Research Projects

My current fields of research are:
  1. Evolution of non-cognitive skills/preferences over the lifecourse;
  2. Quantifying the phenomenon of exceptional upward mobility with a special focus on (non-) cognitive skills and parenting behaviour;
  3. Methodological contributions to adjust for scaling bias in non-cognitive skill assessment.
The ultimate aim of my research is to improve a country's productivity by scoping talent from disadvantaged families.

Below you find a list of my ongoing research projects. Please visit my publications site for published papers.

1. Evolution of non-cognitive skills/preferences over the lifecycle

Early-life health interventions and early-life skill development. As part of a wider collaborative research project in which we link administrative data of all children born in the NT since 1994, we are evaluating whether increased health care at birth has long-term impacts on cognitive and non-cognitive skills at age 5 and school achievement until age 14.
  • Do health interventions at birth impact on human capital formation? Evidence from Australian linked administrative data (With Kevin Schnepel)
Education and personality change: Are personality traits malleable for adolescent and does university education boost personality traits such as conscientiousness and openness to experience? We find little evidence that university education boosts these traits, but university education bossts extraversion and agreeableness of children from low SES backgrounds.
  • Schurer, S., Kassenboehmer, S., Leung, F. (2016). University education and non-cognitive skill development. WORKING PAPER: HERE
  • Kassenboehmer, S., Schurer, S. (2016). Estimating the causal effect of education on non-cognitive skills and economic preferences
  • Schurer, S. (2016). Education and non-cognitive skill development in adolescence. Invited contribution by IZA World of Labor. 

Origins of adulthood personality in childhood: A large portion of adulthood personality is said to be determined genetically. However, this portion is only 40-60%, hence another 60-40% of the variation in adulthood personality is determined by shared and unique environmental factors. In this research project we are asking whether we can identify systematic differences in Age 30 personality traits for children who experienced different family environment and different health problems during adolescence? Are children who experienced sexual, verbal, and physical abuse more neurotic and less conscientious in adulthood? Are children who experience prolonged mental and physical health problems during adolescence more neurotic, less open to experience, and less conscientious?  (With Jason M. Fletcher, University of Wisconsin-Madison) 

A life-course perspective on personality change: I am also working on the evolution of non-cognitive skills (self-efficacy) over the lifecycle starting in childhood up until age 50, following the same individuals from birth into middle age. A special focus of this work will be to look at the long-term effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) on extreme manifestations of fatalistic beliefs. Joint with Honours student Tara Hariharan I am also examining the fragile evidence on the relationship between ACE and adulthood health outcomes, using the same data.
  • Schurer, S. (2016). Five facts on the evolution and determinants of locus of control over the lifecourse. 
  • Kassenboehmer, S., Schurer, S. (2016). The stability of adolescent personality traits
  • Hariharan, T., Schurer, S. (2016). Oliver's twisted tale: The fragile evidence on the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and adult health
Changing non-cognitive skills and economic preferences of at-risk patients: Evidence from a randomized control trial: In collaboration with the Boden Institute of Obesity (University of Sydney), we will be exploring the extent to which skills and preferences can be changed for an at-risk population when undergoing an intensive lifestyle treatment. We elicit risk and time preferences through experiments, and survey-based non-cognitive skills and vignettes at baseline, month 6 and month 12 follow-up. The intervention is currently underway, for more information see HERE
  • Economic preferences, non-cognitive skills and health outcomes: Protocol for a beahvioural economics component in a large-scale weight loss intervention with at-risk adults.  (With Rosemary Elkins, Agnieszka Tymula, Nicholas Fuller, and Ian Caterson)
  • Obesity and Economic Preferences (With Chiara Pastore and Agnieszka Tymula)

2. Exceptional Upward Mobility

As part of my ARC Fellowship, I have embarked on various projects that seek to quantify - what I call - exceptional upward mobility: Exceptionally upward mobile individuals are those who grew up in disadvantaged families and neighbourhoods but who achieved - against all odds - unexpected socioeconomic outcomes in adulthood. Some examples are for instance children whose father worked in a manual-unskilled profession but who became lawyers or university professors. The main idea of this line of research is to understand how much talent there is in disadvantaged families and whether this `talent' can be lost if left un-nurtured . The following projects are currently in preparation:

A country comparison: Quantifying the empirical distribution of exceptional upward mobility in four countries (Australia, Britain, Germany, and the US). This study is currently underway with my co-author Felix Leung (University of Sydney).

Identifying smart but disadvantaged children: Early signs of exceptional upward mobility - We measure how many children from disadvantaged backgrounds are achieving high levels of cognitive and socio-emotional functioning:

        a. Across generations (Britain) and the dynamics in this upward mobility from age 5 to 16 (With Daniel Kuehnle, University of Erlangen-Nurnberg)

  b. For two birth cohorts in Australia and the role of parenting behaviour in explaining this exceptional upward mobility (With Francisco Azpitarte, University of Melbourne, and Kirsten Hancock, Telethon Institute)

University readiness: How well are students who are the first in their families to go to university prepared for university life? Evidence from first-years students at a university in NSW? (With Rebecca Edwards and Colm Harmon) 

3. Methodological contributions

Using paradata to proxy for unobserved cognitive and non-cognitive skills: Can we measure the personality of an individual more objectively or with proxies if they are not observed at all? Can we use para data - a side product from the data-collection precess - to proxy for e.g. unobserved cognitive and non-cognitive skills? For a high-quality Australian dataset, we found that Fraction Answered in a self-completion questionnaire is a valid and strong proxy for cognitive test scores (which we happened to observe in our data, but which are often unobserved). We tested the performance of this proxy against a set of alternative proxies also derived from paradata. We find that the proxy Fraction Answered can reduce omitted-variable biased by up to 11%. WORKING PAPER: HERE.

Using vignettes to control for scaling bias in personality assessment: We are currently collecting data on first-year students from the University of Sydney on their personality, how they rate the personality of others, and their family background. We developed vignettes - i.e. hypothetical persons - whose personality the survey participants are asked to rate in a similar way as they are asked to rate their own personality. We use these vignettes to adjust for the high potential of reporting heterogeneity in personality assessments that rely on Likert scales. The survey is currently in the field. Visit our webpage HERE (With Rebecca Edwards and Colm Harmon in collaboration with Arie Kapteyn, University of Southern California).