High School Personality Traits and 48-Year All-cause Mortality Risk: Results from a National Sample of 26,845 Baby Boomers

Benjamin P. Chapman, University of Rochester Medical Center
Alison Huang, AIR
Elizabeth Horner, AIR
Ellena Sempeles, AIR
Brent Roberts, University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana

New research finds that high school students’ personality traits may be linked to a heightened or lessened risk of death around 50 years later. These findings, published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, come from an in-depth analysis of AIR’s Project Talent, now in its 59th year.

Project Talent is a nationally representative sample of 5% of all U.S. high schools in 1960. More than 400,000 students from 9th to 12th grade completed a battery of psychological tests and questionnaires over the course of two days. The study included family background—parents' educational attainment and job titles, income, housing, and property ownership—as well as 10 personality traits, measured by the Project Talent Personality Inventory (PTPI), and considered important for lifetime success.

These traits were calmness; social sensitivity (empathy and sensitivity to other people's feelings); impulsivity; leadership (responsibility and self-determination); vigor (energetic disposition); self-confidence; tidiness (preference for organization and order); sociability (outgoing disposition); culture (intellectual curiosity); and mature personality (goal-oriented).

The final analysis included 26,845 participants from 1,171 of the original schools for whom there were complete data and whose records were tracked through the National Death Index up to 2009.


Researchers found that high school students who report adaptive personality characteristics—such as high levels of calmness and low levels of impulsivity—have a lower risk of death over the ensuing half century.

Results showed that calmness was linked to a reduced risk of early death, whether or not the teen also possessed other protective or risky traits. Personality traits were assessed on a spectrum, so that each teen was characterized as having relatively high or low levels of each personality trait. Highly mature teens saw their long-term risk for an early death fall by about 6 percent for every 1 standard deviation change in maturity; it fell by 8 percent for every 1 standard deviation change in calmness and energetic disposition.

This study focuses on the baby boom generation, who are driving the current "graying of America" both due to their size and increases in life expectancy. Findings are timely in that they reflect early life circumstance of older persons currently served by primary care, geriatrics, and the Medicare programs. For at least the current generation of older Americans, however, these results indicate that personality traits in high school have long-lasting implications for population mortality.

Image of Kelly Peters
Principal Psychometrician
Image of Susan Lapham
Vice President