What's Non-Cognitive?

Like other economists and non-economists, I’ve been interested for some time in James Heckman’s work on the importance of non-cognitive skills, yet never stopped to ask precisely what he meant by the term. Fortunately, Nicholas Gruen just chased down what Heckman means by ‘non-cognitive’. I had always thought it would be some objective measure of social skills or emotional intelligence. But it turns out that what Heckman calls ‘non-cognitive’ looks a lot like what most of us would call ‘self-esteem’. Over the fold, I’ve extracted the key questions used in the survey (from the appendix to Heckman’s main paper on the topic).

Table S27. Rotter Internal-External Locus of Control Scale
Question 1 (Rotter 1)
(a) What happens to me is my own doing.
(b) Sometimes I feel that I don’t have enough control over the direction my life is taking.
Question 2 (Rotter 2)
When I make plans,
(a) I am almost certain that I can make them work.
(b) It is not always wise to plan too far ahead, because many things turn out to be a matter of good or bad fortune anyhow.
Question 3 (Rotter 3)
(a) Getting what I want has little or nothing to do with luck.
(b) Many times we might just as well decide what to do by flipping a coin
Question 4 (Rotter 4)
(a) Many times I feel that I have little influence over the things that happen to me.
(b) It is impossible for me to believe that chance or luck plays an important role in my life.

Table S28. Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale
Question 1
I feel that I’m a person of worth, at least on an equal basis with others.
Question 2
I feel that I have a number of good qualities.
Question 3
All in all, I am inclined to feel that I am a failure.
Question 4
I am able to do things as well as most other people.
Question 5
I feel I do not have much to be proud of.
Question 6
I take a positive attitude toward myself.
Question 7
On the whole, I am satisfied with myself.
Question 8
I wish I could have more respect for myself.
Question 9
I certainly feel useless at times.
Question 10
At times I think I am no good at all.

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5 Responses to What's Non-Cognitive?

  1. Kevin Cox says:

    Very interesting. It is one of those things that when you read it you say – “thats obvious” because it fits into your own experience.

    Skill is still critical for success (where skill is defined by the ability to do a task). I wonder how much self esteem and persistence comes from the ability to do things well. (where well is defined by what is expected of you) I suspect there is a positive feedback in operation here and there is a carryover of the process from one skill to another.

    Problems seem to arise when we get this process out of sync. For example we come to believe we can’t do things because too much is expected of us. Or we come to believe we are better than we are because we can do small things well and assume we do not have to develop our skills. Perhaps what is important is having our skills development in sync and if the process is tuned to our abilities and stage of development then we will succeed.

  2. conrad says:

    He’s obviously not a cognitive psychologist. The first part looks like a scale looking at cognitive inhibition crossed with people’s ability to make decisions based on internal and external information (perhaps Kahneman would be pleased). Either that or its a scale measuring people’s confidence contaminated by the above two. I assume he didn’t get the Nobel prize for this scale.

  3. conrad says:

    Actually, given that you are talking about early intervention, I may as well ask here (I did at Troppo, but its down, and you might know better).

    I’m interested in early intervention for literacy (mainly reading). As far as I’m aware, there are no well run studies looking at any of the programs, despite huge amounts of money spent on them. Almost none use proper control group (and some don’t use controls at all), and most contain hyperbole about neuroscience stuff (which is pretty much meaningless in the context it is presented). There is also probably a fair amount of noise in the data (people make lots of money out of them, so I wouldn’t trust studies run by the money makers selling them), and null effects don’t get reported. I may have missed such studies when they have been done by governments (e.g., XX program in Finnish..). Does anyone know of such studies?

  4. Kevin Cox says:

    conrad’s comment poses an interesting question to me that perhaps an economist can answer.

    Much of the interesting stuff in this blog and in other “economist” writings has a lot to do with methods of analysis used by Economists and take Economic Measures as proving the worth or otherwise of some activity.

    Early intervention is a case in point. The justification for early intervention programs is given as the economic benefit that arises from the programs and the method that gives the greatest economic benefit is taken by economists to be “the best”.

    One way of viewing economic measures can be thought of as measures of consumption of goods and services provided by others. Hence if an early intervention program causes consumption to rise then it is deemed to be a success.

    However, if I came up with an early intervention program that resulted in outcomes where people obtained satisfaction from pursuing “internal” pursuits such as self expression for its own sake and less time in consuming goods and services then a Study by an economist would come to the conclusion that the high consumption intervention was superior while perhaps the rest of us might question this assumption.

    Perhaps this is why economist students appear to have a different world view?

  5. Verdurous says:


    Internal/external locus of control and “self-esteem” are associated but not the same thing. Internal locus and low self esteem probably frequently co-exist but I don’t think they are interchangeable as measures. One could conceive of a person have an external locus of control but having high self-esteem (say for example a deeply religious/fatalistic preacher).

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