Skip to main content

Childhood Skill Development and Adult Political Participation

  • JOHN B. HOLBEIN (a1)

Recent child development research shows that the psychosocial or noncognitive skills that children develop—including the ability to self-regulate and integrate in social settings—are important for success in school and beyond. Are these skills learned in childhood also important for adult political behaviors like voting? In this article, I use a unique school-based 20-year field experiment to explore whether children who develop psychosocial skills early on are more likely to vote in adulthood than those who do not. Matching subjects to voter files, I show that this intervention had a noticeable long-run impact on political participation. These results highlight the need to better understand how childhood experiences shape civic behaviors later in life. During this critical period, children can be taught the not explicitly political, but still vital, skills that set them on a path toward political participation in adulthood.

Corresponding author
John B. Holbein is Assistant Professor, Brigham Young University, 745 Kimball Tower, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT 84602 (
Hide All

I wish to thank the National Science Foundation (SES-1416816) for its generous financial support. I would also like to thank Kenneth Dodge for providing invaluable feedback and assistance throughout this project; the other members of the Conduct Problems Prevention Research Group (CPPRG)—Karen L. Bierman, John D. Coie, Mark T. Greenberg, John E. Lochman, Robert J. McMahon, and Ellen E. Pinderhughes—for their very generous access to the Fast Track data; Jennifer Goodwin and Jeff Quinn for their help with the Fast Track data; and Marisa Abrajano, Nicholas Carnes, Anna Gassman-Pines, Christina Gibson-Davis, Donald Green, D. Sunshine Hillygus, Bradley Jones, Helen Ladd, Jan Leighley, Quin Monson, Marcos Rangel, Lucy Sorensen, Steven Sexton, Steven Snell, Jacob Vigdor, five anonymous reviewers, and participants at the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA), the American Political Science Association (APSA), the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM), Boston University, Brigham Young University, Columbia University, Duke University, University of Virginia, Princeton University, University of Chicago, University of Tennessee, and Tufts University for their thoughtful feedback.

