether or not a student thinks school is important to success.

Radio-television-film freshman Briana Easter said she believes character traits such as hard work are important for long-term academic success, and that it is interesting that these can be affected by genetics.

“I honestly think that if a person works hard enough, if they want to, they can determine how they are going to be successful,” Easter said. “I see how genetics could play a part in that but all in all it depends.”

Schools across the nation spend money in an effort to help students who consistently perform lower academically than their peers. But if this research shows that academic performance is less dependent on environmental factors than previously thought, is it worth it?

“It’s important to keep in mind that, just because variation in parenting and schooling does not currently appear to produce systematic differences in character, this doesn’t mean that parenting and schooling can’t have an effect,” Tucker-Drob said. “Researchers are constantly coming up with new methods to change character, and some of these methods appear promising.”

Paige Harden is an associate professor and co-director of the Texas Twin Project and a co-author on the study.

“Programs to improve character will need to be creative,” Harden said in an interview with UT News. “Interventions will need to introduce experiences that are not already varying across families, in order to positively affect children’s character and ultimately their academic achievement.”

Tucker-Drob said a widespread program to help students refine these important character traits could be a way to improve academic performance.

“If a parenting or schooling intervention to improve character were widely adopted in the general population, studies like this one might start to produce different results,” Tucker-Drob said.