A study in the latest issue of the journal Science finds that living in poverty makes it harder for individuals to think rationally, exacerbating a difficult situation.
According to a summary of the Science article posted by Brady Dennis in the Washington Post online, this deterioration of mental capacity blocks people from finding solutions and opportunities to escape their financial woes. It also makes them less able to pay attention to other important tasks.
“While the poor may be experiencing a scarcity of money, at some level what they may really be experiencing is a scarcity of bandwidth,” Harvard economist Sandhil Mullainathan, one of the study’s authors, says in the WaPo article. The findings highlight the stressful situation as a main contributor to poverty, and contradict common prejudices against poor individuals as being lazy.
To examine the impact of financial struggles on a person’s brain, the scientists conducted experiments with two sets of subjects. One group was composed of New Jersey mall shoppers, who were told to imagine their car required a $1,500 repair. The other group was Indian farmers who were tested before and after their sugar cane harvest, the source of their income. Both experiments involved a situation in which dealing with the prospect of financial struggle occupied the subjects’ thoughts.
The researchers found that with that struggling with that kind of stress could result in a drop in IQ of as much as 13 points, the equivalent of cognitive deterioration after a night with no sleep. In the WaPo article, Dr. Mullainathan is quoted as saying, “Picture yourself after an all-nighter. Being poor is like that every day.”
Improvements in poverty policy, the scientists conclude, could alleviate the situation. They call on policymakers to reduce the “cognitive taxes” on the poor by making forms and paperwork easier to handle, which could save poor people valuable mental resources.