Hide All
Angrist Joshua D., Imbens Guido W., and Rubin Donald B.. 1996. “Identification of Causal Effects Using Instrumental Variables.” Journal of the American Statistical Association 91 (434): 444–55.
Ansolabehere Stephen, and Hersh Eitan. 2012. “Validation: What Big Data Reveal About Survey Misreporting and the Real Electorate.” Political Analysis 20 (4): 437–59.
Astuto Jennifer, and Ruck Martin D.. 2010. “Early Childhood as a Foundation for Civic Engagement.” In Handbook of Research on Civic Engagement in Youth. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 249–76.
Becker Gary S., and Tomes Nigel. 1986. “Human Capital and the Rise and Fall of Families.” Journal of Labor Economics 4 (3): S1–39.
Brady Henry E., and McNulty John E.. 2011. “Turning Out to Vote: The Costs of Finding and Getting to the Polling Place.” American Political Science Review 105 (01): 115–34.
Campbell David E. 2006. Why We Vote: How Schools and Communities Shape Our Civic Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Chetty Raj, Friedman John N., Hilger Nathaniel, Saez Emmanuel, Schanzenbach Diane Whitmore, and Yagan Danny. 2011. “How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence from Project Star.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 126 (4): 1593–660.
Condon Meghan, and Holleque Matthew. 2013. “Entering Politics: General Self-Efficacy and Voting Behavior Among Young People.” Political Psychology 34 (2): 167–81.
Corvalan Alejandro, and Cox Paulo. Forthcoming. “The Impact of Procedural Information Costs on Voting: Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Chile.” Political Behavior.
CPPRG. 1999 a. “Initial Impact of the Fast Track Prevention Trial for Conduct Problems: I. The High-Risk Sample.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 67 (5): 631–47.
CPPRG. 1999 b. “Initial Impact of the Fast Track Prevention Trial for Conduct Problems: II. Classroom Effects.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 67 (5): 648–57.
CPPRG. 2002. “Evaluation of the First 3 Years of the Fast Track Prevention Trial with Children at High Risk for Adolescent Conduct Problems.” Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 30 (1): 1935.
CPPRG. 2004. “The Effects of the Fast Track Program on Serious Problem Outcomes at the End of Elementary School.” Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology 33 (4): 650–61.
CPPRG. 2007. “Fast Track Randomized Controlled Trial to Prevent Externalizing Psychiatric Disorders: Findings from Grades 3 to 9.” Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 46 (10): 1250–62.
CPPRG. 2010. “Fast Track Intervention Effects on Youth Arrests and Delinquency.” Journal of Experimental Criminology 6 (2): 131–57.
CPPRG. 2011. “The Effects of the Fast Track Preventive Intervention on the Development of Conduct Disorder Across Childhood.” Child Development 82 (1): 331–45.
Currie Janet, and Thomas Duncan. 1995. “Does Head Start Make a Difference?American Economic Review 85 (3): 341–64.
Dahl Robert A. 1992. “The Problem of Civic Competence.” Journal of Democracy 3 (4): 4559.
Dawes Christopher, Cesarini David, Fowler James H., Johannesson Magnus, Magnusson Patrik K. E., and Oskarsson Sven. 2014. “The Relationship Between Genes, Psychological Traits, and Political Participation.” American Journal of Political Science 58 (4): 888903.
Dawson Richard E., and Prewitt Kenneth. 1968. Political Socialization: An Analytic Study. Boston, MA: Brown.
Dee Thomas S., and West Martin R.. 2011. “The Non-Cognitive Returns to Class Size.” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 33 (1): 2346.
Denny Kevin, and Doyle Orla. 2008. “Political Interest, Cognitive Ability and Personality: Determinants of Voter Turnout in Britain.” British Journal of Political Science 38 (02): 291310.
Duckworth Angela L., Peterson Christopher, Matthews Michael D., and Kelly Dennis R.. 2007. “Grit: Perseverance and Passion for Long-Term Goals.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92 (6): 1087–101.
Farrington Camille A., Roderick Melissa, Allensworth Elaine, Nagaoka Jenny, Keyes Tasha Seneca, Johnson David W., and Beechum Nicole O.. 2012. “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners: The Role of Noncognitive Factors in Shaping School Performance—a Critical Literature Review.” Technical Report. University of Chicago CCSR.
Fowler James H., and Kam Cindy D.. 2006. “Patience as a Political Virtue: Delayed Gratification and Turnout.” Political Behavior 28 (2): 113–28.
Fowler James H., and Kam Cindy D.. 2007. “Beyond the Self: Social Identity, Altruism, and Political Participation.” Journal of Politics 69 (3): 813–27.
Garmann Sebastian. 2016. “The Effect of a Reduction in the Opening Hours of Polling Stations on Turnout.” Public Choice 171: 99117.
Gerber Alan S., Huber Gregory A., Doherty David, and Dowling Conor M.. 2011. “The Big Five Personality Traits in the Political Arena.” Annual Review of Political Science 14: 265–87.
Gerber Alan S., Huber Gregory A., Meredith Marc, Biggers Daniel R., and Hendry David J.. 2015. “Can Incarcerated Felons Be (Re) Integrated into the Political System? Results from a Field Experiment.” American Journal of Political Science 59 (4): 912–26.
Gomez Brad T., Hansford Thomas G., and Krause George A.. 2007. “The Republicans Should Pray for Rain: Weather, Turnout, and Voting in US Presidential Elections.” Journal of Politics 69 (3): 649–63.
Gooch Andrew, and Vavreck Lynn. Forthcoming. “How Face-to-Face Interviews and Cognitive Skill Affect Item Non-Response: A Randomized Experiment Assigning Mode of Interview.” Political Science Research and Methods.
Green Donald P., Ha Shang E., and Bullock John G.. 2010. “Enough Already About Black Box Experiments: Studying Mediation Is More Difficult Than Most Scholars Suppose.” Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 628 (1): 200–08.
Greenstein Fred. 1965. “Children and Politics”. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press
Heckman James J. 2000. “Policies to Foster Human Capital.” Research in Economics 54 (1): 356.
Heckman James J., and Kautz Tim. 2014. “Fostering and Measuring Skills: Interventions That Improve Character and Cognition.” In The Myth of Achievement Tests: The GED and the Role of Character in American Life, eds. Heckman James J., Humphries John E., and Kautz Tim. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 341430.
