1. Study suggests workers may ‘choke’ under pressure of non-monetary incentives

    October 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville press release:

    Competition for non-monetary awards can have adverse effects on performance and may cause employees to “choke” under pressure, according to a new study by a University of Arkansas economist.

    Raja Kali, professor of economics in the Sam M. Walton College of Business, and colleagues at HEC Montreal, a business school in Canada, examined the performance of elite U.S. golfers between 2006 and 2012 and found that players underperformed when trying to qualify for the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which does not compensate them for participating.

    The findings, published in the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, challenge historical findings indicating that non-monetary incentives like plaques, rings and “employee-of-the-year” competitions motivate employees to perform better.

    “In terms of broader impact or relevance to the way firms do business, these findings are important, because managers and firms in general probably do not realize that some non-monetary efforts to build morale or boost performance may not be helping,” Kali said. “In fact, they may be counterproductive.”

    The researchers focused on performances of elite golfers in PGA of America tournaments that qualified them for the Ryder Cup, the competition between U.S. and European golfers. Being part of an elite group of golfers and the opportunity to represent one’s country were identified as primary incentives for participating in the Ryder Cup.

    The Ryder Cup qualifying point system allocates a number of points to each PGA Tour tournament. During the qualifying period, which is typically two years, two editions of the same PGA Tour have a different value of Ryder Cup points. One year — the year previous to the Ryder Cup — there are few points, and the next year — the year of the Ryder Cup — there are many points, while all other aspects of the tournament are the same.

    The researchers’ strategy was to compare the performance of players across the same tournament in two subsequent years. By focusing on blocks of the PGA Tour tournament with similar economic incentives (prize money) but different glory incentives (Ryder Cup points), they could measure the effect of the latter.

    “We found significant evidence that the desire to attain glory — which, in this case, we defined as the effects of status, social esteem and respect — was a burden for player performance,” Kali said. “Furthermore, the players who underperformed the most were those who were in more desperate need of Ryder Cup points.”

    The researchers wanted to understand and add to the literature on non-monetary incentives, which are widely used by firms and are generally assumed to have a positive impact on worker performance. The new study is the first to examine non-monetary incentives in a competitive, entrepreneurial setting.

    It is also the first study to find evidence of diminished performance or failure — popularly referred to as “choking,” especially in the context of sports — when explicitly competing for non-monetary incentives.

    Choking under pressure, rather than risk-taking or intimidation by superstars, seems to be the reason behind underperformance, especially when the competitive pressure intensifies,” Kali said.


  2. Study looks at how economic factors affect parenting styles

    October 10, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Yale University press release:

    Settling on a parenting style is challenging. Is it better to be strict or more lenient? Have helicopter parents found the right approach to guiding their children’s choices?

    A new study co-authored by Yale economist Fabrizio Zilibotti argues that parenting styles are shaped by economic factors that incentivize one strategy over others.

    Zilibotti and co-author Matthias Doepke, a professor of economics at Northwestern University, assert in a paper published in the journal Econometrica that economic conditions, especially inequality and return to education, have influenced child-rearing strategy.

    “All parents want their children to succeed, and we argue that the economic environment influences their methods of childrearing,” said Zilibotti, the Tuntex Professor of International and Development Economics at Yale. “For instance, greater occupational mobility and lower inequality today makes an authoritarian approach less effective than generations ago. It’s not that parents spare the rod because they are more concerned about their children’s wellbeing now than they were 100 years ago. Rather, parenting strategies adapted to the modern economy.”

    Zilibotti and Doepke assert that parents are driven by a combination of altruism — a desire for their children to succeed — and paternalism that leads them to try to influence their children’s choices, either by molding their children’s preferences or restricting them. These motivations manifest in three parenting styles: A permissive style that affords children the freedom to follow their inclinations and learn from their own experiences; an authoritative style in which parents try to mold their children’s preferences to induce choices consistent with the parents’ notions of achieving success; and an authoritarian style in which parents impose their will on their children and control their choices.

    “There is an element of common interest between parents and children — a drive for success — but there is tension where parents care more about their children’s wellbeing as adults,” Zilibotti said. “We postulate that socioeconomic conditions drive how much control or monitoring parents exercise on their children’s choices.”

