PERSONALITY TRAITS AND WORKPLACE PRODUCTIVITY: Evidence from a laboratory experiment

Personality traits such as conscientiousness and neuroticism are significantly related to workers'' productivity, according to research by Ana Nuevo-Chiquero and colleagues, published in the May 2016 issue of the Economic Journal.

The results of their randomised controlled laboratory experiment indicate that the positive relationship observed in the labour market between wages and conscientiousness (and between wages and emotional stability) is likely to reflect higher productivity among those with higher levels of these personality traits.

But the study also finds that not all traits linked to higher wages appear to affect productivity. For example, more agreeable workers tend to earn less in the actual labour market, but their productivity is similar when measured in the laboratory setting. What''s more, traits like extroversion or openness to new experiences can affect the productivity of men and women in opposite ways.

These results give support to the use of measures of soft skills in recruitment. They can also contribute to the design of policy interventions. While genetics do matter, personality is not cast in stone at birth. Personality traits are more malleable in late childhood and teenage years than cognitive skills.

This is particularly relevant for educational programmes targeted at individuals after the age of 10, when cognitive skills are already mostly established but personality is still being formed. Thus, a deeper understanding of the impact of personality on productivity can provide policy-makers with a wider variety of instruments aimed at improving the economic performance of disadvantaged groups and increase social mobility.


Differences in parental education, wealth or cognitive skills can only explain a limited fraction of the observed wage variation. Thus, personality – defined as the combination of emotional, attitudinal and behavioural characteristics that are unique to each individual – is a strong candidate for explaining the remaining difference in wages. For example, personnel managers in the UK and the United States often cite attitude, motivation and personality as the most important attributes of a potential employee.

This study contributes to our understanding of the channels linking personality and labour market outcomes. Previous survey studies have shown that certain personality traits are associated with higher wages, but the mechanism of this relationship is still unclear. Personality could affect workers'' wages through productivity and performance on the job or through other channels, such as career choices, job selection, negotiation skills or even how likeable you are to your peers and supervisors.

To this end, the authors took advantage of the controlled environment of the laboratory to analyse the effects of personality on a very specific productivity task. More than 350 undergraduate students participated in the study. They had to perform a time-constrained task and were rewarded monetarily according to their performance. The task required focus, concentration and time management skills, all valuable qualities in the workplace.

Personality was measured by means of the so-called ''Big Five'' personality inventory, which describes individuals along five dimensions: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. Psychologists widely agree that these Big Five traits portray personality accurately.

The experiment results show that the more conscientious and the less neurotic individuals are, the higher their productivity and, hence, observed earnings. In addition, women who are more extrovert or more open to new experiences perform worse in the task than their counterparts, while the opposite is true for men.

Second, the authors find that not all personality traits affect productivity: agreeableness (how cooperative and helpful you are) does not make you more or less productive, even though more agreeable workers, particularly women, earn lower wages in the labour market. This suggests a potential influence of agreeableness on earnings works through social interactions in the workplace. Surprisingly, family income and parental education play a minor role in the effects of personality.

''Do Personality Traits Affect Productivity? Evidence from the Lab'' by Maria Cubel, Ana Nuevo-Chiquero, Santiago Sanchez-Pages and Marian Vidal-Fernandez is published in the May 2016 issue of the Economic Journal. Ana Nuevo-Chiquero is at the University of Edinburgh. Maria Cubel and Santiago Sanchez-Pages are at the University of Barcelona. Marian Vidal-Fernandez is at the University of Sydney.