We live in an age of overachieving young people. These kids do great in school, are sports team captains, have lots of friends who follow them around in awe, and get raises at their part-time jobs because they have the skills to get others to work hard too. Some of these kids are overworked and overwhelmed, but others seem to thrive. This sort of busy child will surely get into a good college (unless she burns out before filling out the applications), and those fine-tuned social skills will presumably pay off in terms of getting a decent job and making money. More interesting, a kid like this will likely be a winner in the evolutionary game of reproductive success if one of her hard-driving character traits is leadership. Psychologists Markus Jokela and Liisa Keltikangas-Jarvinen of the University of Helsinki, Finland, compared four aspects of Type A personalities — leadership, driving themselves hard, eagerness, and being aggressive — in more than 1,000 Finnish boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 21. Eighteen years later, when all the subjects were pretty much past their reproductive prime, they took note of the number of children each subject had produced. Oddly enough, for both men and women, most of their adolescent traits had no effect on fertility, but leadership skills turned out to be a good predictor of who would go on to be parents. The idea that leadership might be linked to reproductive success is not new. Monkeys and apes at the top of the hierarchy have access to all the females in heat, and they father the most children. High-ranking females also do better than low-ranking females. Recently, Ann Pusey of the University of Minnesota discovered that even among female chimpanzees, where rank is not such a big deal, high-ranking females have more babies than low-ranking females. Anthropologists have also long noted that chiefs and other high status men in non-Western societies usually have the most wives and the most children. These men are leaders because they usually have good social skills and are often the best hunters. Women are attracted to these men, and their resources, because it means any children they have with this man will benefit. It's harder to say if achieving women across cultures, too, have more babies, because a woman's status is usually her husband's, and many of these women have no say in whom they marry. That's why the Finnish study is so interesting. It brings the idea of striving and reproductive success into modern Western culture, where women supposedly have the opportunity to express their leadership qualities. And look how it pays off. In this study, men with good leadership skills increased their probability of having children by 11 percent, but the same kind of personality traits in women incased their probability of being mothers by 19 percent. Untethered by the bonds of a disapproving culture that restricts females from being leaders, they not only achieve, they also have lots of babies. Who said women can't have it all?
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Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link (opens in new tab)) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link (opens in new tab)). Her Human Nature column appears each Friday on LiveScience.