Thursday, January 29, 2009

Do Cognitive Skills Depend on Non-Cognitive Skills? And If So, What Does the Labour Market Reward?

In a previous post, I mentioned research on behavioural determinents of earnings by Bowles et al. (2001); these authors report that cognitive skills represent less than a fifth of the return to schooling. They suggest that the remaining 82% of the return to schooling could either be associated with more advanced cognitive skills that are not captured by basic measures, or with noncognitive skills. More recently, Pasche (2008) finds that over half the return to schooling is constituted of basic cognitive skills. Either way, the bias of non-cognitive personality traits is important when estimating the returns to education.

Research by Borghans, Meijers and ter Weel (reported at the AEA meeting earlier this month), examines the role of noncognitive skills in explaining cognitive test scores. They measure noncognitive skills both by personality traits and economic preference parameters; and the idea is that noncognitive skills might affect the effort people put into a test to obtain good results.

The authors experimentally varied the rewards for questions in a cognitive test to measure to what extent people are sensitive to financial incentives. To distinguish increased mental effort from extra time investments, they also varied the questions’ time constraints. Favourable personality traits such as high performance-motivation and an internal locus of control are associated with high test scores in the absence of rewards; which the authors say is consistent wiith trying as hard as possible.

In contrast, favourable economic preference parameters (low discount rate, low risk aversion) are associated with increases in time investments when incentives are introduced, consistent with a rational economic model in which people only invest when there are monetary returns.

The main conclusion of the research is that individual behavior in cognitive tests depends on noncognitive skills. This means that de-compositions of the returns to schooling may be biased towards cognitive skills in ways that have not been considered before. This underscores further the need to consider the bias of non-cognitive personality traits when estimating the returns to education.


Martin Ryan said...

This paper was also published in Economic Enquiry last year:

Martin Ryan said...