Pietro Biroli

Who: I am an assistant professor of economics

What: My research fields are health economics, social science genomics, and applied micro.

Where: I am in the department of economics at the University of Zurich and affiliated to the UBS Center for Economics in Society.

Why: Fore more info, you can contact me at pietro.biroli [at] econ.uzh.ch

My google scholar profile and my ORCid

My twitter @pietrobiroli

I will be on the job market in 2021

Research interests

My research focuses on the early origins and life cycle evolution of health and human capital. I explore the importance of genetics, family investment, and public interventions in explaining health and economic inequality.

With my work I aim to understand the mechanisms through which effective policy interventions and optimal choices of investment can help mitigate innate inequalities and promote health and human capital development.


Biroli, P., Boneva, T., Raja, A., Rauh, C. (Forthcoming). Parental Beliefs about Returns to Child Health Investments. Journal of Econometrics.

(IZA working paper)

Baranov, V., Bhalotra, S., Biroli, P., & Maselko, J. (2020). Maternal Depression, Women’s Empowerment, and Parental Investment: Evidence from a Randomized Controlled Trial. American Economic Review, 110 (3): 824-59.

(IZA working paper, data and code, slides, Media: The Guardian, The Economist, AER Highlights)

Maselko, J., Hagaman, A. K., Bates, L. M., Bhalotra, S., Biroli, P., Gallis, J. A., O'Donnel, K., Sikander, S., Rahman, A. (2019). Father involvement in the first year of life: Associations with maternal mental health and child development outcomes in rural Pakistan. Social Science & Medicine, 112421.

(media: Altmetric)

Karlsson Linnér, R., Biroli, P., Kong, E., Meddens, S. F. W., Wedow, R., Fontana, M. A., … Beauchamp, J. P. (2019). Genome-wide association analyses of risk tolerance and risky behaviors in over 1 million individuals identify hundreds of loci and shared genetic influences. Nature Genetics, 1.

(bioRxiv working paper, sumstats, media: Altmetric)

Biroli, P., Del Boca, D., Heckman, J. J., Heckman, L. P., Koh, Y. K., Kuperman, S., Mokdan, S, Pronzazo, C. D., Ziff, A. L. (2018). Evaluation of the Reggio Approach to Early Childhood Education. Research in Economics, 72(1), 1–32.

(IZA working paper, appendix, code. media: PlumX)

Biroli, P., Mourre, G., & Turrini, A. (2013). The adjustment mechanism in the Euro Area. Intereconomics, 48(3), 159–166.

Buti, M., Turrini, A., van den Noord, P., & Biroli, P. (2010) Reforms and Re-elections in OECD Countries. Economic Policy, 25(61), 61–116.

Buti, M., Turrini, A., van den Noord, P., & Biroli, P. (2009). “Defying the ‘Juncker Curse’: Can Reformist Governments Be Re-elected?” Empirica, 36(1), 65–100.

Working Papers

Effectiveness of a peer-delivered, psychosocial intervention on maternal depression and child development at 3 years of age: a cluster randomized trial in Pakistan, Forthcoming Lancet Psychiatry

with Joanna Maselko and Siham Sikander, Elizabeth L. Turner, Lisa M. Bates, Ikhlaq Ahmad, Najia Atif, Victoria Baranov, Sonia Bhalotra, Amina Bibi, Tayyaba Bibi, Samina Bilal, Esther Chung, John A. Gallis, Ashley Hagaman, Anam Jamil, Katherine LeMasters, Karen O’Donnell, Elissa Scherer, Maria Sharif, Ahmed Waqas, Ahmed Zaidi, Shaffaq Zulfiqar, & Atif Rahman

Abstract: Maternal depression has a recurring course that can influence offspring outcomes. There is limited evidence about how to treat maternal depression to reduce intergenerational transmission of psychopathology using task-shifted, low-intensity scalable psychosocial interventions. We sought to fill this gap, evaluating the effects of a peer-delivered psychosocial depression intervention on maternal depression and child development at 3 years of age.

Investigating the Genetic Architecture of Non-Cognitive Skills Using GWAS-by-Subtraction, R&R Nature Genetics (bioRxiv working paper, FAQ, code tutorial, sumstats, media: Altmetric)

with Demange, P. , Malanchini, M., Biroli P., Cox, S., Grotzinger, A.D., Mallard, T., Tucker-Drob E.M., Abdellaoui A., Arseneault, L., Caspi, A., Corcoran, D., Domingue B., Mitchell C., van Bergen E., Boomsma D.I., Harris K.M. Ip H.F., Moffitt, T.E., Poulton, R., Prinz, J., Karen Sugden, K., Wertz J., Williams, B., de Zeeuw E.L. , Belsky D.W., Harden K.P., Nivard M. G.

