November 2020

IZA DP No. 13901: Cognitive Skills, Strategic Sophistication, and Life Outcomes

We investigate how childhood cognitive skills affect strategic sophistication and adult outcomes. In particular, we emphasize the importance of childhood theory-of-mind as a cognitive skill. We collected experimental data from more than seven hundred children in a variety of strategic interactions. First, we find that theory-of-mind ability and cognitive ability both predict level-k behavior. Second, older children respond to information about the cognitive ability of their opponent, which provides support for the emergence of a sophisticated strategic theory-of-mind. Third, theory-of-mind and age strongly predict whether children respond to intentions in a gift-exchange game, while cognitive ability has no influence, suggesting that different measures of cognitive skill correspond to different cognitive processes in strategic situations that involve understanding intentions. Using the ALSPAC birth-cohort study, we find that childhood theory-of-mind and cognitive ability are both associated with enhanced adult social skills, higher educational participation, better educational attainment, and lower fertility in young adulthood. Finally, we provide evidence that school spending improves theory-of-mind in childhood.