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Plenty of results from social psychology fail to replicate, but there is one that is not only enduring but also becoming more important: Patience really matters.

Economists have once again entered the fray, this time with a study that tries to determine how patience is correlated with better educational outcomes. The results are impressive, albeit unsettling. In Italy, differing degrees of patience account for two-thirds of the achievement variation across the country’s regions. In the US, differing degrees of patience account for one-third of the variation in educational outcomes across states, a smaller amount but still notable.

Before I go any further, you might be wondering which are the most patient states in America. They are (in alphabetical order) Maine, Montana, Vermont and Wyoming. The least patient state? California. In Italy, patience is highest in the northern region bordering Austria, which has a relatively Germanic culture and history. Patience is the lowest by far in Sicily. In both Italy and the US, patience is generally greater in the North than in the South.

Key to patience and academic achievement

These results do not necessarily mean that lower patience results in lower grades. It could be that doing well in school makes you more patient, because you learn that working hard has its own rewards, and that may lengthen your time horizon. Or there may be some underlying factor, say conscientiousness, that is key to both patience and academic achievement.

Still, it is hard to avoid the overall impression that there is a tight connection between certain “bourgeois virtues” and academic achievement. If you are a parent, you might want to be rooting for your child to be more patient rather than less, no matter how complex all the interrelationships among the various personal and cultural attributes may turn out to be.

The researchers estimated patience by an ingenious method. There is already a widely accepted global preference survey that measures patience across nations. They then used Facebook data on interests, clicks and likes to see which interests were most popular in the more patient nations. Then they examined that data to see how popular those interests were in the various regions of those countries.

When is it appropriate to be impatient? Is being patient the same as being risk-averse? Is there a way to take risks patiently?


I do wonder if “patience” is the right word for the variable being measured here. Maybe it is instead some broader cultural quality that enables people to better pull off long-term, complex projects, including their own educational advancement. In any case, we are left with the unsettling notion that some areas have more of these cultural qualities than do others, and that those cultural qualities are major determinants of human capital and wages.

It’s also hard to say why the quality of patience explains cross-regional educational achievement better in Italy than it does in the US. One possibility suggested by the researchers is that the different American states have more mixed cultures, due to high rates of internal migration, and thus cultural impacts in the US are more complex and harder to trace to individual variables.

The US data also show that patience matters much more for educational achievement by the 8th grade than in the 4th grade. That may represent a process of acculturation strengthening through time, including perhaps for students who arrived from out of state.

Another result from the paper is that risk-taking is negatively correlated with educational achievement. It worked out great for Bill Gates to drop out of Harvard and start Microsoft, but that’s probably not the best choice for most people.

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When it comes to policy, these results confirm a more general pessimism many observers have about regional development strategies. Both Sicily and West Virginia, for example, are wonderful for tourism but will probably continue to deindustrialise. One implication is that governments should make it easier for people to move from fading regions and industries to booming ones, by doing things like easing building regulations and eliminating occupational licensing.

There are more personal implications as well. According to this research, if parents want their children to be better students, they should impress upon them the virtues of patience. That’s hard to argue with, but should they also discourage risk-taking? The research would say so, but some of us have written whole books arguing the opposite.

When is it appropriate to be impatient? Is being patient the same as being risk-averse? Is there a way to take risks patiently? These are questions deserving of careful and patient study.

— Bloomberg

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is coauthor of “Talent: How to Identify Energizers, Creatives, and Winners Around the World.”