Amanda Chuan recently completed her third year in the Applied Economics PhD program at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include elements of labor and behavioral economics; specifically, the determinants of human capital investment and charitable giving decisions. She graduated with honors in 2011 from the University of Chicago with a dual BA in economics and biological sciences and will be attending this year’s Price Theory Summer Camp.
As you finish your third year in the Applied Economics PhD Program at Wharton, can you reflect back a bit on how you got here and how you became interested in economics?
As an undergraduate trying to decide on a major, I was actually leaning toward biology. I decided to take an economics class so I could feel good about ruling it out, and I’m grateful that I did. I thought economics was all about money and finance and credit cards, but it wasn’t what I expected at all. It’s so much more than that. When I took intermediate microeconomics at UChicago, I was hooked. We learned how to use mathematical models to explain behavior, and I knew immediately that this is what I wanted to do.
Since then, you have gone on in pursuit of an advanced degree in economics. Your portfolio of research projects is already quite impressive. Can you provide some insight into your research interests by elaborating on a couple of your studies?
In general, I’m very interested in how incentives shape behavior over time. Specifically, I am interested in two areas. The first is trying to understand what factors determine a person’s decision to behave generously. Professor Anya Samek and I explore this topic in a paper published in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. We ran a field experiment in which solicitors went door-to-door during the holiday season and asked individuals to donate to a homeless shelter. We attempted to make the act of giving more meaningful by randomly allowing some individuals the opportunity to write a personalized holiday card to the recipient of their gift. We expected giving amounts to increase as a result of this manipulation, but instead we found that the manipulation decreased the likelihood of donating among individuals who would have otherwise donated a small amount. It’s possible our manipulation increased the psychological cost of giving a little bit (below $5.00) relative to giving nothing at all for some individuals. Answering questions about the underlying motivation behind charitable giving can inform fundraising approaches for charity organizations.
My interest in shaping behavior began when I was an undergraduate research assistant running field experiments for Professor John List’s team. I worked on the Chicago Heights Early Childhood Center project, which focused on interventions geared towards improving preschool-aged children’s later life outcomes. One research question I found particularly intriguing was how to induce greater parental investment in their children’s education and the consequences of each of the various interventions. According to prior research, improving human capital investment at early ages among low-income families may have the most promising implications for reducing socio-economic inequality. Working on the Chicago Heights Early Childhood Center project allowed me to see first-hand how family resources shape a child’s conduct and outlook even at 3-4 years of age. It made me realize the importance of using economic research to determine effective ways to mitigate entrenched inequalities. I think it was that experience that cemented my resolution to pursue a graduate degree in economics.
My second area of active research is investigating human capital investment decisions. I try to answer questions like, why and how do parents invest in the education of their children? Why do women go to college at greater rates than men?
Specific to this question, social scientists have observed a shift in the ratio of men to women who attend college. Until the 1980’s, men outnumbered women in college enrollment rates; more recently women have dominated all levels of educational achievement – from high school graduation all the way to the PhD level. One traditional theory is that women have better non-cognitive abilities that help them advance in school, whereas men tend to be more impatient and rambunctious in childhood and adolescence. But, what if in addition, there exists differential demand for college based on gender? There has been a growing literature on this front, and I explore this possibility further in a working paper. If women demand college at greater rates than men, then maybe the gender inequality we observe in educational attainment is a function of preferences as well as of ability.
As a follow-on question regarding your work on gender and education, what has your personal experience been as a woman working in what seems to can be perceived as a historically male-dominated field?
I have been pleasantly surprised by the support that has been given to women, especially in business schools. Faculty have been incredibly supportive to doctoral students in general, and that’s irrespective of gender. Although economics is still male-dominated, a lot of other business science fields at Wharton have recently admitted more women than men. So it seems that there has been a steady, natural integration of women into academia and into economic research.
In a few weeks, you will be attending the Price Theory Summer Camp at your alma mater, the University of Chicago. What are your expectations for the camp, and what are you hoping to take away from it?
As an undergraduate, I worked for the Becker Friedman Institute, so I was able to attend a couple of the Price Theory Summer Camp sessions. I sat in on Kevin Murphy’s lecture on elasticity, and it blew my mind. It was the most eye-opening, world-changing 15 minutes I had experienced in my undergraduate career.
If other lectures at the Price Theory Camp are like that one, I am so excited to go. The University of Chicago has a very rigorous and well-defined approach to microeconomic theory, which is crucial to my work on incentives in the labor market and charitable giving. These folks think so deeply; I’m looking forward to their insights on how to more carefully measure incentives in different institutions and economic settings as well as how to construct incentives that may influence people’s decisions.
The Price Theory Summer Camp, offered under the auspices of the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics, is one of a host of summer research activities highlighted in this series.