Accurate Predictors of Success

Tags: Leadership, Performance, Equity

Christopher Chabris and Joshua Hart demonstrate the importance of rigorous study design when asking complex social questions such as what are the predictive factors of successful people? Chabris and Hart re-examined the findings of Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld who proposed that certain ethnic and religious minority groups (among them Cubans, Jews, Asians, and Indians) achieve higher success than other groups. Chua and Rubenfeld claimed this is caused by:

1. A belief of superiority
2. Personal insecurity
3. A high degree of impulse control

What I find interesting about this story is how the first authors presented their opinion about the three factors above as fact. I wonder what this reveals about their own discomfort with success. This is also a negative approach to viewing success. They do, however, list impulse control which does get validated in the follow-up study below.

Researchers Chabris and Hart reviewed the methods of Chua and Rubenfeld and found a significant amount of subjective circumstantial evidence. Chabris and Hart went on to survey 1,258 adults and rated impulsiveness, ethnocentrism, and personal insecurity. They also tested cognitive abilities and examined income, occupation, education, and awards of achievement (artistic, athletic, or leadership). Participants also gave their age, sex, and parents’ levels of education.

Interestingly, the most successful participants reported a higher cognitive ability and had more educated parents, a higher socioeconomic background, and better impulse control. So Chua and Rubenfeld had only identified higher impulse control accurately as a predictive factor for success. In addition, Hart and Chabris replaced Chua and Rubenfeld’s findings of superiority and insecurity as a predictor of success with intelligence and a higher socioeconomic family background – a more strengths-based and positive approach to viewing success.

For whatever reason, Chua and Rubenfield were erroneously stating that one’s superiority and insecurity were predictors of success. Thankfully, Chabris and Hart concluded that Chua and Rubenfeld needed to apply empirical inquiry into the studying of the minority groups. They clarified that higher cognitive ability, more educated parents, and higher socioeconomic background, as well as better impulse control, all surfaced to accurately predict success. Therefore Chabris and Hart have proven their point –  study design is everything in producing accurate research outcomes.

I find this scenario important because it shows how inadequate research design can foster wrong information being disseminated. In this case, we were being told by Chua and Rubenfeld that minorities are both insecure and superior, accusations that are frequently hurled at minorities. The more skilled team of Chabris and Hart clarified that successful people are actually more likely to be produced by families with more money, more education, and greater intelligence. At least Chua and Rubenfeld accurately stated that better impulse control predicted success. Even though the famous marshmallow study established that previously.

The follow-up question I raise after reading about the findings of Chabris and Hart is how can we help young people produced by parents with less money, education, and intelligence to be more successful – against the odds?

What are your thoughts?



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