New Understanding Society data: Unlocking the link between brain power, personality and life chances

Article dated: 20 November 2013

Newly released data allows researchers to review cognitive function and personality traits across the whole life course, from ages 16 to 102.

Wave 3 of Understanding Society - the UK Household Longitudinal Study - includes the results of testing the cognitive ability of nearly 50,000 adults and 4,500 children aged 10 to 15. The study integrates 18 years of data from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS) and Wave 3 provides up to 21 years of evidence about the changing nature of our society, individuals' circumstances and behaviours.

Measuring personality

A new module of the study designed to measure personality is based on the 'Big 5' traits of agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness, extraversion and emotional stability. This is of particular interest to measuring behaviour over time. "Unlike other variables such as income, our personality traits are believed to be with us for life," explains Nick Buck, Director of Understanding Society. "This allows us to build up a wealth of data that can be applied to past and future waves, making it a highly functional resource. Naturally we believe there will be a lot of interest in the results. Whether for employers, HR teams, education: the opportunities are exciting and potentially far-reaching."

Measuring cognitive ability

Additional funding from the ESRC allowed interviewers to ask a series of tests specifically designed to measure memory, concentration, numeracy and literacy. Questions relating to cognitive ability include:

  • word recall
  • subtraction
  • number sequences
  • verbal fluency
  • numeric ability

Cognitive ability is related to the life chances of individuals – their educational and occupational achievement but also their health outcomes and quality of life. Researchers comparing cognitive ability with other measures can help society to learn about factors that affect how life turns out for different people.

In addition to personality and cognitive ability, the Understanding Society Wave 3 release contains new questions about:

  • local neighbourhood
  • social networks
  • family networks
  • political engagement
  • child development and parenting styles

Accessing the data

Data from all waves of Understanding Society are available for research and teaching through the UK Data Service website. See the links below for catalogue records, how to register and download, and related documentation and guidance.


Discover UK Data Service