Abstract: Educational attainment (EA) is influenced by cognitive abilities but also by other characteristics and traits, but little is known about the genetic architecture of these “non-cognitive” contributions to educational attainment. Here, we use Genomic Structural Equation Modelling and prior GWASs of EA (N = 1,131,881) and cognitive test performance (N = 257,841) to estimate SNP associations with variation in EA that is independent of cognitive ability. We identified 157 genome-wide significant loci and a polygenic architecture accounting for 57% of genetic variance in educational attainment. Phenotypic and bioinformatic annotation revealed (1) both cognitive and non-cognitive contributions to EA were genetically correlated to socioeconomic success and longevity; and (2) and non-cognitive contributions to EA were related to personality, decision making, and risk-behavior phenotypes; but (3) were also associated with increased risk for psychiatric disorders; (4) non-cognitive and cognitive contributions to EA were enriched in the same tissues and cell types and (5) showed different associations white- and gray-matter neuroimaging phenotypes.

Family Life In Lockdown (HCEO working paper)

with Steven J. Bosworth, Marina Della Giusta, Amalia Di Girolamo, Sylvia Jaworska, Jeremy Vollen

Abstract: The lockdown imposed following the COVID-19 pandemic of spring 2020 dramatically changed the daily lives and routines of millions of people worldwide. We analyse how such changes contributed to gender inequality within the household using a novel survey of Italian, British, and American families in lockdown. A high percentage report disruptions in the patterns of family life, manifesting in new work patterns, chore allocations, and household tensions. Though men have taken an increased share of childcare and grocery shopping duties, reallocations are not nearly as stark as disruptions to work patterns might suggest, and families having to reallocate duties report greater tensions. Our results paint a picture of tightened constraints budging up against stable and gendered patterns of intra-household cooperation. While the long-run consequences of the COVID-19 lockdown on family life cannot be assessed at this stage, we point towards the likely opportunities and challenges.

Genetics and Health Insurance: How Genes and Insurance Status Affect Smoking Decisions after Health Shocks

with Laura Zwyssig

Abstract: The determinants of healthy behaviors are complex and multifaceted, and include both biological factors, such as genetic predispositions, as well as environmental factors, such as financial liquidity and health insurance status. We show how the choice of smoking after a serious health shock is jointly determined by the interaction between these biological and environmental components. We find that genetic predispositions can offset the financial incentives for smoking cessation. These results suggest that genetic heterogeneity is a factor that should be considered when evaluating the importance of health insurance policies.

Genes, Pubs, and Drinks: Gene-environment interplay and alcohol licensing policy in the United Kingdom.

with Christian Zünd

Abstract: Are we genetically destined to behave poorly, or can a well-designed policy and a nurturing environment prevail over our instincts? This paper analyzes the interplay of public policy and individuals' genetic endowments, demonstrating how people's genetic propensity to drink moderates their consumption behavior in response to changes in alcohol availability and licensing policy. We combine data from the UK Biobank with geo-coded data on pubs and retailers, as well as data on alcohol licensing from local authorities in England and Wales. This allows us to construct a fine-grained measure of local alcohol availability for each one of the approximately 500,000 participants in the UK Biobank. Our results show that individuals with a high genetic propensity to drink select into environments with easier access to alcohol, react less to changes in the availability of alcohol, and respond less to restrictive licensing. Thus, we show that supply-focused licensing policy to mitigate alcohol abuse can clash with individual predispositions and might exacerbate genetic inequality, suggesting the need for a more targeted approach.

Cognition, personality, and in-group favouritism among children

with Amalia Di Girolamo, Michalis Drouvelis, Matteo Pinna

Abstract: Understanding the forces determining social preferences is a central topic in the behavioural and the social sciences. In this paper, we focus on how IQ and Big-5 personality traits relate to the development of children’s cooperative behaviour, either in-group (class peers) or out-group (school peers). In a lab-in-the-field prisoner dilemma experiment with elementary school children aged 7-11, we find that the average cooperation rate is 9.7 percentage points higher for in-group vs out-group. Children with high IQ are 42 percentage points less likely to cooperate with outsiders. Conscientious, extrovert, and open to experience children are also 14 to 20 percentage points less likely to cooperate with outsiders. In-group favouritism is not constant over the ages but develops in children starting from about age 10, suggesting that social preferences and group identity are acquired over time and not necessarily an innate behaviour.

