Poverty May Tax Thinking Skills08/29/13
THURSDAY, Aug. 29 (HealthDay News) -- People living in poverty
may face more than a shortage of money: A new study suggests it
might also drain brain power.
A team of international researchers found that poverty and its
related concerns consume so much mental energy that the poor have
less remaining thinking skills to devote to decision-making,
leaving them more apt to make mistakes that both trigger and
perpetuate financial woes.
"The human cognitive system is limited. When you don't have enough resources -- money, time and other ways to deal with problems -- there's a trade-off in thinking," said study co-author Jiaying Zhao, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. "What we're arguing is that these poverty-related concerns consume mental resources and affect problem-solving skills ... and, as a result, the poor have fewer mental resources for other problems."
The study was published Aug. 29 in the journal
About 20 percent of the global population faces poverty, and
about 15 percent of Americans fit the classification in 2010,
according to the National Poverty Center at the University of
Michigan. Prior research linked poverty and counterproductive
behavior, such as poor financial management, but the new study is
the first to suggest that poverty actually causes diminished mental
Zhao and her colleagues performed a series of experiments on two
continents, finding that people preoccupied with money problems
demonstrated a drop in mental function equivalent to a 13-point
loss in IQ. The study authors said the results help explain why the
poor often are seen as less capable at certain tasks.
The first set of experiments involved about 400 people in a New
Jersey mall who had an average annual income of about $70,000, with
the lowest income level at about $20,000. Participants were asked
to ponder how they would solve financial problems such as a sudden
car repair, being randomly assigned to a scenario in which the cost
was low or high -- such as a $150 repair or a $1,500 repair.
Split into "poor" and "rich" groups based on income, the study
indicated that the poor and rich performed equally well on
cognitive tests when the scenarios were "easy," as in the $150 car
repair. But when they pondered the "hard" scenario of the $1,500
car repair, those at the lower end of the income scale performed
significantly worse on fluid intelligence and cognition tests,
while rich participants performed just as well with the more
The second set of experiments involved about 500 sugarcane
farmers in India who rely on the annual harvest for at least 60
percent of their income, finding themselves poor before the harvest
and rich after it. Given the same thinking tests before and after
the harvest, the farmers performed better on both tests after the
harvest compared to pre-harvest.
The study authors ruled out stress as the cause of poor
participants' cognitive diminishment, noting that stress often can
prompt better mental performance. Rather, they said, the brain
drain -- which is reversible -- occurs because poverty-related
concerns simply consume mental abilities, leaving less capacity for
"The idea is that people only have a certain amount of energy toward making decisions ... and overcoming temptations," said Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. Vohs wrote a commentary that accompanies the new study.
"It makes perfect sense," Vohs said. "Those facing poverty are constantly having to battle temptations and make choices."
Although the study found an association between poverty and
reduced thinking skills, it did not establish a cause-and-effect
Zhao, who took part in the research while studying for her
doctoral degree at Princeton University, said policy makers can use
the findings to help poor people use social programs such as
Medicare and food stamps more effectively.
"Having to fill out long forms, prepare for a long interview or decipher the rules of a program all consume cognitive resources, and these are resources the poor don't have," she said, noting that forms should be simplified and reminders offered to boost recipients' mental resources. "Reducing the 'cognitive taxes' of the poor is one immediate implication for public policy."
The University of Michigan's National Poverty Center offers more
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