Cognition, Personality, and Individual Response to Technological Change: The Case of Internet Adoption

Freese, Jeremy, and Salvador Rivas
Working paper no. 2006-07


Existing sociological and other literature on digital inequalities in the United States has given little specific attention to the potential roles of cognitive ability and personality, especially in terms of how effects of these variables may vary in predictable ways depending on individuals’ social position. We consider the matter specifically with regard to whether late midlife adults have become Internet users. Consistent with our predictions, we find that cognitive ability and openness to experience are strongly and positively associated with Internet adoption in this cohort, and that neuroticism is inversely associated with adoption. Including these variables also attenuates the apparent causal effect of both education and income on Internet adoption. We also find that the effect of cognitive ability is smaller for those with more education, more wealth, and who have jobs that use the Internet. Openness and neuroticism are importantly also mediated by social circumstances, although the latter more ambiguously. The results underscore not only the importance of considering basic psychological characteristics in understanding why people in similar social positions respond differently to change, but also how social conditions create conditions under which psychological differences are more- or less-strongly implicated in behavioral differences.