This paper argues that low-stakes test scores, available in surveys, may be partially determined by test-taking motivation, which is associated with personality traits but not with cognitive ability. Therefore, such test score distributions may not be informative regarding cognitive ability distributions. Moreover, correlations, found in survey data, between high test scores and economic success may be partially caused by favorable personality traits. To demonstrate these points, I use the coding speed test that was administered without incentives to National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY) participants. I suggest that due to its simplicity its scores may especially depend on individuals' test-taking motivation. I show that controlling for conventional measures of cognitive skills, the coding speed scores are correlated with future earnings of male NLSY participants. Moreover, the coding speed scores of highly motivated, though less educated, population (potential enlists to the armed forces) are higher than NLSY participants' scores. I then use controlled experiments to show that when no performance-based incentives are provided, participants' characteristics, but not their cognitive skills, affect effort invested in the coding speed test. Thus, participants with the same ability (measured by their scores on an incentivized test) have significantly different scores on tests without performance- based incentives.
Test Scores, Motivation, Cognitive Skills, Non-Cognitive Skills, Earnings
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