chapter  4
18 Pages

Cognitive ability I: Conceptual issues, stability and origins

Cognitive ability is an important concept in the social sciences, not only in psychology, but also in education, sociology and economics. In psychology, cognitive ability is a key concept involved in a range of mental processes, including problem solving, adaptation, comprehension, reasoning, knowledge acquisition, abstract thought, and the ability to make connections. The concept is important to education because of cognitive ability’s strong relationship with learning. During the 1970s, cognitive ability featured prominently in landmark publications in sociological studies on educational and subsequent socioeconomic attainments (Duncan et al. 1972; Jencks et al. 1972, 1979; Sewell and Hauser 1975: 91-100). In economics, the concept of ability is important to the central human capital relationship between education and earnings. In the wage equation, ability is the most prominent of the “unobservables” (or omitted variables).1 The return on human capital (i.e. the increase in earnings attributable to education) is understood to be overestimated in the absence of controls for ability, since ability influences earnings and is correlated with education.