James Heckman


principal investigator

James Heckman
Professor, Economics
Harris School of Public Policy
University of Chicago

James J. Heckman is currently the Henry Schultz Distinguished Service Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago where he has served since 1973 and where he directs the Economics Research Center and the Center for Social Program Evaluation at the Harris School. He is also the Professor of Science and Society in University College Dublin. He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the American Bar Foundation. His work has been devoted to the development of a scientific basis for economic policy evaluation, with special emphasis on models of individuals and disaggregated groups, and to the problems and possibilities created by heterogeneity, diversity, and unobserved counterfactual states. In the early 1990s, his pioneering research on the outcomes of people who obtain the GED certificate received national attention. His findings, which questioned the alleged benefits of the degree, spurred debates across the country on the merits of obtaining the certificate. His recent research focuses on human development and lifecycle skill formation, with a special emphasis on the economics of early childhood. His research has given policymakers important new insights into such areas as education, job-training programs, minimum-wage legislation, anti-discrimination law and civil rights.




Angela Lee Duckworth

Assistant Professor, Psychology
University of Pennsylvania

Gabriel Richardson Lear
Professor, Philosophy
Philosophy and Committee on Social Thought,
University of Chicago

William Wimsatt
Professor, Philosophy
Committee on Evolutionary Biology
Committee for the Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science
University of Chicago

The Virtue of Self-Control
This project will conduct interdisciplinary research in economics, philosophy, and psychology to advance understanding of the origins, consequences and development of self-control and its role in promoting virtue. The term “self-control” recognizes that people have conflicting goals and motives. Individuals with self-control pursue one goal and override desires to pursue distracting rival goals. If the goal pursued is worthy, self-control promotes virtue. The proposed research will produce a comprehensive framework for forumulating and evaluating economic and social policy with deeper psychological and ethical foundations than are traditional in economic analyses. It will develop a more comprehensive understanding of the origins and consequences of human differences. It will investigate the role of the family and the role of other social institutions in producing character and values.

"The Virtue of Self-Control" examined self-control from the perspectives of economics, philosophy, and psychology. Interdisciplinary conversation among team members led to the development of an analytic framework for self-control, defined as the tendency to act in accordance with more valued goals and standards in the face of less valued but more proximal, immediate, or salient rewards (i.e., temptations). This dialogue included (1) the exchange and discussion of discipline-specific scholarly articles among team members and (2) the engagement of colleagues outside the team in in-person meetings on the topic of self-control. During the first year, team members focused their energies on the development of common conceptual ground and, ultimately, the formalization of this shared understanding in the form of an analytic framework (summarized in Almlund, Duckworth, Heckman et al. [2011]). In finding common ground, team members had to articulate and defend basic concepts (e.g., definitions of “trait” and “virtue” and “beneficial”). This exercise led, in turn, to the explicit articulation of previously implicit theoretical assumptions and methodological traditions underpinning scholarly work in the disciplines of economics, philosophy, and self-control. Progress was slower than expected at the start of the project, and, indeed, the unforeseen magnitude of this aspect of the work was in a very real sense one of the great lessons of the project. Nonetheless, we developed a series of theoretical models to frame the questions. During the second year, empirical studies of self-control were undertaken to test the analytic framework developed in the first year. In addition, we conducted empirical studies establishing the power of education and parental interventions in shaping a variety of personality traits. Virtue was defined as a relatively stable and interrelated set of dispositions for feeling, thinking, and taking action that are admirable, beneficial to society, and widely applicable across diverse dimensions of an individual’s life. Self-control was specifically conceptualized as the tendency to act in accordance with higher-order preferences rather than lower-order preferences, where acting was broadly defined to include feeling and thinking, and tendency was defined as trait-like insofar as it entails stability across time in the absence of exogenous influence (e.g., deliberate intervention) and consistency across situation. Further, preferences were defined as goals (i.e., desired ends) valued by the individual, though not necessarily consciously. Consistent with an Aristotelean view of virtue, individuals were assumed to choose higher-order preferences (e.g., a healthy lifestyle) over lower-order preferences (e.g., a chocolate donut) when both were considered patiently and with reflection, though lower-order preferences were assumed to be more salient in the moment when they became available. The analytic framework proposed by this team posits three distinct but interacting psychological determinants of self-controlled behavior: capacities (e.g., metacognitive skills, executive function), information (e.g., beliefs and perceptual biases), and motivation (e.g., first-order and second-order preferences). In other words, what an individual does depends on what they can do, why they believe, and what they want and want to want. Further, in addition and in interaction with these person variables, situational influences profoundly influence behavior, primarily insofar as aspects of a situation will heighten or reduce the salience of various preferences.

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