How does the environment get into the mind?

The impact of acute violence and other environmental stressors on cognitive functioning and school performance 


  1. to identify the acute effect of exposure to extreme acts of violence in adolescents’ neighborhoods, in the form of local homicides, on short-term cognitive functioning;
  2. to identify the acute effect of local homicides on adolescents’ school performance;
  3. to develop and implement a method of data collection that supplements previously collected survey datasets with data on a broad range of local environmental stressors, and to use this method to identify the effect of a wide range of acute environmental shocks on adolescents’ cognitive functioning;

While there is a large literature that examines the consequences of neighborhood disadvantage and neighborhood violence on cognitive, academic, and other developmental outcomes, the proposed research program contributes to and enhances this literature in several ways.  First, the literature on “neighborhood effects” has struggled to identify what dimensions of community disadvantage are particularly salient for adolescents, the precise mechanisms by which they operate, and the temporal relationship between exposure to disadvantaged environments and developmental consequences.  By analyzing the acute impact of discrete events, such as local homicides, I hope to move the literature on neighborhood effects forward by expanding beyond the focus on abstract characteristics of communities and toward a focus on tangible events in adolescents’ environments that have measurable consequences for their daily lives.

Second, because families select into neighborhoods that vary in terms of the level of resources within the community, the quality of local institutions, and the prevalence of crime and violence, the observational literature examining the effects of neighborhood disadvantage and violence has been challenged repeatedly for failing to address the problem of selection bias.  I confront this problem directly by developing a new set of analytic methods that rely on exogenous variation in the timing of discrete events in individuals’ social environments to identify causal effects.  For example, the first project takes advantage of the fact that interview assessments for a survey of adolescents in Chicago were conducted over a period covering several months, and estimates the impact of a recent, local homicide by comparing scores on cognitive assessments among adolescents living within the same neighborhood who were assessed at different times—some were assessed in the days following a local homicide while others were assessed months later or earlier. This approach reflects the general strategy used in all of the research, which relies on variation in the timing of events to identify causal effects. 

PI: Patrick Sharkey