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

Photogallery Strong Words Start, May End, S. African Xenophobic Attacks

President Jacob Zuma publicly condemned rise in attacks on foreign nationals but critics say leadership has been less than welcoming to foreign residents More

Video Family Waits to Hear Charges Against Reporter Jailed in Iran

Reports in Iran say Jason Rezaian has been charged with espionage, but brother tells VOA indictment has not been made public More

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Action to Stabilize Libya

Amnesty International says multinational concerted humanitarian effort must be enacted to address crisis; decrepit boats continue to bring thousands of new arrivals daily 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.
Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?i
X
Steve Sandford
April 17, 2015 12:50 AM
Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Are Energy Needs Putting Thailand's Natural Beauty at Risk?

Thailand's appetite for more electricity has led to the construction of new dams along the Mekong River to the north and new coal plants near the country's famous beaches in the south. A proposed coal plant in a so-called "green zone" has touched off a debate. VOA's Steve Sandford reports.
Video

Video Overwhelmed by Migrants, Italy Mulls Military Action to Stabilize Libya

Thousands more migrants have arrived on the southern shores of Italy from North Africa in the past two days. Authorities say they expect the total number of arrivals this year to far exceed previous levels, and the government has said military action in Libya might be necessary to stem the flow. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Putin Accuses Kyiv of ‘Cutting Off’ Eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his annual televised call-in program, again denied there were any Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. He also said the West was trying to ‘contain’ Russia with sanctions. Henry Ridgwell reports on reactions to the president’s four-hour TV appearance.
Video

Video Eye Contact Secures Dog's Place in Human Heart

Dogs serve in the military, work with police and assist the disabled, and have been by our side for thousands of years serving as companions and loyal friends. We love them. They love us in return. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports on a new study that looks at the bio-chemical bond that cements that human-canine connection.
Video

Video Ukrainian Volunteers Search for Bodies of Missing Soldiers

As the cease-fire becomes more fragile in eastern Ukraine, a team of volunteer body collectors travels to the small village of Savur Mohyla in the what pro-Russian separatists call the Donetsk Peoples Republic - to retrieve bodies of fallen Ukrainian servicemen from rebel-held territories. Adam Bailes traveled with the team and has this report.
Video

Video Xenophobic Violence Sweeps South Africa

South Africa, long a haven for African immigrants, has been experiencing the worst xenophobic violence in years, with at least five people killed and hundreds displaced in recent weeks. From Johannesburg, VOA’s Anita Powell brings us this report.
Video

Video Sierra Leone President Koroma Bemoans Ebola Impact on Economy

In an interview with VOA's Shaka Ssali on Wednesday, President Ernest Koroma said the outbreak undermined his government’s efforts to boost and restructure the economy after years of civil war.
Video

Video Protester Lands Gyrocopter on Capitol Lawn

A 61-year-old mailman from Florida landed a small aircraft on the Capitol lawn in Washington to bring attention to campaign finance reform and what he says is government corruption. Wednesday's incident was one in a string of security breaches on U.S. government property. Zlatica Hoke reports the gyrocopter landing violated a no-fly zone.
Video

Video Apollo 13, NASA's 'Successful Failure,' Remembered

The Apollo 13 mission in 1970 was supposed to be NASA's third manned trip to the moon, but it became much more. On the flight's 45th anniversary, astronauts and flight directors gathered at Chicago's Adler Planetarium to talk about how the aborted mission changed manned spaceflight and continues to influence space exploration today. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Badly Burned Ukrainian Boy Bravely Fights Back

A 9-year-old Ukrainian boy has returned to his native country after intensive treatment in the United States for life-threatening burns. Volodia Bubela, burned in a house fire almost a year ago, battled back at a Boston hospital, impressing doctors with his bravery. Faith Lapidus narrates this report from VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko.
Video

Video US Maternity Leave Benefits Much Less Than Many Countries

It was almost 20 years ago that representatives of 189 countries met at a UN conference in Beijing and adopted a plan of action to achieve gender equality around the world. Now, two decades later, the University of California Los Angeles World Policy Analysis Center has issued a report examining what the Beijing Platform for Action has achieved. From Los Angeles, Elizabeth Lee has more.
Video

Video Endangered Hawaiian Birds Get Second Chance

Of the world's nearly 9,900 bird species, 13 percent are threatened with extinction, according to BirdLife International. Among them are two Hawaiian honeycreepers - tiny birds that live in the forest canopy, and, as the name implies, survive on nectar from tropical flowers. Scientists at the San Diego Zoo report they have managed to hatch half a dozen of their chicks in captivity, raising hopes that the birds will flutter back from the brink of extinction. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Exhibit Brings Renaissance Master Out of the Shadows

The National Gallery of Art in Washington has raised the curtain on one of the most intriguing painters of the High Renaissance. Mostly ignored after his death in the early 1500s, Italian master Piero di Cosimo is now claiming his place alongside the best-known artists of the period. VOA’s Ardita Dunellari reports.
Video

Video Sidemen to Famous Blues Artists Record Their Own CD

Legendary blues singer BB King was briefly hospitalized last week and the 87-year-old “King of the Blues” may not be touring much anymore. But some of the musicians who have played with him and other blues legends have now released their own CD in an attempt to pass the torch to younger fans... and put their own talents out front as well. VOA’s Greg Flakus has followed this project over the past year and filed this report from Houston.
Video

Video Iran-Saudi Rivalry Is Stoking Conflict in Yemen

Iran has proposed a peace plan to end the conflict in Yemen, but the idea has received little support from regional rivals like Saudi Arabia. They accuse Tehran of backing the Houthi rebels, who have forced Yemen’s president to flee to Riyadh, and have taken over swaths of Yemen. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA, analysts say the conflict is being fueled by the Sunni-Shia rivalry between the two regional powers.

VOA Blogs