Childhood socioeconomic status moderates genetic predispositions for peak smoking (bioRxiv working paper)

with Laura Bierut, Titus Galama, and Kevin Thom

Abstract: Smoking is the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S., and it is strongly influenced both by genetic predisposition and childhood socioeconomic status (SES). Using genetic variants exhibiting credible and robust associations with smoking, we construct polygenic risk scores (PGS) and evaluate whether childhood SES mediates genetic risk in determining peak-cigarette consumption in adulthood. We find a substantial protective effect of childhood SES for those genetically at risk of smoking: adult smokers who grew up in high-SES households tend to smoke roughly the same amount of cigarettes per day at peak (~23 for low and ~25 for high genetic risk individuals, or about 8% more), while individuals from low-SES backgrounds tend to smoke substantially more if genetically at risk (~25 for low and ~32 for high genetic risk individuals, or about 28% more).

Genetic and Economic Interaction in Health Formation: The Case of Obesity. (working paper)

Abstract: Small genetic differences at birth confer a comparative advantage in health and human capital formation, and can lead to substantial inequality in long term social and economic outcomes. I develop a structural model of health and human capital formation illustrating the dynamic interaction between genetic inheritance and investments in health over the life cycle. Genetic heterogeneity across individuals can change the utility cost of investment and the production function of health, shifting the incentives to invest in healthy habits. Focusing on Body-Mass-Index (BMI) as a measure of poor health, I consider physical activity and food intake as investments in health, and I evaluate their interaction with specific variants in FTO and other genes associated with BMI in Genome-Wide Association Studies. Applying this model in two different datasets, one of British adolescents and one of US adults, I find that Gene-Environment interaction plays a pivotal role in the evolution of BMI. Food intake has a stronger impact on BMI for those individuals with a particular genetic makeup, and yet they tend to display a higher demand for food. The association of variants in the FTO gene with the hypothalamic regulation of food intake gives a biological foundation to the observed differences in healthy investments. This analysis provides an economic framework of health and human capital formation that integrates recent findings in genetics and molecular biology and sheds light on the interdependence between genes and economic choices of investment.

Health and Skill Formation in Early Childhood (UBS wp)

Abstract:This paper analyzes the developmental origins and the evolution of health, cognitive, and noncognitive skills during early childhood, from age 0 to 5. We explicitly model the dynamic interactions of health with the child's behavior and cognitive skills, as well as the role of parental investment. A dynamic factor model corrects for the presence of measurement error in the proxy for the latent traits. Using data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), we find that children's capabilities strongly interact and build on each other: health is an important determinant of early noncognitive development; in turn noncognitive skills have a positive impact on the evolution of both health and cognitive functions; on the other side, the effect of cognitive abilities on health is negligible. Furthermore, all facets of human capital display a high degree of persistence. Finally, mother's investments are an important determinant of the child's health, cognitive, and noncognitive development early in life.

Work in Progress

Gender Differences in Cognitive Abilities and Personality Traits in Early Childhood.

with Amalia Di Girolamo, Vincenzo Paolo Senese, Ida Sergi

Abstract: Gender differences in cognitive and spatial ability have long been reported and debated by cognitive psychology and social scientists, with the difference usually favouring men. In light of the ``nature versus nurture'' debate on the spatial ability, we use a sample of 761 schoolchildren aged 5 to 11 years old to observe whether a gender difference is observable since early childhood. We administer three tests of spatial ability: Mental Rotations, Complex Figures identification, and Embedded Figures. In addition to this we administer the Raven's Coloured Progressive Matrices and the Big-5 personality traits test. We find that gender differences in mental rotation can be detected since early childhood, but their magnitude is small and does not appear to be increasing with age. Interestingly, the personality traits Conscientiousness and Openness to experience are strongly linked to all the cognitive tasks, with the only exception of the Complex Figure task. In particular, mental rotation is negatively correlated with consciousness and positively correlated with openness. Our analysis sheds new light on the role that personality traits have on the performance of cognitive abilities starting from early childhood. A particular interest is given to the evolution over the years of mental rotation. We confirm a gender bias in mental rotation, with boys performing slightly better than girls.


  • GEIGHEI: Gene-Environment Interplay in the Generation of Health and Education Inequalities

with Hans van Kippersluis, Stephanie von Hinke, et al. --- Funded by NORFACE DIAL

  • The Behavioral Economics of Breastfeeding Encouragement (BEBE) Cohort Study

with Anne Brenøe, Claudio Schilter, and Xiaoyue Shan --- Funded by SNSF and Larsson Rosenquist Foundation

with Joanna Maselko, Victoria Baranov, Sonia Bhalotra, et al. --- Funded by NIH and CEDIL

  • Addressing Intimate Partner Violence: Evaluating Interventions with Male Perpetrators vs Female Victims

with Sonia Bhalotra, José Raimundo Carvalho, Karlijn Morsink, Joe Vecci --- Funded by Adlerbert and IPA-IPV

  • STEM-UP! Cooperation and Cognitive Abilities in Primary Schools

with Demis Basso, Antonella Brighi, Amalia Di Girolamo --- Funded by Benecare Foundation