Research

My research focuses on the early origins and life cycle evolution of health and human capital. Specifically, I explore the importance of genetics, family investment, and childhood interventions in explaining health and economic inequality. While genetic endowments are fixed at birth, they can influence decisions such as healthy behaviors or investments in human capital, and interact with features of the social and economic environment. By changing the environment, effective interventions and optimal choices of investments can help mitigate innate inequalities and promote human capital development. 

More broadly, I am interested in Health Economics, Labor Economics, and Applied Econometrics.

Publications

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 wp)
Humans vary substantially in their willingness to take risks. In a combined sample of over 1 million individuals, we conducted genome-wide association studies (GWAS) of general risk tolerance, adventurousness, and risky behaviors in the driving, drinking, smoking, and sexual domains. Across all GWAS, we identified hundreds of associated loci, including 99 loci associated with general risk tolerance. We report evidence of substantial shared genetic influences across risk tolerance and the risky behaviors: 46 of the 99 general risk tolerance loci contain a lead SNP for at least one of our other GWAS, and general risk tolerance is genetically correlated (r_g ~ .025 to 0.50) with a range of risky behaviors. Bioinformatics analyses imply that genes near SNPs associated with general risk tolerance are highly expressed in brain tissues and point to a role for glutamatergic and GABAergic neurotransmission. We found no evidence of enrichment for genes previously hypothesized to relate to risk tolerance.

Biroli, P., Del Boca, D., Heckman, J. J., Heckman, L. P., Koh, Y. K., Kuperman, S., Mokdan, S, Pronzazo, C. D., Ziff, A. L. (2017). "Evaluation of the Reggio Approach to Early Childhood EducationResearch in Economics, 72(1), 1–32. (IZA wpappendixcode)
We evaluate the Reggio Approach using non-experimental data on individuals from the cities of Reggio Emilia, Parma and Padova belonging to one of five age cohorts: ages 50, 40, 30, 18, and 6 as of 2012. The treated were exposed to municipally offered infant-toddler (ages 0-3) and preschool (ages 3-6) programs. The control group either did not receive formal childcare or were exposed to programs offered by the state or religious systems. We exploit the city-cohort structure of the data to estimate treatment effects using three strategies: difference-in-differences, matching, and matched-difference-in-differences. Most positive and significant effects are generated from comparisons of the treated with individuals who did not receive formal childcare. Relative to not receiving formal care, the Reggio Approach significantly boosts outcomes related to employment, socio-emotional skills, high school graduation, election participation, and obesity. Comparisons with individuals exposed to alternative forms of childcare do not yield strong patterns of positive and significant effects. This suggests that differences between the Reggio Approach and other alternatives are not sufficiently large to result in significant differences in outcomes. This interpretation is supported by our survey, which documents increasing similarities in the administrative and pedagogical practices of childcare systems in the three cities over time.

Data Collection Agency: Doxa (Milan) 
Sponsor: Jacobs Foundation (Zurich)

Non technical summary: ENGIT

Buti, M., Turrini, A., van den Noord, P., & Biroli, P. (2010) “Reforms and Re-elections in OECD Countries.” Economic Policy, 25(61), 61–116.
Economic reform is sometimes seen as damaging to a government’s re-election chances, but anecdotal evidence from OECD countries would not seem to strongly support this perception. This paper tests this hypothesis on a sample of 21 OECD countries over the period 1985–2003, controlling for other economic and political factors that may affect re-election. It is found that the chances of re-election for incumbent governments are not significantly affected by their record of pro-market reforms. However, the electoral impact of reform is found to differ strongly depending on which types of policies are considered. In particular, reform measures that are more likely to hurt large groups of ‘insiders’ seem electorally more damaging. A series of framework conditions appears to affect the impact of reforms on re-elections. Reformist governments in countries with rigid product and labour markets tend to be voted out of office, suggesting the existence of a ‘rigidity trap’. While fiscal stimulus is not an effective instrument to ‘sweeten the pill’ and raise the odds of re-election, the presence of liberal financial markets appears to soften electoral resistance to structural reform. The latter finding is of particular relevance in the current financial crisis: forward-looking governments should not rush to over-regulate financial markets in order not to compromise the feasibility of product and labour market reforms.

Biroli, P., Mourre, G., & Turrini, A. (2010) “Adjustment in the Euro Area and Regulation of Product and Labor Market: An Empirical Assessment.” Economic and Financial Affairs (DG ECFIN, vol 428).
This paper assesses the adjustment mechanism in the euro area. Results show that the real exchange rate (REER) adjusts in such a way to redress cyclical divergences and that after monetary unification REER dynamics have become less reactive to country-specific shocks but also less persistent. It is found that regulations, notably affecting price and wage nominal flexibility and employment protection, play a role in the adjustment mechanism. Indicators of product and labour regulations appear to matter for both the reaction of price competitiveness to cyclical divergences (differences between national and euro-area output gaps) and for the inertia of competitiveness indicators. Moreover, regulations appear to matter also for the extent to which common shocks may end up producing country-specific effects on the price competitiveness, as revealed by their interaction with proxies of unobservable common shocks along the lines of the methodology developed in Blanchard and Wolfers (2000). In light of the tendency towards less stringent regulations in past decades, the results seem consistent with the observed reduction in the persistence of inflation differentials, and has have implications for the design of adjustment-friendly product and labour market reforms.

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.
European policy makers, notably in the euro area, seem to take for granted that the electorate will punish them for bold reform in product and labour markets. This may explain why progress in the euro area has been comparatively limited. This paper posits and, using a dataset for 21 OECD countries, shows that this fear of electoral backlashes is unfounded, provided that financial markets work well. The mechanisms involved are relatively straightforward: well functioning financial markets “bring forward” future yields of structural reform to the present, thus permitting to overcome possible short-run costs. As a result, the electorate tend to reward, not punish, reformist governments. This has important implications for the design of structural reform packages, with financial market reforms being an essential ingredient beside product and labour market reforms.

Working Papers

Revision requested, American Economic Review
We evaluate the medium-term impacts of treating maternal depression on women's financial empowerment and parenting decisions. We leverage experimental variation induced by a cluster-randomized control trial that provided psychotherapy to perinatally depressed mothers in rural Pakistan. It was one of the largest psychotherapy interventions in the world and highly successful at reducing depression. We locate mothers seven years after the end of the intervention to evaluate its longer run effects. We find that the intervention improved women's financial empowerment, increasing their control over household spending. Additionally, the intervention increased both time- and monetary-intensive parental investments, but no detectable effect was found for child development. Increases in empowerment and investments tend to favor girls, for whom we also detect improvements in parenting style.

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)

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.


Parental Beliefs about Returns to Child Health Investments (IZA wp)
(with Teodora Boneva, Akash Raja, Christopher Rauh)
Childhood obesity has adverse health and productivity consequences and poses negative externalities to health services. Its increase in recent decades can be traced back to unhealthy habits acquired in the household. We investigate whether parental beliefs play a role by eliciting beliefs about the returns to a recommended-calorie diet and regular exercise using hypothetical investment scenarios. We show that perceived returns are predictive of health investments and outcomes, and that less educated parents perceive the returns to health investments to be lower, thus contributing to the socioeconomic inequality in health outcomes and the intergenerational transmission of obesity.
 
(with Laura BierutTitus Galama, and Kevin Thom)
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).

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