Noise, Cognitive Function, and Worker Productivity (Job Market Paper)
Abstract: Noise is ubiquitous in the developing world, yet its impacts on economic outcomes are poorly understood. I investigate whether noise lowers worker productivity. First, I estimate the reduced-form impact of noise pollution by randomly exposing workers in a textile training course to engine noise. An increase of 10 dB (from the noise level of a dishwasher to a vacuum cleaner) decreases worker productivity by approximately 5%. The primary channel proposed in the psychology literature for noise to affect human performance is by impeding cognitive functions such as attention and working memory. I explore this mechanism by conducting a second experiment where I randomly expose individuals from the same population to engine noise while they complete cognitive tests. The same noise change decreases cognitive function by 0.05 standard deviations. Assuming cognitive function is indeed the primary mechanism, this suggests the return to cognitive function is large. Finally, I assess whether individuals understand these effects by allowing participants in both experiments to pay to work in quiet while varying performance incentives. Individuals' willingness to pay for quiet is not affected by the wage structure, suggesting participants neglect the productivity effects of noise.
Cognitive science in the field: A preschool intervention durably enhances intuitive but not formal mathematics (Science, July 2017 with Moira R. Dillon, Harini Kannan, Elizabeth S. Spelke and Esther Duflo)
Abstract: Many poor children are underprepared for demanding primary school curricula. Research in cognitive science suggests that school achievement could be improved by preschool pedagogy in which numerate adults engage children’s spontaneous, nonsymbolic mathematical concepts. To test this suggestion, we designed and evaluated a game-based preschool curriculum intended to exercise children’s emerging skills in number and geometry. In a randomized field experiment with 1540 children (average age 4.9 years) in 214 Indian preschools, 4 months of math game play yielded marked and enduring improvement on the exercised intuitive abilities, relative to no-treatment and active control conditions. Math-trained children also showed immediate gains on symbolic mathematical skills but displayed no advantage in subsequent learning of the language and concepts of school mathematics.
Research in Progress
The impact of early childhood education on cognitive and socio-emotional development in rural India (with Seema Jayachandran)
Abstract: While a significant literature has evaluated the benefits of early childhood education in developed countries, relatively little is known about the benefits of similar programs in developing contexts. In order to fill this gap, in 2015 we recruited a sample of 808 socioeconomically disadvantaged children in rural Karnataka and randomly gave half a scholarship to attend a high-quality, private kindergarten. We will conduct follow-up measurements of the children in the Spring of 2018, after the completion of kindergarten, to evaluate what impact attending kindergarten had on children’s cognitive and non-cognitive development. We will conduct a second follow-up in Spring of 2019, after the completion of first standard, to assess whether gains persist or fade out.
Improving Indian female labor force participation by increasing retention (with Seema Jayachandran)
Abstract: India has a large pool of educated women but an exceptionally low female employment rate. We partner with a firm in rural Karnataka that provides employment opportunities for skilled women in their home villages, to assess whether two light-touch, employer-led, interventions can improve labor-force retention. In the first we show the families of new female employees video testimonials from experienced employees discussing the fact that working did not endanger their personal safety and that it provided opportunities for personal growth. In the second, we guide the women and their families through discussions of their concerns regarding the woman’s employment. The baseline will be completed in October 2017 with follow up data collected through Spring 2019.
Behavioral determinants of household energy efficiency in a development context (with Susanna Berkouwer)
Abstract: While increasing attention has focused the importance of improving energy efficiency in developing contexts, little work exists on how behavioral biases might shape household decisions. We partner with a major producer of energy efficient, charcoal stoves in Kenya to study how limited attention, product uncertainty, and mental accounting affect the perceptions of energy savings and subsequent technology adoption and usage. We first prompt potential purchasers to exercise greater attention by calculating expected savings from the stove. We then study the relationship between this inattention problem and traditional uncertainty by cross-randomizing whether participants have access to a trial stove for a week before making their purchasing decision. Then, to understand whether households view energy savings through the lens of mental accounting we randomly allocate cash transfers equivalent to the expected savings and test for differences in consumption responses. Finally, we use high-frequency monitors to estimate how cash transfers induce consumption changes in order to benchmark the household’s welfare gains derived from improved energy efficiency. Pilot work is ongoing, and we expect to launch the baseline in Spring 2018.