The Conscientiousness Gap

A 2006 article from the the City Journal on the Marriage Gap between more educated and less educated women got me thinking. Especially these two parts:

According to the strength-in-numbers theory, then, two parents are better than one much the way two hands are better than one: they can accomplish more.

But this theory finally doesn’t explain all that much. If two parents are what make a difference, then why, when a divorced mother remarries, do her children’s outcomes resemble those of children from single-parent homes more than they do those from intact families? Why do they have, on average, lower school grades, more behavior problems, and lower levels of psychological well-being—even when a stepparent improves their economic standard of living?


Others take an alternative approach to the question of why children growing up with their own two married parents do better than children growing up without their fathers. It’s not marriage that makes the difference for kids, they argue; it’s the kind of people who marry. Mothers who marry and stay married already have the psychological endowment that makes them both more effective partners and more competent parents. After all, we’ve already seen that married mothers are more likely to be educated and working than single mothers; it makes sense that whatever abilities allowed them to write their Economics 101 papers or impress a prospective boss or husband also make them successful wives and mothers.

The first quotation was something I already knew. I had not yet thought deeply about it, but it cuts against both an primarily economic argument for stable nuclear families and a naive kind of magical thinking that pairing up two people and calling it a 'marriage' somehow makes the family function better. I'm not knocking the stepfamilies out there, it is just that I've never observed them to be quite the same as traditional families where the parents are alive and are married to each other. It was the second passage that really struck me, however. What if the difference between those who stay married and those who never get married or who are divorced and/or remarried is a stable causative factor that also affects family life?

My new favorite explanation, conscientiousnes, seems to fit well. After all, what is C?

Conscientious personality (high ‘C’) – an ability to take the long view, work hard with self-discipline and persevere in the face of difficulty

This seems pretty clearly related to both getting and staying married, and the ability to raise children well. It is further strengthened by the heritability of C. Conscientious children will tend to behave better and get better grades, all else being equal. This seems a much better explanation than the author's, which is to posit that better educated women believe in the institution of marriage for raising children. If we are really looking at education as the variable, I would wager that more education tends to undermine belief in the value of marriage, which is the kind of thing the GSS is good for looking into.  However, having more education is more and more correlated with high C as time goes on, so we find that more educated women are more and more likely to be married and stay married, regardless of their beliefs on the subject.