Some have proposed that SES inequalities in mortality can be explained by the influence of individual traits upon both later SES and mortality. This so-called ?indirect selection? model has far-reaching implications not only for social theory, but also for public policy. Vigorous debate exists over whether policies should treat health as a matter of personal responsibility dependent upon traits such as Conscientiousness and IQ, or as a matter of social responsibility dependent upon socioeconomic factors outside the individual's control. However, converging strands of theory suggest that the standard version of the indirect selection model may be overly simplistic in at least three respects. First, the ?brute luck? of socioeconomic circumstances at birth likely influences not only later SES, but also individual traits. The strength of this influence likely explains some of the apparent role personality and IQ seem to play in explaining associations between adulthood SES and earlier mortality. Second, key pathways in the indirect selection model likely vary across both gender and race/ethnicity. Institutional barriers may reduce the economic and health benefits of meritocratic traits among women, minorities, and those growing up within limited opportunity structures. Third, many argue that the measurement of IQ (and possibly personality) is systematically biased across social class and race. If true, the apparent role of traits in SES and race differences in mortality could be spuriously inflated or systematically distorted. We have carefully set the stage for a 55-year mortality follow-up of over 94,000 members of Project Talent--a national cohort sampled during high school in 1960, and again when they were on average 29-30 years old. The sample is unprecedented in combining national US scope with depth of psychological measurement. Detailed information exists on the childhood SES of participants, cognitive ability and personality in high school, and attained SES by age 29-30. We also leverage unique aspects of the cohort's historical context?Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty?in exploratory questions on static and changing local economic opportunity structure and institutionalized racial discrimination. Our mortality data-collection approximates the end of the natural life expectancy of the PT cohort (age 72-73), allowing us to focus on premature mortality--arguably, the most sensitive barometers of health inequalities. Our team features a mix of experts from personality and sociology (including the PT Survey Director), includes a minority health expert and historian, and is led by a PI who has focused on these issues for the past several years. Our project is thus poised to test and refine pivotal au currant conjectures about the role personality and IQ may play in social mortality inequalities.

Public Health Relevance

This project will help us understand the extent to which socioeconomic differences in lifespan are due to individual traits such as personality and intelligence. The findings can assist in the formulation of evidence-based health policy, as well as inform medical care. Based on this data, policy makers and physicians can engage in more informed decision-making when considering the role of the individual in socioeconomic health differences.

National Institute of Health (NIH)
National Institute on Aging (NIA)
Research Project (R01)
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Special Emphasis Panel (ZRG1)
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Nielsen, Lisbeth
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University of Rochester
School of Medicine & Dentistry
United States
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