A new analysis of international differences in test scores by Eric Hanushek, Lavinia Kinne, Philipp Lergetporer and Ludger Woessmann, to be presented at the virtual annual congress of the European Economic Association (EEA) in August 2020, suggests that the cultural factors of patience and risk-taking are potential fundamental determinants of school students’ learning. 

They combine new data from the Global Preference Survey (GPS) with data on educational achievement from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) for close to two million students observed in seven waves from 2000 to 2018 across 49 countries to estimate how country differences in cultural traits relate to the skills acquired by students.

The results suggest strong and competing relationships of patience and risk-taking and students’ educational achievement: patience has a strong positive association with PISA mathematics test scores across countries whereas risk-taking has a strong negative association with test scores.

The two cultural traits together account for two-thirds of the variance in average student achievement across countries. Previous research shows that these measured skill differences matter because they are strongly related to both future individual earnings and national economic growth.


Educational choices as an example of intertemporal decision-making are inextricably linked to the cultural traits of patience and risk-taking. On the one hand, schooling investments require patience because they take time to effectuate and even longer before any returns are realised. On the other hand, decisions to invest in education also involve considerable risk, both considering chances of successfully completing schooling as well as variations in wages and employment in the future.

But elements emphasised in crime research suggest that a culture of risk aversion may discourage students from getting into trouble, hence spurring their effort in studying. 

Behavioural economists have emphasised the inherent interrelatedness of patience and risk-taking since only the present can be certain and the future always contains an element of uncertainty. Hence, one cannot consider the impact of patience without simultaneously considering risk-taking, and vice versa.

In a cross-country descriptive analysis, the authors find a strong and competing relationship between the two intertemporal cultural traits and students’ educational achievement.

Interestingly, while some studies have looked at one or the other cultural trait separately, the new results show that looking at one element without considering the other leads to dramatic understatement of the influence of both cultural traits. 

To provide additional evidence, the study looks at the subgroup of migrant students, assigning them the culture of their country of origin. This enables the authors to isolate the effects of cultural factors from potentially correlated effects of the education systems, economies, or any other common features in each of the residence countries. 

Results from this migrant analysis confirm the positive influence of patience and the negative influence of risk-taking on student achievement.



Lavinia Kinne,

ifo Institute Munich,