Heckman James J., and Rubinstein Yona. 2001. “The Importance of Noncognitive Skills: Lessons from the GED Testing Program.” American Economic Review 91 (2): 145–49.
Heckman James, Pinto Rodrigo, and Savelyev Peter. 2013. “Understanding the Mechanisms Through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes.” American Economic Review 103 (6): 2052–86.
Heckman James J., Stixrud Jora, and Urzua Sergio. 2006. “The Effects of Cognitive and Noncognitive Abilities on Labor Market Outcomes and Social Behavior.” Journal of Labor Economics 24 (3): 411–82.
Hill Seth J. 2016. “Following Through on an Intention to Vote: Present Bias, Norms, and Turnout.” Working Paper.
Hillygus D. Sunshine, Holbein John B., and Snell Steven A.. 2016. “The Nitty Gritty: The Unexplored Role of Grit and Perseverance in Voter Turnout.” SSRN Working Paper (2675326).
Imai Kosuke, Keele Luke, Tingley Dustin, and Yamamoto Teppei. 2011. “Unpacking the Black Box of Causality: Learning About Causal Mechanisms from Experimental and Observational Studies.” American Political Science Review 105 (04): 765–89.
Jackson Kirabo C. 2012. “Non-Cognitive Ability, Test Scores, and Teacher Quality: Evidence from 9th Grade Teachers in North Carolina.” NBER Working Paper (w18624).
Kanfer Frederick H. 1970. “Self Monitoring: Methodological Limitations and Clinical Applications.” Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 35 (2): 148–58.
Kohler Ulrich, Karlson Kristian Bernt, and Holm Anders. 2011. “Comparing Coefficients of Nested Nonlinear Probability Models.” Stata Journal 11 (3): 420–38.
Langton Kenneth P. 1969. Political Socialization. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Leighley Jan E., and Nagler Jonathan. 2013. Who Votes Now? Demographics, Issues, Inequality, and Turnout in the United States. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Luskin Robert C. 1990. “Explaining Political Sophistication.” Political Behavior 12 (4): 331–61.
Mondak Jeffery J. 2010. Personality and the Foundations of Political Behavior. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Mondak Jeffery J., Hibbing Matthew V., Canache Damarys, Seligson Mitchell A., and Anderson Mary R.. 2010. “Personality and Civic Engagement: An Integrative Framework for the Study of Trait Effects on Political Behavior.” American Political Science Review 104 (01): 85110.
Nie Norman H., Junn Jane, and Stehlik-Barry Kenneth. 1996. Education and Democratic Citizenship in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Niemi Richard G., and Hepburn Mary A.. 1995. “The Rebirth of Political Socialization.” Perspectives on Political Science 24 (1): 716.
Ojeda Christopher. 2015. “Depression and Political Participation.” Social Science Quarterly 96 (5): 1226–43.
Pacheco Julianna Sandell, and Plutzer Eric. 2007. “Stay in School, Don't Become a Parent: Teen Life Transitions and Cumulative Disadvantages for Voter Turnout.” American Politics Research 35 (1): 3256.
Park Daeun, Tsukayama Eli, Goodwin Geoffrey, Patrick Sarah, and Duckworth Angela. 2017. “A Tripartite Taxonomy of Character: Evidence for Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, & Intellectual Competencies in Children.” Contemporary Educational Psychology 48: 1627.
Pettigrew Stephen. 2016. “The Downstream Effects of Long Lines: How Long Waits at the Precinct Depress Future Turnout.” Working Paper. Presented at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, Chicago, IL .
Plutzer Eric. 2002. “Becoming a Habitual Voter: Inertia, Resources, and Growth in Young Adulthood.” American Political Science Review 96 (01): 4156.
Plutzer Eric, and Wiefek Nancy. 2006. “Family Transitions, Economic Status, and Voter Turnout Among African-American Inner-City Women.” Social Science Quarterly 87 (3): 658–78.
Ravitch Diane, and Viteritti Joseph P.. 2001. Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Sapiro Virginia. 2004. “Not Your Parents’ Political Socialization: Introduction for a New Generation.” Annual Review of Political Science 7: 123.
Schafer Jerome Pablo. 2016. ‘‘Delayed Gratification in Political Behavior: Time Preferences Predict Turnout and Donations.” Working Paper (2756566).
Searing Donald D., Schwartz Joel J., and Lind Alden E.. 1973. “The Structuring Principle: Political Socialization and Belief Systems.” American Political Science Review 67 (02): 415–32.
Sondheimer Rachel M., and Green Donald P.. 2010. “Using Experiments to Estimate the Effects of Education on Voter Turnout.” American Journal of Political Science 54 (1): 174–89.
Sorensen Lucy C., and Dodge Ken A.. 2016. “How Do Childhood Interventions Prevent Crime?Child Development 87 (2): 429–45.
Uhlaner Carole Jean. 1989. “Relational Goods and Participation: Incorporating Sociability into a Theory of Rational Action.” Public Choice 62 (3): 253–85.
Verba Sidney, and Almond Gabriel A.. 1989. The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Verba Sidney, Schlozman Kay Lehman, and Brady Henry E.. 1995. Voice and Equality: Civic Voluntarism in American Politics. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Wellman Henry M., Cross David, and Watson Julanne. 2001. “Meta-Analysis of Theory-of-Mind Development: The Truth About False Belief.” Child Development 72 (3): 655–84.
White Elliott S. 1968. “Intelligence and Sense of Political Efficacy in Children.” Journal of Politics 30 (03): 710–31.
Wolfinger Raymond E., and Rosenstone Steven J.. 1980. Who Votes? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Yang Yaling, and Raine Adrian. 2009. “Prefrontal Structural and Functional Brain Imaging Findings in Antisocial, Violent, and Psychopathic Individuals: A Meta-Analysis.” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 174 (2): 8188.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary materials

Holbein supplementary material
Online Appendix

 PDF (670 KB)
670 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 85
Total number of PDF views: 732 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 3769 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 19th June 2017 - 18th February 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.