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On the interpretation of non-cognitive skills – what is being measured and why it matters

Across academic sub-fields such as labor, education, and behavioral economics, the measurement and interpretation of non-cognitive skills varies widely. As a result, it is difficult to compare results on the importance of non-cognitive skills across literatures. Drawing from these literatures, this paper systematically relates various prototypical non-cognitive measures within one data set. Specifically, we estimate and compare several different strategies for measuring non-cognitive skills. For each, we compare their relative effectiveness at predicting educational success and decompose what is being measured into underlying personality traits and economic preferences. We demonstrate that the construction of the non-cognitive factor greatly influences what is actually measured and what conclusions are reached about the role of non-cognitive skills in life outcomes such as educational attainment. Furthermore, we demonstrate that, while sometimes difficult to interpret, factors extracted from self-reported behaviors can have predictive power similar to well established taxonomies, such as the Big Five.

Authors: 
John Eric Humphries, University of Chicago, Department of Economics
Fabian Kosse, University of Bonn
Publication Date: 
November, 2016
Publication Status: 
Document Number: 
2016-025
File Description: 
First version, 2016