    The researchers apply their model across time periods and between countries. Parenting became more permissive in the 1960s and 1970s when economic inequality reached historic lows in industrialized countries and parents could realize a return on letting children learn from their own experiences, they argue. Across countries, they document a link between parenting, on the one hand, and income inequality and return to education, on the other hand. Using the World Value Survey, where people are asked which attitudes or values they find most important in child rearing, they identify permissive parents with those emphasizing the values of imagination and independence in rearing children, whereas authoritarian and authoritative parents are those who insist on the importance of hard work and obedience, respectively. They show that parents in more unequal countries are less permissive. The same pattern emerges when they consider redistributive policies. In countries with more redistributive taxation, more social expenditure, and even stronger civil right protection, parents are significantly more permissive.

    The researchers assert that their theory can help explain the recent rise of “helicopter parenting,” a version of the authoritative style in which parents seek to influence their children’s choices with a combination of persuasion and intensive monitoring. They argue that the style gained purchase in the United States as economic inequality increased, inducing a shift to more intensive parenting to strengthen children’s drive for achievement and prevent them from risky behaviors. Meanwhile, they argue, more permissive parenting remains popular in Scandinavian countries, where inequality is lower than it is in the United States.


  3. Wealth disparity and family income impact the brain development of female youth

    August 22, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care press release:

    Female teenagers living in neighbourhoods with wide salary gaps and a low-income household show changes to their brain maturation that could indicate a higher risk of developing mental illness in adulthood, suggests a recently published study by Canadian researchers.

    The research, led by Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute (RRI), found that female adolescents in these living situations showed a greater thinning in the brain’s cortical thickness (a measurement of the brain’s maturation), which may reflect higher exposure to stress. These findings, which were recently published in the Nature journal, Scientific Reports, could help predict the risk of youth developing a mental illness and contributes to a growing body of evidence that living in poverty disturbs brain development.

    “Our research illustrates how the social environment can influence brain development and why tackling public issues, such as income inequality, should be a priority,” says Dr. Tomáš Paus, RRI senior scientist and the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Chair and Professor of Population Neuroscience at the University of Toronto. “Wealth disparity and low family income may generate additional social stress on kids and this extra pressure could be changing the way their brain structure evolves.”

    Previous studies have demonstrated links between wage gaps and a person’s physical and mental health, but this is the first study to explore its relationship with brain development.

    “During adolescence, the brain is vulnerable to developing psychiatric disorders as it undergoes changes related to puberty, the social environment and academic demands,” says Dr. Paus. “The brain may be particularly sensitive to the influence of income inequality at this time.”

    The research analyzed data from 804 adolescents (between the ages of 12 to 18) a part of the Saguenay Youth Study, a multi-generational survey measuring a variety of health indicators among parents and their children. Teenagers were split into different groups based on their sex, household income and income inequality in their neighbourhoods, which was made available through the Canadian Census. Software was used to analyze cortical thickness and compare it with the expression of stress and sex-hormone genes.

    Researchers will continue to explore whether this relationship exists in countries known to have high and low gaps in wealth distribution, such as Brazil and Finland. Thanks to recent funding from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the team will also follow up with youth from the Saguenay study after ten years to see if they went on to develop mental illnesses.


  4. Study suggests exercise incentives do little to spur gym-going

    August 16, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Case Western Reserve University press release:

    Even among people who had just joined a gym and expected to visit regularly, getting paid to exercise did little to make their commitment stick, according to a new study from Case Western Reserve University.

    The rewards also had no lasting effect: gym visits stabilized after the modest incentives ended.

    Despite timing incentives to when people were already more motivated to exercise, the approach proved ineffective in initiating a healthy behavior that continues to elude most Americans: only 21 percent get a recommended amount of weekly exercise, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

    “They wanted to exercise regularly, and yet their behavior did not match their intent, even with a reward,” said Mariana Carrera, an assistant professor of economics at the Weatherhead School of Management and co-author of the study. “People thought earning the incentive would be easy but were way overoptimistic about how often they’d go.”

