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

Russia's 'V-Day' Glory Over Nazis Overshadowed by Ukraine

Critics say Soviet-style display of power, nationalism don't recognize tragic scars of warfare that still influence politics, fighting in Ukraine More

Tensions Simmer in Hong Kong in Lead Up to Vote

Many Hong Kong citizen say if the reform plan will be a step back for the pro-democracy movement if passed More

Multimedia Obama Calls for New Commitment to Help Minority Youths Succeed

President introduces My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, foundation supporting better education and job prospects 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.
Campaign Raises Money to 'Uncuff' Journalistsi
X
May 04, 2015 3:32 PM
Beginning Sunday – World Press Freedom Day – the Committee to Protect Journalists, a private U.S. group, is launching a campaign to bring attention to their plight and encourage efforts to free them. Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Campaign Raises Money to 'Uncuff' Journalists

Beginning Sunday – World Press Freedom Day – the Committee to Protect Journalists, a private U.S. group, is launching a campaign to bring attention to their plight and encourage efforts to free them. Deborah Block reports.
Video

Video Volunteers Pull Together to Aid Baltimore Riot Victims

Calm has returned to Baltimore, Maryland, after authorities lifted an overnight curfew imposed almost a week ago to stem the rioting that followed the funeral of Freddie Gray - the 25-year-old black man who died of spinal injuries suffered while in police custody. Six police officers, three of them African-American, have been charged in connection with his death. Baltimore is now trying to get back to normal, in part with the help of volunteers who responded to calls to help those in the city'
Video

Video From Aleppo To Berlin: Band of Brothers Escapes Civil War

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled the civil war in their country and journeyed to Europe by boat across the Mediterranean. It is a terrifying ordeal with dangers at every turn. A group of Syrian brothers and their friends describe their ordeal as they try to reach Germany. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports. ...
Video

Video Rural Nepal Suffers Brunt of Quake’s Devastation

Nepal is still coming to grips with the full extent of the devastation and misery caused by last Saturday’s magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Some of the hardest-hit communities have been cut off by landslides making it difficult to assess the precise toll. A VOA News crew has been among the first to reach a few of the smaller, remote communities. Correspondent Steve Herman reports from the Sindhupolchak district, east of Kathmandu, which suffered greatly in Nepal’s worst quake in more than 80 years.
Video

Video Obama Praises Work of 3 Immigrant Journalists

President Barack Obama met with three immigrant journalists at the White House Friday to praise them for their work ahead of World Press Freedom Day, May 3. In attendance: Dieu Cay (his pen name) a blogger from Vietnam recently released from prison; Lily Mengesha from Ethiopia who was harassed and detained for exposing the marrying off of young girls as child brides, and Fatima Tlisova, an ethnic Circassian from the North Caucasus region of Russia, who works for VOA's Russian Service.
Video

Video Middle East Atheist Channel Defies Taboo

In Egypt, a deeply religious country in a deeply religious region, atheism is not only taboo, it is dangerous. It is sometimes even criminal to publicly declare nonbelief. Despite the danger, one group of activists is pushing back with a new online channel that defends the right not to believe. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.
Video

Video Black Families Use Baltimore Case to Revisit 'Police Talk'

Following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody this month, VOA interviewed black families throughout the eastern U.S. city of Baltimore about how they discuss the case. Over and over, parents pointed to a crucial talk they say every black mother or father has with their children. Victoria Macchi has more on how this conversation is passed down through generations.
Video

Video Nepal Quake Survivors Tell Their Stories

Against all hope, rescuers have found a few more survivors of the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal last Saturday. Mountain climbers and hikers trapped in remote places also have been airlifted to safety, and aid is finally reaching people in the areas closest to the quake's epicenter. Survivors and rescuers are now recounting their experience. Zlatica Hoke has this story.
Video

Video Lessons for Germany, Europe Remain on Anniversary of WWII's End

The 70th anniversary of the end of World War II will be marked May 8-9 in all European countries except Germany, which lost the war. How is the war viewed there, and what impact is it still having? From Berlin, VOA’s Al Pessin reports.
Video

Video Nepal Town Destroyed By Quake Counts Itself Lucky

Foreign search teams on Wednesday began reaching some of the communities outside Kathmandu that suffered worse damage than Nepal’s capital from last Saturday’s massive earthquake. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman is in Sankhu - a town of about 10,000 people - where there is relief the death toll is not higher despite widespread destruction.
Video

Video First Surgical Glue Approved for Use Inside Body

While medical adhesives are becoming more common, none had been approved for use inside the body until now. Earlier this year, the first ever biodegradable surgical glue won that approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on the innovation and its journey from academia to market.
Video

Video Somali Hotel Chain Owner Strives to Make a Difference

Many in the Somali diaspora are returning home to make a new life despite the continuing risks. Since 2011 when a military campaign against Al-Shabab militants began making progress, members of the diaspora community have come back to open hospitals, schools, hotels, restaurants and other businesses. Abdulaziz Billow in Mogadishu profiles the owner of a chain of hotels and restaurants who is helping to bring change to the once-deadly Somali capital.
Video

Video Study: One in Six Species Threatened with Extinction

Climate change is transforming the planet. Unless steps are taken to reduce global warming, scientists predict rising seas, stronger and more frequent storms, drought, fire and floods. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, a new study on species extinction underscores the need to take action to avoid the most catastrophic effects of rising temperatures.
Video

Video Child Migrants Cross Mediterranean Alone, Face Unknown Future

Among the thousands of migrants making the deadly journey by boat to Europe, there are unaccompanied girls and boys. Some have been sent by relatives to earn money; others are orphaned or fleeing war. From a shelter for young migrants in the Sicilian town of Caltagirone, VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Baltimore Riots Shed Light on City’s Troubled Past

National Guard troops took up positions Tuesday in Baltimore, Maryland, as authorities tried to restore order after rioting broke out a day earlier. It followed Monday's funeral of a 25-year-old black man who died while in police custody earlier this month. VOA's Chris Simkins reports.

Poll: Baltimore Police Charged

Poll archive

VOA Blogs