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.
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.
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.
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
idea that poverty is the result of bad behavior, and instead suggests that
poverty may actually “cause behavior that appears impatient or impulsive.”
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
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
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