Cognitive effort is a behaviour that is widely assumed to co-determine individual achievement. Understanding the socioeconomic gradient in effort is crucial to evaluating the degree of social mobility and allows for the improvement of equality of opportunity. Thus, the aim of the EFFORT project is to answer three research questions.


Research questions:

Descriptive component.

  1. To what extent do children’s effort levels differ by parental socioeconomic background?

Analytical component.

  1. Can existing disparities in effort by social background be explained by (a) the intergenerational transmission of effort from parents to children, and (b) varying motivations and differential susceptibility to incentives?

Methodological component.

  1. What are the best techniques to measure cognitive effort and what are the strengths and weaknesses of measures routinely used in different scientific disciplines?


Theoretical approach:

As Figure 1 illustrates, social origin influences attainment through both ability and effort. The effect on effort is likely mediated by subjective effort dispositions, such as locus of control and time preferences. The type of motivation also plays a key role, namely, whether children make an effort as a result of an external reward or because they are committed to the task itself. All of these factors are taken into consideration in the research design of the EFFORT project.

Figure 1: Conceptual model of effort and social mobility.


By applying cutting-edge methods whose potential had previosuly remained untapped, the EFFORT project has avoided methodological shortcomings present in the standard proxy measures for effort used in the social sciences. The innovative and state-of-the-art methods include real-effort tasks and psychophysiological techniques like pupillometry and heart-rate monitoring. The project team has conducted the experiment across 36 schools in Madrid and Berlin. Almost 1400 school-age children, and over two hundred parents, took part. Having gathered the data, the project is currently in the phase of analysing the results and publishing the findings.


Although experiments provide the most adequate measures of effort, large-scale surveys are representative of the whole population, and thus allow for an in-depth analysis of between-group differences. The following survey data sets have also been used in research carried out by the EFFORT team.


Secondary data sources:


The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a triennial international survey conducted among 15-year-old students, with the aim to evaluate education systems worldwide. The most recent wave included over half a million students in 72 countries.
The National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) is a German longitudinal study on the development of competencies, educational decisions, and returns to education, among others. With approximately 60,000 respondents interviewed annually, the survey ranges from newborns to adults.
The Socio-economic Panel (SOEP) is an annual longitudinal survey conducted in Germany, which has approximately 30,000 respondents from 11,000 private households, in which both parents and children (N3,000) are interviewed.
The Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) is a study that follows young Australians over 10 years, from their mid-teens to mid-twenties, as they move through school to further studies, work and beyond.


Firmly establishing the patterns and causes of social stratification in the distribution of effort as well as its inheritability will have a notable impact on debates about intergenerational mobility. We hope that the results will be applied to the design of education systems and pedagogical approaches, informing policies of social inclusion.



UC3M Carlos III University of Madrid (UC3M) is a public university in Madrid, Spain. According to QS World University Rankings, it is ranked 12th in Europe and 34th globally, among universities established in the last 50 years. Many of its undergraduate and master’s programs are ranked as the best in Spain.
The WZB Berlin Social Science Center is an internationally renowned research institute in Berlin, Germany. It is the largest social science research center in Europe not affiliated with a university. Approximately 150 scientists from the fields of sociology, political science, economics, and law work at the WZB.
UNED The National University of Distance Education (UNED) is a distance learning and research university, with campuses all over Spain. It offers undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, as well as non-degree qualifications. With over 200,000 students, UNED is the largest university in Spain and the second largest in Europe.


EFFORT is funded by the European Research Council (ERC) through the Starting Grant funding scheme.
Project ID: 758600
Principal Investigator: Jonas Radl
Host Institution: Carlos III University of Madrid
Execution period: March 1st, 2018 – August 31st, 2023

Read more here: Community Research and Development Information Service website.