Seminar 218, Psychology and Economics: Attention as Human Capital (Online)

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Submitted by Brandon Eltiste on January 08, 2021
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Monday, April 12, 2021 - 10:00
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Supreet Kaur, UC Berkeley

ABSTRACT: Schooling may shape cognition not only by teaching academic content, but by altering individuals’ underlying capacity for attention. We first document a novel fact: across various domains, the poor exhibit worse sustained attention than the rich---as measured by performance declines over time during a task---including in academic tests, worker productivity, and voting. These stark differences suggest that attentional capacity may be malleable, endogenously shaped through one's environment. Consistent with this hypothesis, we document that the schooling environments of the poor systematically afford less time to practice sustained attention. We test this hypothesis using a field experiment with 1,650 low-income Indian primary school students. We “train” sustained attention through increased time in independent focused activity within the school day, using either math content (mimicking good schooling) or non-academic content (providing a pure test of our mechanism). Each approach leads to substantive changes in attentional capacity while engaged in activities unrelated to the treatment content: academic subjects, listening, IQ tests, and traditional psychology measures of sustained attention. These gains persist three months after the intervention ends, and result in meaningful improvements in school performance of about 0.1 standard deviations. Our findings support a broader view of how schooling shapes human capital, and suggest that worse environments may disadvantage poor children by hampering the development of underlying cognitive capacity.