Out of The Spotlight

How Difficult Choices Exact a Mental Toll on Those Living in Poverty

"Out of the Spotlight" Posting for June 10, 2011

People make choices every day: Drive to work or take the subway? Eat dessert or go without? Each of these choices exacts a mental toll, and that toll is far greater for poor people who regularly grapple with far more difficult choices, such as whether to buy medicine or pay the rent; put food on the table or pay the utilities bill.


The mental toll exacted by these choices may explain why people remain stuck in poverty, writes Jamie Holmes this week in The New Republic. It has to do with what psychologists call “depletable” cognitive resources, namely self-control and will power.


According to psychologists, we have a limited amount of self control. Using it on one task makes it harder to use on another. For example, study participants who had to resist desserts later gave up more quickly on puzzles than those who did not have to turn down sweet treats. The well-off make decisions based on preference (such as where to eat dinner), while the poor must constantly make decisions based on financial self-control. This means that even small decisions take a far greater mental toll on those in poverty.  


Holmes’s article outlines new research showing that we may also have depletable stores of will power, or the ability to choose rationally in a way that makes sense for one’s personal goals. One study challenges the idea that poverty is the result of bad behavior, and instead suggests that poverty may actually “cause behavior that appears impatient or impulsive.” Because the poor are constantly making financial choices that could have dire consequences, their will power is depleted. The mental toll exacted by even the smallest of decisions means it is difficult to make the choices that could get them out of poverty, such as opening a savings account or signing up for a job training program.


Holmes offers three approaches that could allow those in poverty to achieve more cognitive control.  These include:


-   “Commitment products,” such as education savings accounts and certificates of deposits, which force users to decide upfront how their resources will be allocated so they don’t have to expend willpower deciding later. A pilot bank program in the Philippines had great results when bank account users set a time or minimum amount after which they could not access their funds.


-   Access to small conveniences, which frees mind space to focus on important decisions. Expanding access to conveniences such as dishwashers or automatic bill pay, Holmes suggests, will allow the poor more mental energy to focus on the decisions that could get them out of poverty.


-  Conditional cash transfer, in which money is given on the condition of good behavior (such as school attendance or clinic visits), which can aid the poor in using their depleted willpower.  


This research helps to reconcile one of the major divides between the right and left on understanding poverty. On the one hand, it emphasizes the need for those living in poverty to exercise personal responsibility and make good financial choices. However, it also shows that living in poverty takes a mental toll that makes those choices very difficult. Programs that increase access to post-secondary education and good jobs can help families earn enough so that they don’t have to choose between paying for food or utilities.


Regardless of political belief, this research provides key insight into understanding the daily psychic toll of living in poverty, which is a critical component in helping people take the steps needed to create a more promising future.


Posted by Lena



Here at Out of the Spotlight, we offer a behind-the-scenes look at the latest news and information essential to anyone working to fight poverty. From key political appointees to clashes over policy, we cover the news that doesn't always make the evening news. Check out Out of the Spotlight for our take on the twists and turns of the latest political developments and their impact on poverty reduction. Topics and ideas are welcome! Just contact mlaracy@aecf.org or watersboots@hotmail.com