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Socioeconomic status and cognitive functioning: moving from correlation to causation



A growing body of cognitive research uses sophisticated behavioral and neuroimaging measurements to demonstrate associations between family socioeconomic status (SES) and specific cognitive functions. We argue for the value in these kinds of studies of increased sophistication in the measurement and modeling of SES. With regard to measurement, SES combines several components, each of which represents distinct resources that might benefit children's cognitive development in different ways. Policy implications of studies using omnibus SES composites are problematic because there are no ‘treatments’ for enhancing overall SES, although policies abound for enhancing specific components of SES such as family income. Past literature offers guidance regarding how best to measure each of the SES components. With regard to modeling, we point out that the manipulability of economic, educational, and occupational components of SES varies, which provides opportunities for generating experimental or quasi-experimental variation in some components but not others. Evidence on the causal connections between SES components and child outcomes is summarized. Both experimental and quasi-experimental studies involving manipulation of family income have demonstrated consistent associations with a number of cognitive measures. Quasi-experimental increases in maternal education have also shown associations with child achievement. We end with a discussion of useful directions in SES-related cognitive research. WIREs Cogn Sci 2012, 3:377–386. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1176

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