    In the study, new gym members intended to visit three times per week but ended up averaging one weekly visit by the end of the six-week study.

    Nearly 95 percent said they expected to visit the gym more than once per week. But by the end of the third month, only about a third had.

    The experiment

    For visiting the gym nine total times during the study (an average of 1.5 times per week), participants were promised one of three modest rewards: a $30 Amazon gift card; a prize item, such as a blender, of equivalent value; or a $60 Amazon gift card. A control group received a $30 Amazon gift card regardless of how often they visited. (The value of incentives was based on what gyms were likely to offer.)

    After the first week, 14 percent did not visit the gym again.

    Incentivized participants showed a slight increase in gym visits in the sixth week — their last chance to make enough visits to earn their prize. But overall, those given incentives made only 0.14 more visits per week than those promised no reward at all.

    Focusing on people when they’re ready to make a change may be misguided,” said Carrera. “Maybe the internal motivation that gets a person to start a gym membership is unrelated to what drives them to earn financial incentives. What’s clear was there was no complementarity in lumping these two motivations together.”

    The group promised the $60 gift card also did not visit the gym more often than those given the $30 gift card or prize.

    Researchers thought that selecting the prize item at the outset might create a sense of ownership and prove to be a more powerful motivator, because failing to hit the target visit rate might feel like a loss. However, while the item induced slightly more visits, the difference was insignificant.


  5. Study suggests inattention, poor memories shape inflation expectations

    August 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology press release:

    Do you know your country’s current inflation rate? What do you think it will be in the future? And how do you, personally, try to plan your finances accordingly?

    Those are important questions for economists and policymakers, because central bankers generally assess future expectations of inflation when setting interest rates. Yet as a new study co-authored by an MIT economist reveals, people have a haphazard approach to assessing inflation. Most citizens only pay attention to the topic intermittently, and they overestimate how bad inflation will become.

    Still, there is some good news in these findings, based on research in the U.S. and Argentina, countries that have very different experiences with inflation. Many people are “rationally inattentive” to inflation, as economists put it. That means an occasional focus on the subject may actually help people avoid overreactions to price blips.

    “There’s evidence of rational inattention,” says Alberto Cavallo, the Douglas Drane Associate Professor in Information Technology and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and a co-author of the study. “People are paying attention when they need to.”

    And now for the bad news.

    People have terrible memories,” Cavallo says. “Even in a place like Argentina, which has so much inflation, where this is so important to correctly estimate, people have no clue what past prices were. They tended to think past prices were much lower than they were, so they thought inflation was much higher than it is.” Overall, Cavallo adds, “There is often an upward bias in inflation expectations.”

    The paper, “Inflation Expectations, Learning, and Supermarket Prices,” appears in the newest issue of the American Economic Journal: Macroeconomics. In addition to Cavallo, the authors are Guillermo Cruces of the National University of La Plata, in Argentina, and Ricardo Perez-Truglia of the University of California at Los Angeles.

    Statistics vs. store prices

    The study derives its findings from a series of online and offline surveys in both the U.S. and Argentina — in some cases conducted right after people have gone shopping in supermarkets.

    The two countries were chosen as sites for the study precisely because of their contrasting inflation histories. The U.S. inflation rate was 1.8 percent over the five years before the study, while in Argentina the inflation rate was 22.5 percent. That helped the scholars to examine what effect the experience of high or low inflation may have.

    The study produced multiple results. The researchers found that people in Argentina do tend to have absorbed more information about inflation than people in the U.S. — and as a consequence, they have more firmly entrenched ideas about the subject. For instance, respondents in the survey placed quite different amounts of emphasis on how much that new information would affect their views.

    In the U.S., people assigned a weight of just 15 percent to prior beliefs when it came to making assessments about future inflation; in Argentina, people assigned a weight of about 50 percent to their prior beliefs.

    “I think there’s good evidence in the paper that countries with higher inflation rates historically have people paying more attention, and thus stronger priors,” Cavallo says.

    That also fits with the notion on “rational inattention,” since in the U.S., where inflation rates are lower and more stable, people can afford to have accumulated less information about the subject in the past.

