Research

Working Papers

With Pedro Bessone, Gautam Rao, Frank Schilbach, and Mattie Toma
Abstract: Using state-of-the-art technology, we document that adults in Chennai sleep only 5.5 hours per night on average despite spending 8 hours in bed. Their sleep is highly interrupted, with sleep efficiency— sleep per time in bed—comparable to those with disorders such as sleep apnea or insomnia. A randomized three-week treatment providing information, encouragement, and improvements to home sleep environments increased sleep duration by 27 minutes per night but came at the cost of more time in bed. Contrary to expert predictions, increased night sleep had no detectable effects on cognition, productivity, decision-making or well-being, and led to small decreases in labor supply. Yet, increased sleep can have benefits in this setting: short afternoon naps at the workplace improved an overall index of outcomes by 0.12 standard deviations, with significant increases in productivity, psychological well-being, and cognitive function, but less time available for work.

Abstract: Religion is an important force in many individuals’ lives, with approximately 85 percent of the world’s population expressing some religious belief. Yet, the literature on religion’s impact on economic outcomes remains relatively sparse, driven in part by challenges around identification. This paper explores one aspect of religion’s impact on economic outcomes by examining the impact of the observance of Ramadan on the economic output of farmers in India. The analysis leverages heterogeneity in cropping cycles between and within districts as well as the fact that Ramadan cycles throughout the calendar year to generate three sources of variation in the overlap between Ramadan and the labor-intensive portions of the cropping cycle. Using a difference-in-differences-in-differences approach, I find that overlap between Ramadan and the labor-intensive portions of cropping cycles results in declines in production which correspond to approximately one percent of agricultural GDP in India annually and a 20 to 40 percent decrease in productivity per fasting individual. These changes appear to be driven by changes in labor productivity and are not substantially compensated for via other potential margins of adjustment such as increased draft labor. Additional analyses suggest that productivity declines are likely to be driven primarily by reduced caloric intake rather than by other behavioral changes during Ramadan.

Cognitive Endurance as Human Capital

With Christina Brown and Supreet Kaur
Abstract: Cognitive capacity—a key predictor of labor productivity—has traditionally been viewed as a fixed component of human capital. This project reexamines this view by testing whether attentional ability is endogenously shaped through one’s socio-economic environment. We focus on a specific dimension of attention: the ability to sustain focus toward a task. We first document a novel fact: lower-income individuals exhibit larger attentional declines than more affluent ones across disparate field settings in both rich and poor countries—school tests, worker productivity, voting—and these declines help explain performance differences among the rich and poor. Next, through a field experiment with 1,650 low-income Indian primary school students, we increase the time devoted to focused cognitive activity during the school day, using either math or non-academic content. Each of these interventions improves the ability to sustain focus across a variety of unrelated domains—–academic performance, listening retention, and IQ, as well as on traditional attentional ability measures–—indicating that our interventions affected an underlying core resource. In addition, the interventions improve performance on school administered tests in core subjects. Our findings suggest that worse schooling environments may disadvantage poor children by hampering the development of cognitive capacity.
Note: Please email me at hschof@wharton.upenn.edu for the working paper.

Taxing the Poor Twice: Bandwidth and the Value of Consumption

With Atheendar Venkataramani
Abstract: Poverty confers many costs on individuals, both through direct material deprivation and by reducing the mental bandwidth (cognitive resources) needed to engage meaningfully with life’s activities. We hypothesize that poverty may also reduce human welfare by decreasing the experiential value of what little the poor are able to consume – a de facto “tax” on consumption. We test this hypothesis using a randomized controlled trial in which we experimentally simulate key aspects of poverty via methods commonly used in laboratory studies (e.g. memorizing sequences) and via introducing stressors commonly associated with life in poverty (e.g. thinking about financial security and experiencing thirst). Participants then engaged in consumption activities and were asked to rate the value of these activities. Consistent with our hypothesis, the randomly assigned stressors reduced ratings of the consumption activities, with the strongest effects on the consumption of food. Our results shed new light on how the consequences of poverty on human welfare may compound. They may also change the calculus on appropriate policies to combat poverty, such as cash transfers.
Note: Please email me at hschof@wharton.upenn.edu for the working paper.

Published Papers

With Sendhil Mullainathan and Frank Schilbach, AER Papers and Proceedings (2016)

With Emma Dean and Frank Schilbach, In The Economics of Poverty Traps. University of Chicago Press. 2018. 
Abstract: This paper is a primer for economists interested in the relationship between poverty and cognitive function. We begin by discussing a set of underlying aspects of cognitive function relevant to economic decision-making — attention, inhibitory control, memory, and higher-order cognitive functions — including descriptions of validated tasks to measure each of these areas. Next, we review literature that investigates channels through which poverty might impact cognitive function and economic behavior, by discussing already existing knowledge as well as less well-researched areas that warrant further exploration. We then highlight ways in which the different aspects of cognitive function may impact economic outcomes, discussing both theoretical models and empirical evidence. Finally, we conclude with a discussion of open research questions and directions for future research.

With George Lowenstein, Jessica Kopsic, and Kevin Volpp, Journal of Health Economics (2015)
Abstract: This study examines the impact of individually oriented, purely altruistic, and a hybrid of competitive and cooperative monetary reward incentives on older adults’ completion of cognitive exercises and cognitive function. We find that all three incentive structures approximately double the number of exercises completed during the six-week active experimental period relative to a no incentive control condition.However, the altruistic and cooperative/competitive incentives led to different patterns of participation,with significantly higher inter-partner correlations in utilization of the software, as well as greater persistence once incentives were removed. Provision of all incentives significantly improved performance on the incentivized exercises. However, results of an independent cognitive testing battery suggest no generalizable gains in cognitive function resulted from the training.

Work in Progress

Promoting Regular Labor Supply among the Urban Poor
(With Luisa Cefala and Supreet Kaur)

Loneliness and Migration
(with Achyuta Adhvaryu, Anant Nyshadham, and Pedro de Souza)

Dynamic Complementarities in Education
(with Christina Brown and Supreet Kaur)