How socioeconomic status shapes cognitive effort: A laboratory study among fifth graders

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Radl, Jonas
Apascaritei, Paula
Foley, William
Kröger, Lea
Lorente Labrado, Patricia
Solga, Heike
Stuhler, Jan Leonard
Swarr, Madeline Lee
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Effort is essential both to normative and sociological theories of stratification. But social scientific research has tended to treat effort as a missing variable or to measure it unreliably with self-reports. An emerging consensus in cognitive science identifies effort with executive function, i.e. the mental processes controlling conscious activity. Executive function can be measured using behavioral tasks, opening new avenues towards understanding the link between effort and stratification. However, while most large-N sociological studies lack behavioral measures of effort, most cognitive science studies rely on small convenience samples and omit the crucial role of incentives. We implemented a laboratory study with over 1,300 fifth-grade students. The experimental design features three "real-effort" tasks, each of which taps into different domains of executive function. Effort was elicited under three incentive conditions: (i) unincentivized (no reward); (ii) piece-rate (material reward); and (iii) tournament (material plus status reward). Overall, we find a positive association between parental socio-economic status and children's cognitive effort. However, the magnitude of this gap is surprisingly modest. Moreover, the effect of social origin on effort is largest in the unincentivized condition and shrinks when effort is extrinsically motivated. We discuss implications of how material scarcity shapes cognitive effort under different incentives.
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