    “In the U.S., if inflation is 2 or 3 percent, it won’t change dramatically, and you are not affected too much,” Cavallo explains. “In Argentina, knowing what the inflation rate will be in the future is key for your salary. If it’s going to be 30 percent or 15 percent, that question becomes much more important.”

    It is also the case that people pay more attention to select prices they personally encounter, not to aggregate inflation statistics, even if the larger data sets may be a better guide to overall prices. Based on a series of questions to consumers, the researchers found that people are willing to give specific supermarket prices more weight in their inflation expectations, compared to the aggregate (but more abstract) data.

    “Within each country, we found people react more to the information of individual products,” Cavallo notes.

    Additionally, the study found, in the U.S., 29 percent of the variation in inflation expectations is due to perceptions of past inflation, whereas in Argentina, 60 percent of the variation in expectations stems from perceptions. Meaning: People’s memories of past inflation vary widely.

    As Cavallo observes, this could be a defense mechanism deployed by some people, since expectations tend to overshoot actual inflation increases.

    “In a country like Argentina with high inflation, it’s better to have an upward bias,” he says. “It’s a protective mechanism to think things are going to be worse than they actually are.”

    Great expectations

    The current paper is related to an extended series of studies Cavallo and his colleagues have undertaken on inflation. Cavallo and MIT Sloan economist Roberto Rigobon are co-founders of the MIT-based Billion Prices Project, an innovative program launched several years ago that tracks prices in real time, partly as a way of evaluating the accuracy of official inflation statistics.

    The current papers bears on the practices of monetary policy — the interest rates set by central banks. The so-called “real” interest rate consumers grapple with is a combination of the listed interest rates of lenders as well as inflation expectations.

    If people expect inflation to be higher than interest rates, they will — in theory, at least — be more likely to buy products now, averting future inflation, rather than depositing money at low rates. In turn, that behavior could have significant macroeconomic effects.

    Cavallo thinks the current study can help clarify for policymakers how people sort through information and shape their expectations in the first place.

    “One policy implication is that governments can provide [people] either better aggregate statistics or better individual examples,” Cavallo says. “I think they should … make sure they communicate clearly to consumers [and] speak about goods that are important. We’re basically seeing how much people learn from the information we give them.”


  6. Academic motivation suffers when economic mobility seems out of reach

    July 29, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Northwestern University press release:

    New studies from Northwestern University show that high school and college students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds are much less motivated to overcome academic hardships when they have doubts about the likelihood of people from their backgrounds achieving upward mobility.

    The new studies extend previous research demonstrating that low-SES students who see education as a viable path to upward mobility are more inclined to succeed in their educational pursuits despite the numerous academic barriers facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    “Prior research has shown that students from low-SES backgrounds are motivated to persist during difficult academic experiences when they feel school can concretely contribute to future socioeconomic success,” said Alexander Browman, lead author of the studies and a recent Ph.D. graduate in psychology from the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern. “Our new studies extend this work by showing that this motivational pathway can be affected by whether or not they feel that that goal of achieving socioeconomic mobility is ultimately possible in the society in which they live.”

    In three studies, the researchers either measured students’ beliefs about how attainable mobility was in their society or presented them with information that suggested that mobility was more or less likely to occur in their society. They found that students from lower-SES backgrounds who had or were led to hold doubts about the likelihood of mobility were less inclined to persist when they faced academic difficulty.

    The authors highlight that these findings suggest new potential intervention strategies for motivating students to persist when they experience difficulty at school.

    At the same time, they emphasize that their results do not imply that low-SES students who underperform do so simply because they hold misguided beliefs about mobility that can be casually corrected.

    “The belief among some low-SES youth and young adults that mobility is unrealistic in their society is likely deep-seated, resulting from a lifetime of concrete experiences that cast doubt upon the plausibility that people from their background can experience mobility in that society,” Browman said. “What this implies is that in order to promote meaningful sustained academic effort, researchers, educators and policymakers should consider what sorts of systemic changes to the educational environment might provide these students with concrete routes to mobility that are viable for students from their backgrounds.”


