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Does Poverty Impose a Mental Handicap?

Does Poverty Impose a Mental Handicap?

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Photo: Woman picking trash on sidewalk. How poverty lowers your IQ
Photo Credit: Gus Ruelas

Every journalist knows how a looming deadline can focus the mind and block out all else. “All else” can mean everything from paying bills to eating whole meals to making it to your daughter’s ballet recital. When time is scarce, our mind’s processing power tends to be hijacked by the pressing task at hand; all other concerns are shown the “Please standby” sign.

It now appears that it’s not just a lack of time that leaves the brain at reduced power when it comes to life’s other concerns. New research says that a lack of time is in some ways like a lack of money: both are instances of scarcity that can have adverse effects on how our brains work. In the case of the poor, Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir argue in their new book “Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much” that those at the bottom are besieged by financial stress to such an extent that their cognitive function is diminished, and with it their decision-making and planning abilities. Poverty means spending a great deal of energy worrying, calculating, thinking about money, the authors suggest, and that experience eats up crucial mental “bandwidth” that might otherwise go toward making sound decisions and improving one’s finances.

In one of two studies presented in Science last month, Mullainathan and Shafir teamed with two other colleagues to look at Indian sugar cane farmers at two distinct times: before the harvest, when farmers are at their poorest, and after harvest, when they’re comparatively rich. All other variables were controlled for. Mullainathan summarized the findings in a recent piece for the New York Times:

We measured farmers’ mental function — on what psychologists call fluid intelligence and executive control — one month before and one month after harvest. And the effects were large: preharvest I.Q., for example, was lower by about nine to 10 points, which in a common descriptive classification is the distance between “average” and “superior” intelligence. To put that in perspective, a full night without sleep has a similar effect on I.Q.

The pattern repeated elsewhere. The other study in the same Science issue looked at shoppers in a New Jersey mall where the researchers asked subjects to think about how they would pay for a car repair and then asked them to complete a set of spatial and reasoning tests. It turned out that thinking about an expensive car repair lowered the mental performance of less-moneyed shoppers but not their better-off peers. From the editor’s summary:

Lower-income individuals performed poorly if the repairs were expensive but did fine if the cost was low, whereas higher-income individuals performed well in both conditions, as if the projected financial burden imposed no cognitive pressure.

The idea that being broke is mentally taxing is hardly new, but the magnitude (and quantification) of its impact on mental function is. And it’s not just financial distress that has this type of effect on the mind – the authors posit this is a much broader pattern.

“Maybe poverty is a special case of something else,” said Mullainathan recently in a long Washington Post Wonkblog dialogue called “Being Poor Changes Your Thinking About Everything.” “That something else is scarcity, and anyone who has the experience of ‘having very little’ experiences the same psychology.”

Even more disturbing is the idea that having very little makes it much more likely you’ll exhibit behaviors that ensure you’ll continue to have very little, whatever particular form the “scarcity” might take. Mullainathan refers to it as the “scarcity trap”:

The scarcity trap captures this notion we see again and again in many domains. When people have very little, they undertake behaviors that maintain or reinforce their future disadvantage. If you have very little, you often behave in such a way so that you'll have little in the future.

That could mean a broke minimum-wage worker taking out a payday loan with predatory interest rates, or a deadline-pressed student who puts off other assignments to get today’s done, falling further behind elsewhere, or a dieter whose constant calorie-counting erodes the same mental wherewithal needed to resist that slice of cake. To borrow another of Mullainathan’s examples, consider a lonely person who tries too hard to be “interesting” or liked and whose effort thereby puts off potential pals. Uniting all these is the rubric of scarcity and the ways in which it tends to promote the same behaviors that replicate it.

Can anything be done to pry open the scarcity trap? In the case of poverty, the authors suggest taking steps that recognize those with scarce means are often operating at a cognitive disadvantage (the risk of condescension here is a liability worth noting). For instance, Mullainathan suggests simplifying the federal government’s financial aid application for low-income students: “A one-page version would not only be simpler but it would also recognize that the poor are short on bandwidth as well as cash,” he writes in the New York Times.

Similarly, it’s not hard to see how this research might have lessons for, say, the application process required for low-income people to receive health benefits.

Regardless what form the policy prescriptions take, Mullainathan and Shafir’s argument does offer fresh evidence to counter persistent claims that poverty is largely the product of innate laziness, lack of willpower or some other inherent weakness or deficit. Constantly worrying about money, it turns out, only makes it more likely that one will make choices and adopt behaviors that perpetuate those financial woes. It’s an insight that should help researchers and policymakers think anew about how to design policies that work toward breaking the cycle.

And since scarcity is a universal phenomenon that everyone experiences in one form or another, Mullainathan told Wonkblog he is hopeful this new conceptual framework will make it more likely for those with means to better understand those without.

You can get some people to sympathize with the poor, but to empathize is actually very hard, because most people are not poor. I realized that scarcity gives you a thread. You can understand some behaviors of your own that you experience under scarcity, and you can almost follow that thread and say, "I can at least imagine what that scarcity must be like if it were really unrelenting.” This allows you to almost project yourself more into people’s shoes, and therefore to gain a richer understanding of a world which many of us don't otherwise have access to.

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