The Potential of Survey-Effort Measures to Proxy for Relevant Character Skills: Findings from the Understanding America Study

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Event Type: 
Brown Bag
Date and Time: 
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
12:00 pm – 1:00 pm
Gema Zamarro
University of Arkansas

Though researchers now are aware of the potential importance of character skills, such as conscientiousness, grit, self-control, and a growth mindset, we struggle to find reliable measures of these skills. To date, three approaches have been proposed for obtaining measures of character skills: 1) Measures based on real-life behavioral outcomes such as student’s grades, absences, credits earned, disciplinary infractions, etc.; 2) Measures based on self-reports or observer reports of certain skills and 3) Measures derived from performance tasks, where individuals are asked to perform a specific, carefully designed task to provide meaningful differences in behaviors as indicative of their level of a given skill. However, information on real-life behavioral outcomes is seldom available for researchers. As a result, researchers mostly rely on data from self-reported psychometric scales, where participants are asked to answer a series of Likert-type items. Although relatively easy to collect, these type of self-reported measures have been shown to be affected by social desirability bias, reference group bias, and other threats to validity (Dobbie & Fryer, 2015; West et al., 2016). Though performance-task measures do not suffer from the same sources of biases than self-reports, they have limitations of their own. For instance, it is not always clear that artificial tasks completed in a lab setting are generalizable to other contexts. Nor is it clear that behavioral tasks capture the character skill that it purports to capture. Tasks are also generally very costly and difficult to collect in large samples. These limitations have generated calls to improve measurement of character skills (see, Duckworth and Yeager, 2015). Our research is motivated by this call. In this seminar, we present our results using data from the Understanding America Study (UAS) to study the potential of a new type of performance-task measure based upon three parameterizations of survey effort – item nonresponse, careless answering, and total nonresponse – to capture underlying character skills. We argue that survey questionnaires can be seen as tasks that require effort to complete and demonstrate that respondents reveal relevant information about their character skills through the effort that they exhibit to complete the questionnaires.