  7. Study suggests faces can reveal economic status

    July 27, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Toronto press release:

    Put on a happy face, your success may depend on it, suggests a study by psychology researchers at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts and Science.

    In a new twist on first impressions, the study found people can reliably tell if someone is richer or poorer than average just by looking at a “neutral” face, without any expression.

    People also use those impressions in biased ways, such as judging the rich faces more likely than the poor ones to be hired for a job, says the paper by Associate Professor Nicholas Rule and PhD candidate Thora Bjornsdottir in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

    “It indicates that something as subtle as the signals in your face about your social class can actually then perpetuate it,” says Bjornsdottir. “Those first impressions can become a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s going to influence your interactions, and the opportunities you have.”

    Just as interestingly, the researchers found the ability to read a person’s social class only applies to their neutral face and not when people are smiling or expressing emotions.

    Their conclusion is that emotions mask life-long habits of expression that become etched on a person’s face even by their late teens or early adulthood, such as frequent happiness, which is stereotypically associated with being wealthy and satisfied.

    “Over time, your face comes to permanently reflect and reveal your experiences,” says Rule. “Even when we think we’re not expressing something, relics of those emotions are still there.”

    Using an annual median family income of about $75,000 as a benchmark, the researchers grouped student volunteers into those with total family incomes under $60,000 or above $100,000 and then had them pose for photos with neutral faces devoid of expression.

    They then asked a separate group of participants to look at the photos and, using nothing but their gut instinct, decide which ones were “rich or poor” just by looking at the faces. They were able to determine which student belonged to the rich or poor group with about 53 per cent accuracy, a level that exceeds random chance.

    “What we’re seeing is students who are just 18-22 years old have already accumulated enough life experience that it has visibly changed and shaped their face to the point you can tell what their socio-economic standing or social class is,” says Rule.

    The results were not affected by the race or gender of the face, or how much time people were given to study them. All of which is consistent with what is known about nonverbal behaviour.

    “There are neurons in the brain that specialize in facial recognition. The face is the first thing you notice when you look at somebody,” says Rule.

    “We see faces in clouds, we see faces in toast. We are sort of hardwired to look for face-like stimuli. And this is something people pick up very quickly. And they are consistent, which is what makes it statistically significant.”

    “People are not really aware of what cues they are using when they make these judgments,” says Bjornsdottir. “If you ask them why, they don’t know. They are not aware of how they are doing this.”

    The study of social classes as an undercurrent in psychology and behaviour is getting more recognition, says Rule. And with 43 muscles concentrated in a relatively small area, facial cues are one of the most intriguing areas in this field.

    “People talk about the cycle of poverty, and this is potentially one contributor to that,” says Rule.

    He says the next step might be to study older age groups to see if the patterns of facial cues become even more apparent to people over time.


  8. Generous people live happier lives

    July 20, 2017 by Ashley

    From the University of Zürich press release:

    Generosity makes people happier, even if they are only a little generous. People who act solely out of self-interest are less happy. Merely promising to be more generous is enough to trigger a change in our brains that makes us happier. This is what UZH neuroeconomists found in a recent study.

    What some have been aware of for a long time, others find hard to believe: Those who are concerned about the well-being of their fellow human beings are happier than those who focus only on their own advancement. Doing something nice for another person gives many people a pleasant feeling that behavioral economists call a warm glow. In collaboration with international researchers, Philippe Tobler and Ernst Fehr from the Department of Economics at the University of Zurich investigated how brain areas communicate to produce this feeling. The results provide insight into the interplay between altruism and happiness.

    Even a little generosity makes people happier

    In their experiments, the researchers found that people who behaved generously were happier afterwards than those who behaved more selfishly. However, the amount of generosity did not influence the increase in contentment. “You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice,” says Philippe Tobler.

    Before the experiment started, some of the study participants had verbally committed to behaving generously towards other people. This group was willing to accept higher costs in order to do something nice for someone else. They also considered themselves happier after their generous behavior (but not beforehand) than the control group, who had committed to behaving generously toward themselves.

