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

Video Positive Messaging Helps Revamp Ethiopia's Image

In country once connected with war, poverty, famine, headlines now focus on fast-growing economy, diplomatic reputation More

Russian Activist Thinks Kremlin Ordered Nemtsov's Death

Alexei Navalny says comments of Russian liberals who think government wasn't involved are 'nonsense.' More

Video Land Disputes Rise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers 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.
NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planeti
X
George Putic
March 04, 2015 8:51 PM
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video NASA Spacecraft Approaches a Dwarf Planet

NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will make history on Friday, March 6, when it becomes the first man-made object to orbit a dwarf planet named Ceres. It is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, almost 500 million kilometers from Earth. Among other objectives, Dawn will try to examine two mysterious bright white spots detected on the planet’s surface. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Muslims Radicalized Online

Young Muslims are being radicalized ‘in their bedrooms’ through direct contact with Islamic State or ISIL fighters via the Internet, according to terror experts. There are growing concerns that authorities and Internet providers are not doing enough to counter online extremism - which analysts say is spread by a prolific network of online supporters around the world. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video African Americans Recall 1960's Fight For Voting Rights

U.S. President Barack Obama and thousands of people will gather in the small southern U.S. city of Selma, Alabama, Saturday, March 7th to commemorate the 50th anniversary of a historic voting rights march that became known as “Bloody Sunday." VOA’s Chris Simkins traveled to Alabama and introduces us to some of the foot soldiers of the voting rights struggles of the 1960’s.
Video

Video Positive Messaging Transforms Ethiopia's Image

Ethiopia was once known for famine and droughts. Now, headlines more often point to its fast-growing economy and its emergence as a regional peacemaker. How has Addis Ababa changed the narrative? VOA's Marthe van der Wolf reports.
Video

Video Cyber War Rages Between Iran, US

A newly published report indicates Iran and the United States have increased their cyber attacks on each other, even as their top diplomats are working toward an agreement to guarantee Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon and to free Iran from international sanctions. The development is part of a growing global trend. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video Answers Elude Families of MH370 Passengers

For the families on board Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, an airline official’s statement nearly one year ago that the plane had lost contact with air traffic control at 2:40 AM is the only thing that remains confirmed. William Ide reports.
Video

Video Land Disputes Arise Amid Uganda Oil Boom

Ugandan police say there has been a sharp increase in land disputes, with 10 new cases being reported each day. The claims come amid an oil boom as investors appear to be cashing in by selling parcels of land to multiple buyers. Meanwhile, the people who have been living on the land for decades are chased away, sometimes with a heavy hand. VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
Video

Video In Russia, Many Doubt Opposition Leader's Killer Will Be Found

The funeral has been held in Moscow for Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who was assassinated late Friday just meters from the Kremlin. Nemtsov joins a growing list of outspoken critics of Russia under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin who are believed to have been murdered for their work. VOA’s Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Simulated Astronauts Get Taste of Mars, in Hawaii

For generations, people have dreamed of traveling to Mars to explore Earth's closest planetary neighbor. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports that while space agencies like NASA are planning manned missions to the planet, some volunteers in Hawaii are learning how humans will cope with months in isolation on a Mars base.
Video

Video Destruction of Iraq Artifacts Shocks Archaeologists

The city of Mosul was once one of the most culturally rich and religiously diverse cities in Iraq. That tradition is under attack by members of the Islamic State who have made Mosul their capital city. The Mosul Museum is the latest target of the group’s campaign of terror and destruction, and is of grave concern to archaeologists around the world. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video Smartphones May Help in Diagnosing HIV

Diagnosing infections such as HIV requires expensive clinical tests, making the procedure too costly for many poor patients or those living in remote areas. But a new technology called lab-on-a-chip may make the tests more accessible to many. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Refugees Complain of Harassment in Pakistan

Afghan officials have expressed concern over reports of a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan following the Peshawar school attack in December. Reports of mass arrests and police harassment coupled with fear of an uncertain future are making life difficult for a population that fled its homeland to escape war. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports from Islamabad.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More