News / Science & Technology

Study: Poverty Worsens Decision-making

Indian sugar cane farmers performed worse on cognitive tests when they were poorer, right before the harvest, than when they were richer, after the harvest. (File photo)
Indian sugar cane farmers performed worse on cognitive tests when they were poorer, right before the harvest, than when they were richer, after the harvest. (File photo)
New research suggests the stress of being poor drains the brain power needed to make important decisions. The study may help explain why the poor tend to make bad choices that perpetuate their condition.

Earlier studies have found that poor people do worse with their finances, pay less attention to their children than richer people, and are less likely to take care of their health, all of which ultimately make them less likely to escape poverty.

But there has been little research on why the poor make decisions that make their lives harder. Until recently, economists, not psychologists, studied poverty.

“In the last few years, the two disciplines sort of combined forces," said Princeton University psychologist Eldar Shafir. "And we just became interested in cognitive function and its impact when people struggle with not having enough.”

Shafir and colleagues conducted two sets of experiments, one in a mall in suburban New Jersey, and one among sugar cane farmers in rural India.

In the New Jersey experiment, middle and low-income test subjects were asked what they would do if their cars needed repairs. They then performed tasks that test cognitive function, such as choosing which shape fits in a pattern of shapes.

They were given two scenarios. In the first, the car repairs cost $150, an unpleasant but affordable amount for the average mall shopper. In the second, the repairs cost $1,500.

“When we looked at the cases where the financial scenario in the background was not too challenging, the poor and the rich performed equally well on all the cognitive tests,” Shafir said.

But that wasn't the case when the researchers raised the stakes.

“Once we tickled their minds with financially more challenging problems, now the poor performed significantly worse,” he said.

They lost about 13 IQ points on average, about the same impact on brain function as losing a full night’s sleep.

The scientists wondered if they would see the same impact outside the controlled environment of a New Jersey mall. And they wanted to know if the same person responded differently when he was rich and when he was poor.

That's where the Indian sugar cane farmers came in. They get most of their income for the year all at once, when the harvest comes in. But the money often does not last through the year.

“So they find themselves basically rich after the harvest when the income comes in, and poor just before the harvest,” Shafir said.

The researchers gave them tests of cognitive function similar to the ones the mall shoppers took. They tested the farmers before the harvest and after. And the results were much the same as with the mall shoppers.

“They performed much more slowly and with many more errors when they were poorer than when they were richer,” Shafir said.

Shafir said these results fit with a half-century of research showing we all have a limited amount of mental bandwidth to devote to all the things life throws at us.

One experiment found that exercising the willpower needed to resist irresistible chocolates made it harder for people to control their emotions or perform difficult mental tasks afterward.

And struggling to pay the bills has a similar effect, he added.

“So the insight here is that, experiencing scarcity, having not enough of something in a way that weighs on your mind, leaves less for everything else,” he said.

There’s a message here for policymakers, Shafir said. “If you care about it and you want to help the poor do better, you need to help them maintain more bandwidth.”

That means that making aid programs easy to use, not adding a lot of bureaucratic burden, and timing programs to when the recipients can make the best use of them may free up the brainpower the poor need to get ahead.

You May Like

ASEAN Ministers to Push for S. China Sea Agreements

According to documents obtained by VOA Khmer, ministers will stand up for 'freedom of navigation, unimpeded lawful maritime commerce, trade and over flight' More

Puerto Rico Defaults on $58M Debt Payment

Payment was due Saturday, default is first in country's 117 years as a United States possession More

Turkish Public Fears Jihadists More Than Kurds

Turkey facing twin threats of terrorism by Islamic State and PKK Kurdish separatists, says President Erdogan’s ruling AK Party More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Communityi
X
Sharon Behn
August 03, 2015 2:23 PM
A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Iraqi Yazidis Fear Death of Their Community

A year ago on August 3, Islamic State militants stormed the homelands of Iraq’s Yazidi minority, killing hundreds of men and enslaving thousands of women. The scenes of desperate Yazidi families crowding on the top of Sinjar mountain without food or water spurred Kurdish fighters into action, an emergency airlift and the start of the U.S. airstrike campaign against the Islamic State Sunni extremists. VOA's Sharon Benh reports from northern Iraq.
Video

Video Bangkok Warned It Soon Could Be Submerged

Italy's Venice and America's New Orleans are not the only cities gradually submerging. The nearly ten million residents of the Bangkok urban area now must confront warnings the city could become uninhabitable in a few decades. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Thai capital.
Video

Video Inclusive Gym Gets People With Disabilities in Fitness Spirit

Individuals with special needs are 58 percent more likely to be obese than the general population. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, they also have an increased likelihood of anxiety, depression and social isolation. But a sports club outside Washington wants to make a difference in these people's lives. With Carol Pearson narrating, VOA's June Soh reports.
Video

Video Astronauts Train Underwater for Deep Space Missions

Manned deep space missions are still a long way off, but space agencies are already testing procedures, equipment and human stamina for operations in extreme environment conditions. Small groups of astronauts take turns in spending days in an underwater lab, off Florida’s southern coast, simulating future missions to some remote world. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Special Olympics Show Competitors' Skill, Determination

Special Olympics competitions will wrap up Saturday in Los Angeles, and the closing ceremony for athletes with intellectual disabilities will be held Sunday night. In a week of competition, athletes have shown what they can do through skill and determination. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports.
Video

Video Civil Rights Leaders Struggled to Achieve Voting Rights Act

Fifty years ago, lawmakers approved, and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson signed, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The measure outlawed racial discrimination in voting, giving millions of blacks in many parts of the southern United States federal enforcement of the right to vote. Correspondent Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights leaders who were on the front lines in the struggle for voting rights.
Video

Video Shooter’s Grill: Serving Food with a Touch of the Second Amendment

Shooter's Grill, a restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, attracts visitors from all over the world as well as local patrons. The reason? Waitresses openly carry loaded firearms as they serve food, and customers are welcome to carry them, too. VOA's Enming Liu and Lin Yang paid a visit to Shooter's Grill, and heard different opinions about this unique establishment.
Video

Video Despite Controversy, Business Owner Continues Sale of Confederate Flags

At Cooter’s, a store in rural Sperryville, Virginia, about 120 kilometers west of Washington, D.C., Confederate flags are flying off the shelves. The red, white and blue battle flag, with 13 white stars representing the Confederate states, was carried by southern forces during the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. The South had seceded from the Union over several key issues of disagreement, including slavery. VOA’s Deborah Block has the story.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder Reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs