The Contribution of Cognitive and Noncognitive Skills to Intergenerational Social Mobility

Matt McGue, Emily A. Willoughby, Aldo Rustichini, Wendy Johnson, William G. Iacono, James J. Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We investigated intergenerational educational and occupational mobility in a sample of 2,594 adult offspring and 2,530 of their parents. Participants completed assessments of general cognitive ability and five noncognitive factors related to social achievement; 88% were also genotyped, allowing computation of educational-attainment polygenic scores. Most offspring were socially mobile. Offspring who scored at least 1 standard deviation higher than their parents on both cognitive and noncognitive measures rarely moved down and frequently moved up. Polygenic scores were also associated with social mobility. Inheritance of a favorable subset of parent alleles was associated with moving up, and inheritance of an unfavorable subset was associated with moving down. Parents’ education did not moderate the association of offspring’s skill with mobility, suggesting that low-skilled offspring from advantaged homes were not protected from downward mobility. These data suggest that cognitive and noncognitive skills as well as genetic factors contribute to the reordering of social standing that takes place across generations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)835–847
Number of pages13
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number7
Early online date30 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 30 Jun 2020


  • social mobility
  • parent-offspring transmission
  • general cognitive ability
  • non-cognitive skills


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