Using Response Times to Measure Ability on a Cognitive Task

Image credit: Unsplash


I show how using response times as a proxy for effort can address a long-standing issue of how to separate the effect of cognitive ability on performance from the effect of motivation. My method is based on a dynamic stochastic model of optimal effort choice in which ability and motivation are the structural parameters. I show how to estimate these parameters from the data on outcomes and response times in a cognitive task. In a laboratory experiment, I find that performance on a digit-symbol test is a noisy and biased measure of cognitive ability. Ranking subjects by their performance leads to an incorrect ranking by their ability in a substantial number of cases. These results suggest that interpreting performance on a cognitive task as ability may be misleading.

Journal of the Economic Science Association