Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Ambition predicts attainments over lifetime and contributes to satisfaction

Ambition is a quality of clear relevance to the world of work, but its psychological definition has been murky. A recent paper begins to clear the waters, proposing that ambition is essentially a middle-level trait, meaning that it gives a specific form to the tendencies that flow from more fundamental features such as personality traits. So what are those fundamentals? And what occupational consequences does ambition have?

Investigators Timothy Judge and John Kammeyer-Mueller drew on the longitudinal data contained in the Terman life-cycle study, begun in 1922. Available information included personality measures, the Stanford-Binet Intelligence test, biographical factors and various indicators of life outcomes. Ambition, defined as 'persistent and generalized striving for success, attainment, and accomplishment', wasn't the explicit focus of the initial study, so the measure used was a composite of items including a rating of life purpose, parental judgements of childhood ambition, and a coding of participants' descriptions of their own best and worst qualities to catch any references to ambition - or lack of it.

Building a structural equation model makes it possible to see how one factor can contribute to another, which in turn contributes to another, in a web of cause-and-effect. The model revealed that ambition was greater in the 717 records used when the following factors were present (brackets denote investigator explanation):

  • Higher conscientiousness (providing the will to achieve)
  • Higher extraversion (through striving in social situations, often related to confidence)
  • Lower neuroticism (as doubt reduces likelihood of setting ambitious goals)
  • Family prestige (creating a climate where high achievement is the norm)
  • A fairly weak relationship to higher childhood general mental ability (leading to encouragement and expectations of success)

The longitudinal data made it possible to look forward to the consequences of ambition. More ambitious individuals tended to attain more in their education and enter into jobs with more prestige. A prestigious job was also a predictor of both income and life satisfaction.  As is increasingly recognised, people more satisfied with their life tended to live longer. In all these areas, ambition was a better predictor of life outcomes than its antecedents such as conscientiousness and extraversion, suggesting that focusing on middle-level traits when trying to understand real-world outcomes may be a sensible research strategy.

Ambition isn't about a single strong aspiration, it's a general orientation towards getting ahead. Commentators are often suspicious of this as  nothing more than an 'unquenchable desire for unattainable outcomes', but Judge and Kammeyer-Mueller point out that on their data, the ambitious 'did not appear to be made miserable or insatiable by their ambitions'. Instead, it seems that this forward impetus can help individuals make inroads into at least some of their wants for life.

ResearchBlogging.orgJudge TA, & Kammeyer-Mueller JD (2012). On the Value of Aiming High: The Causes and Consequences of Ambition. The Journal of applied psychology PMID: 22545622

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