    Intent alone suffices to cause neural changes

    While the study participants were making their decision to behave or not to behave generously, the researchers examined activity in three areas of the participants’ brains: in the temporoparietal junction (where prosocial behavior and generosity are processed), in the ventral striatum (which is associated with happiness), and in the orbitofrontal cortex (where we weigh the pros and cons during decision-making processes). These three brain areas interacted differently, depending on whether the study participants had committed to generosity or selfishness.

    Simply promising to behave generously activated the altruistic area of the brain and intensified the interaction between this area and the area associated with happiness. “It is remarkable that intent alone generates a neural change before the action is actually implemented,” says Tobler.

    Benefit from the promise to behave generously

    “Promising to behave generously could be used as a strategy to reinforce the desired behavior, on the one hand, and to feel happier, on the other,” says Tobler. His co-author Soyoung Park adds: “There are still some open questions, such as: Can communication between these brain regions be trained and strengthened? If so, how? And, does the effect last when it is used deliberately, that is, if a person only behaves generously in order to feel happier?”

    About the experiment

    At the beginning of the experiment, the 50 participants were promised a sum of money that they would receive in the next few weeks and were supposed to spend. Half of the study participants committed to spending the money on someone they knew (experimental group, promise of generosity), while the other half committed to spending the money on themselves (control group).

    Subsequently, all of the study participants made a series of decisions concerning generous behavior, namely, whether to giving somebody who is close to them a gift of money. The size of the gift and the cost thereof varied: One could, for example, give the other person five francs at a cost of two francs. Or give twenty francs at a cost of fifteen. While the study participants were making these decisions, the researchers measured activity in three brain areas: in the temporoparietal junction, where prosocial behavior and generosity are processed; in the ventral striatum, which is associated with happiness; and in the orbitofrontal cortex, where we weigh the pros and cons during decision-making processes. The participants were asked about their happiness before and after the experiment.


  9. Knowing more about economic gains makes people less cooperative

    July 15, 2017 by Ashley

    From the WZB Berlin Social Science Center press release:

    Existing research suggesting that humans cooperate if they know more about their own payoffs has been rebutted: In the long run, access to information about payoff distributions leads to less cooperative behavior, finds a recent study in Nature Communications by Steffen Huck, Johannes Leutgeb (both WZB Berlin Social Science Center) and Ryan Oprea (University of California, Santa Barbara). The study also shows that knowledge about earning possibilities leads to smaller earnings in the long-run.

    In their research, Huck et al. looked at the learning behavior of humans who interact in a competitive economic environment. In an experiment, the researchers assigned participants randomly into 18 pairs and instructed them to play a simple computer game with their counterparts for 600 periods. After each round, participants won points which at the end of the game could be exchanged into real money.

    The researchers formed two groups of pairs: While in the first group (A) participants after each round only received information on which action the opponent player had chosen and how much points each player had gained, the second group (B) had access to more elaborate information: here, participants could see the potential payoffs they could have achieved through taking other actions. With the help of this information, participants of the second group could maximize their short-term gains much more easily than the participants in the first group.

    Players in group A, lacking further information, first applied simple strategies to choose their actions, e.g. by imitating the more successful choices of their counterparts. Over time, however, players in this group leaned towards more cooperative strategies, such as matching the counterpart’s action regardless of payoffs. Players in group B, on the contrary, held on to a strategy of maximizing their short-term profit by picking the best action against their opponent’s current action.

    As a result, participants with no access to payoff information were not only much more cooperative, they also generated significantly higher economic gains in the long-run: Median earnings in group A were 50% higher than in group B.

    These results show that payoff information is an advantage only in the short run but hampers the learning necessary to establish more successful cooperation between humans in the long run. Study leader Steffen Huck concludes: “Systems that focus human attention on short term gains, for example through large annual bonus payments, may have similar adverse side effects. Our research shows that human cooperation is not mainly driven by rational calculation, but rather by simple heuristics. Good organisations should foster these cooperative modes of behavior rather than highlight possibilities for higher individual earnings.”

    The study “Payoff information hampers the evolution of cooperation” by Steffen Huck, Johannes Leutgeb and Ryan Oprea was published in the journal Nature Communications.


