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Will You Be Replaced by a Computer? It May Depend on Your Personality

New research finds certain personality traits are associated with jobs that can only be performed by people.

Are you worried about being replaced by a robot? You've got good reason to fret: In one recent analysis, economists predicted 47 percent of American jobs are at high risk of being automated over the next two decades.

Understandably, most discussion of this touchy topic has revolved around which specific jobs are in the computers' cross-hairs. But, given the ability (and, increasingly, the necessity) for workers to periodically change careers, two larger questions loom: What personality traits protect us against the threat of computer-driven unemployment? And can they be taught, and absorbed, at an early age?

In a first-of-its-kind study that followed a large group of Americans for 50 years, a research team led by University of Houston psychologist Rodica Ioana Damian provides some preliminary answers.

"Regardless of social background," the researchers write, "people who were more intelligent, mature, and interested in arts and sciences in adolescence selected into jobs that had a lower probability of computerization."

This was partially, but not fully, explained by the fact that such people tended to have more education. Even after taking schooling out of the equation, personality still mattered.

The research, published in the European Journal of Personality, used data from Project Talent, a study that began in 1960. That year, more than 440,000 ninth- through 12-graders took a series of tests measuring cognitive ability, and completed a "personality inventory" in which they graded themselves on such factors as maturity, sociability, sensitivity, and leadership.

Follow-up surveys were conducted 11 and then 50 years later, in which participants reported their specific job titles. The researchers matched those jobs to an established measure of computerizability, to determine if the positions are likely to exist in 20 years.

Not surprisingly, they found highly intelligent people, and those from more affluent families, were more likely to end up in less-computerizable occupations. But, even after taking those factors into account, personality played a sizable role.

Certain personality traits increase the likelihood one will succeed at the two types of jobs not likely to be computerized any time soon.

Specifically, they found high schoolers with "higher levels of maturity and extroversion, higher interests in arts and sciences, and lower interests in things and people, tended to select—or be selected—into less-computerizable jobs" as adults. This effect was found both when participants were in their 20s and their 60s.

The results suggest certain personality traits increase the likelihood one will succeed at the two types of jobs not likely to be computerized any time soon: those that "require workers to perform non-routine cognitive tasks" (a.k.a. think creatively), and those that involve performing "social intelligence tasks," such as managing people or providing personal care.

But why would lower interest in people (as expressed in high school) put one at a disadvantage? Digging into the data, the researchers realized this self-described trait "mapped quite well onto wanting to become an office clerk—someone who interacts with people, but mostly performs routine tasks with the help of an office machine. Most of those jobs are now computerizable."

As Damian and her colleagues note, these results bring up an important question: "How malleable are personality traits, and can they be changed through interventions?" The answers aren't clear, but some research suggests people's personalities can indeed be modified, through specific work experiences or clinical interventions.

If that's confirmed, it suggests we need to change the way we educate kids. After all, one major goal of our schools is to send qualified people out into the work force. In the future, that may mean not just teaching them skills, but also shaping them into the types of people whose jobs are likely to still be around in the future.