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University of Michigan School of Information


SBEE Seminar Series: Supreet Kaur

Supreet Kaur

12/06/2021, 11:30 am - 12:45 pm

Cognitive Endurance as Human Capital


Supreet Kaur examines the possibility that schooling may build human capital not only by teaching academic content, but by expanding the mind's capacity for cognition itself. She hypothesizes that one feature of formal schooling — engaging in effortful thinking for sustained periods — could increase sustained attention (the ability to maintain focus over time). To motivate this idea, she documents that globally and in the U.S., the poor exhibit worse sustained attention than the rich across a variety of field behaviors; they also attend schools that are less likely to require them to engage in concentration. She tests the hypothesis using a field experiment with 1,650 low-income Indian primary school students, assigning them a cognitive activity for sustained periods during the school day using either math content (mimicking good schooling) or non-academic content (providing a pure test of our mechanism). Each approach markedly improves sustained attention across disparate domains: academics, listening, IQ tests and traditional psychology measures. Moreover, the treatments increase students' regular school performance in Hindi, English and math. This indicates that simply spending time in effortful thinking — without learning any subject content — substantively improves traditional measures of human capital. Findings support a broader view of how schooling shapes general human capital and suggest that worse environments may disadvantage poor children by hampering the development of core cognitive capacity.

Speaker bio: 

Supreet Kaur

Supreet Kaur is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Economics at UC Berkeley. She is a development economist, with overlap in her work with behavioral and labor economics. The first strand of her research focuses on the functioning of labor markets in poor countries. Her work documents frictions in labor markets, studies the causes of unemployment and examines the impact of inequality on labor productivity. The second strand of her research explores how social norms and behavioral biases, such as the limits of human cognition and self-control problems, can affect individual behavior and market equilibria. By applying insights from psychology into economics, her goal is to deepen our understanding of the causes and consequences of poverty.

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