A full understanding of child development draws on knowledge from economics
and psychology. Both cognitive and noncognitive capabilities produce a variety of behaviors
and outcomes. An emerging literature relates psychological measurements of
personality and cognition to economic preference parameters and extends conventional
preference specifications in economics. Comparative advantage is an empirically important
feature of economic and social life. The same bundle of personal traits has different
productivity in different tasks, and people with different bundles sort into tasks
according to their comparative advantage.
Recent empirical work on the technology of capability formation provides an operational
empirical framework that captures these ideas (see Cunha and Heckman,
2009). Capabilities are not invariant traits and are causally affected by parental investment
and early social environments. Moreover, capabilities are not solely situational
specific. They are stable, but they evolve over the life cycle. Measures of capabilities
should standardize for the environments in which they are taken – a basic tenet of
science. Otherwise traits may appear to be unstable across situations (Borghans -
Duckworth - Heckman - ter Weel, 2008).
The technology of capability formation rationalizes a large body of evidence in
economics, psychology, and neuroscience. Capabilities are self-productive and crossproductive.
Synergies in the technology (2) explain why it is so productive to invest in
the cognitive skills of disadvantaged young children but why the payoffs are so low
for cognitive investments in disadvantaged older children and are even lower for disadvantaged
adults. There is no equity-efficiency trade-off for investment in the capabilities
of young disadvantaged children. There is a substantial equity-efficiency trade-off
for investment in the capabilities of older disadvantaged children. Later remediation
should focus on fostering noncognitive traits related to personality.