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Nobel prize winner and University of Chicago economist James Heckman has devoted a big part of his career to documenting the societal returns for investing in preschool. In 2013, he co-wrote a study to explain why kids who had attended the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the 1960s later earned higher incomes as adults than people who didn’t start school young. He found that 20 percent of the increase in adult earnings could be attributed to how preschool had helped kids build better personality skills and reduced misbehavior.
But does good behavior really pay off in life? Two economists who were friends in graduate school noticed that the personality traits that enabled them to succeed at school weren’t necessarily the same attributes that are valued at work. They, along with a third colleague, combed through datasets in the United Kingdom and the United States that tracked children from their school years into adulthood. They found that kids who misbehaved in a way that educational psychologists have labeled, “externalizing behavior,” behaviors associated with outward aggression and hyperactivity, tended to make more money as adults than their well-behaved school mates.
“Externalizing behavior is bad for schooling but it’s good for earnings,” said Nicholas Papageorge, one of the authors, now an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University.
Externalizing behaviors can include many things, depending on the survey used, from demanding attention and talking out of turn to being cruel to classmates and ignoring a teacher’s directions. Breaking things on purpose, arguing too much, lying and cheating, and having a bad temper can be on the checklist, too.
The economists didn’t analyze the underlying misbehaviors separately and it’s unclear if especially violent kids who hit a lot are outearning their pacifist peers. Papageorge suspects they’re not, but his point is that one shouldn’t pick out the outliers on any one behavior but notice how well kids do who generally rate highly on this scale. For example, hitting alone might be negatively correlated with income but kids who hit also tend to defy authority and exhibit a whole host of behaviors that, collectively, are positively associated with income.
The study, “The Economic Value of Breaking Bad: Misbehavior, Schooling and the Labor Market,” is a working paper circulated by the National Bureau of Economic Research in February 2019. It has not yet been published in a peer reviewed journal and may still be revised.
To be sure, kids with these behavioral issues are less likely to please their teachers and succeed in school. And the more years of education you have, the more income you’ll make, on average. It’s not that the benefits of behaving badly trump a college education. But among people with the same amount of education, the badly behaved child is likely to outearn the well-behaved one.
For example, if you lined up a nationally representative sample of 11-year-old boys in the United Kingdom in 1969, the ones that had rather high levels of externalizing behavior (at the 75th percentile) later made 11 percent more in weekly earnings when they were 33 years old than boys who were rather well behaved (ranking 25th percentile on a scale of externalizing behavior). “Aggressive” girls also had a income bump, albeit a smaller 8 percent one. The economists found similar trends in three other U.K. and U.S. datasets, too.
It’s unclear how bad kids are subsequently making more money in the labor market. Perhaps, Papageorge jokingly speculated, they’re better at bargaining. I suspect they take more risks.
For Papageorge, this income study is evidence that schools are rewarding the wrong kind of compliant behaviors. “This is a little philosophical but we have to ask ourselves what schools are supposed to do,” he said. “I think one of the jobs of schools is to promote, reward, and certainly not penalize, skills that are valuable in the labor market.”
However, he certainly doesn’t think that schools should start promoting unruly, aggressive behavior. He recommends managing difficult students more creatively instead of punishing them. For example, give a student who interrupts “a raincheck” to express his or her idea later.
Papageorge’s bigger point is that although social-emotional learning, such as fostering ‘grit’ and other skills, has become enormously popular in education, “we don’t know enough about social-emotional skills to know which ones to promote.”
“We see this as an argument to slow down everyone,” Papageorge said. “We need to think harder before we jump in and start telling teachers to promote certain things.”
Not everyone reaps benefits from bad behavior. Poor kids with externalizing behaviors didn’t earn more than their peers in adulthood. “We puzzled over that,” said Papageorge, until he and his colleagues confirmed that poor kids in these datasets were more likely to get arrested. (That also explained why Papageorge didn’t see the correlation between bad behavior and income in one U.S. dataset in which many of the children were poor.)
“If you’re aggressive and you come from a well-to-do family, you’re a go-getter, you’re ambitious,” he said. “If you’re aggressive, and you come from a poor family, you’re a troublemaker. To me, that’s one of the most troubling parts of this study.” He noted how unfair it is that the United States not only invests too little in the education of poor children but also penalizes them in the labor market for personality traits that are rewarded in the rich.
“That’s just the worst thing,” he said. “It’s like a second way to punish people who are already disadvantaged.”
This story about externalizing behavior was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.