  10. MRI study links socioeconomic background to effectiveness of reading interventions

    June 26, 2017 by Ashley

    From the Massachusetts Institute of Technology press release:

    About 20 percent of children in the United States have difficulty learning to read, and educators have devised a variety of interventions to try to help them. Not every program helps every student, however, in part because the origins of their struggles are not identical.

    MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli is trying to identify factors that may help to predict individual children’s responses to different types of reading interventions. As part of that effort, he recently found that children from lower-income families responded much better to a summer reading program than children from a higher socioeconomic background.

    Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the research team also found anatomical changes in the brains of children whose reading abilities improved — in particular, a thickening of the cortex in parts of the brain known to be involved in reading.

    “If you just left these children [with reading difficulties] alone on the developmental path they’re on, they would have terrible troubles reading in school. We’re taking them on a neuroanatomical detour that seems to go with real gains in reading ability,” says Gabrieli, the Grover M. Hermann Professor in Health Sciences and Technology, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, a member of MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research, and the senior author of the study.

    Rachel Romeo, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology, and Joanna Christodoulou, an assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at the Massachusetts General Hospital Institute of Health Professions, are the lead authors of the paper, which appears in the journal Cerebral Cortex.

    Predicting improvement

    In hopes of identifying factors that influence children’s responses to reading interventions, the MIT team set up two summer schools based on a program known as Lindamood-Bell. The researchers recruited students from a wide income range, although socioeconomic status was not the original focus of their study.

    The Lindamood-Bell program focuses on helping students develop the sensory and cognitive processing necessary for reading, such as thinking about words as units of sound, and translating printed letters into word meanings.

    Children participating in the study, who ranged from 6 to 9 years old, spent four hours a day, five days a week in the program, for six weeks. Before and after the program, their brains were scanned with MRI and they were given some commonly used tests of reading proficiency.

    In tests taken before the program started, children from higher and lower socioeconomic (SES) backgrounds fared equally poorly in most areas, with one exception. Children from higher SES backgrounds had higher vocabulary scores, which has also been seen in studies comparing nondyslexic readers from different SES backgrounds.

    “There’s a strong trend in these studies that higher SES families tend to talk more with their kids and also use more complex and diverse language. That tends to be where the vocabulary correlation comes from,” Romeo says.

    The researchers also found differences in brain anatomy before the reading program started. Children from higher socioeconomic backgrounds had thicker cortex in a part of the brain known as Broca’s area, which is necessary for language production and comprehension. The researchers also found that these differences could account for the differences in vocabulary levels between the two groups.

    Based on a limited number of previous studies, the researchers hypothesized that the reading program would have more of an impact on the students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. But in fact, they found the opposite. About half of the students improved their scores, while the other half worsened or stayed the same. When analyzing the data for possible explanations, family income level was the one factor that proved significant.

    “Socioeconomic status just showed up as the piece that was most predictive of treatment response,” Romeo says.

    The same children whose reading scores improved also displayed changes in their brain anatomy. Specifically, the researchers found that they had a thickening of the cortex in a part of the brain known as the temporal occipital region, which comprises a large network of structures involved in reading.

    “Mix of causes”

    The researchers believe that their results may have been different than previous studies of reading intervention in low SES students because their program was run during the summer, rather than during the school year.

    “Summer is when socioeconomic status takes its biggest toll. Low SES kids typically have less academic content in their summer activities compared to high SES, and that results in a slump in their skills,” Romeo says. “This may have been particularly beneficial for them because it may have been out of the realm of their typical summer.”

    The researchers also hypothesize that reading difficulties may arise in slightly different ways among children of different SES backgrounds.

    “There could be a different mix of causes,” Gabrieli says. “Reading is a complicated skill, so there could be a number of different factors that would make you do better or do worse. It could be that those factors are a little bit different in children with more enriched or less enriched environments.”

    The researchers are hoping to identify more precisely the factors related to socioeconomic status, other environmental factors, or genetic components that could predict which types of reading interventions will be successful for individual students.

    “In medicine, people call it personalized medicine: this idea that some people will really benefit from one intervention and not so much from another,” Gabrieli says. “We’re interested in understanding the match between the student and the kind of educational support that would be helpful for that particular student.”