Your success as an adult can be best predicted by your childhood peers from grade school, even better than you can predict for yourself.

Childhood peer evaluation of classmate personality traits can better predict adulthood success than self-evaluation as a child, according to a new study by members of the Concordia-based Centre for Research in Human Development, Lisa Serbin of the Department of Psychology at Concordia University, and Alexa Martin-Storey, a recent Concordia graduate and a current post-doctoral student at the University of Texas.

Their study, the Concordia Longitudinal Risk Project, Serbin explained, was actually started in 1976 by her colleagues in the Department of Psychology, Alex Schwartzman and Jane Ledingham, who now works at the University of Ottawa.

Over a two year period, students in grades 1, 4, and 7, from Montreal, were asked to evaluate their peers and rate how aggressive, well liked, and socially withdrawn they were. Self-evaluations were also filled out.

In order to track their progress into adulthood, the kids were closely examined for the next 20 years to make for an exhaustive longitudinal study.

Between 1999 and 2003, the experts conducted follow-up surveys of the 700 people still participating in the study. Adult personality traits were measured, including levels of openness, agreeableness, neuroticism, extroversion, and conscientiousness.

Martin-Storey explained:

“We were able to compare peer and self-perceptions of the childhood behaviours to these adult personality factors. We found the evaluations from the group of peers were much more closely associated with eventual adult outcomes than were their own personality perceptions from childhood. This makes sense, since children are around their peers all day and behaviours like aggressiveness and likeability are extremely relevant in the school environment.”

Kids who considered themselves socially withdrawn, for example, showed less conscientiousness later in life. However, children whose peers perceived them as socially withdrawn grew up to be less extraverted. There was clearly a more accurate association among peer perceptions.

When students rated their peers as likeable, a more accurate outcome was predicted, connecting the personality trait with higher levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness, and lower levels of neuroticism than those who rated themselves as likeable.

The results showed that peer-ratings, rather than a person’s perception of oneself, are a good prediction of success in adulthood.

Previous research indicated that birth weight can predict success later in life. For example, a baby born with a weight of less than five and a half pounds increases the likelihood of dropping out of high school by one-third, and also decreases yearly earnings by roughly 15 percent.

Serbin concluded:

“Adult personality traits are associated with a lot of important life factors, such as health, mental health and occupational satisfaction. The information from our study could be used to promote better longitudinal outcomes for children by helping kids and parents develop effective mechanisms for addressing aggressive or socially withdrawn behaviours and promoting more pro-social behavior.”

Written by Sarah Glynn