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Research shows the less you care about getting rich, the better you do in school

Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
Palestinian students sit inside their new school opened by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Refugees (UNRWA) in southern Gaza November 17, 2007.…
By Amy X. Wang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Greed apparently doesn’t score degrees.

Study after study will show that people—children, teenagers, and adults alike—are better learners and thinkers when they have some sort of overarching goal. A new report from economics professors at the University of Pittsburgh and University of Toronto now says it also might matter what that goal is. In their working paper, released this week through the National Bureau of Economic Research, the professors examined the non-academic characteristics of 6,000 incoming college freshmen in Canada.

Students in the top 10% of their class (deemed “thrivers” by the researchers) were found to share certain distinctive qualities, namely:

  • a purpose-driven attitude
  • willingness to study more hours per week
  • philanthropic goals

On the other hand, students in the bottom 10% of their class (nicknamed “divers”) collectively displayed the following:

  • a tendency to procrastinate and rush assignments
  • much less conscientiousness than their peers
  • superficial goals, such as getting rich quickly

When asked to list their personal hopes and goals, the study notes, the “thrivers” concentrated on plans to contribute to society and frequently used words like “human” and “people.” Meanwhile, the “divers” were much more likely to use phrases that highlighted wealth—such as “be a big man” and “have many successful businesses.”

Though not by any means comprehensive, the data do offer an intriguing thought: People with altruistic goals are better students than those with self-centered ambitions. While the study deals only with academic performance, psychologist Angela Duckworth reaches a similar conclusion about employees in the workplace in her book Grit, which explores the nature of perseverance.

Teachers and bosses who want to boost success might want to help people adopt a more socially-oriented way of thinking—though, of course, that may be require changing our culture’s definition of “success” in the first place.

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