How Poverty Taxes the Brain

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Human mental bandwidth is finite. You’ve probably experienced this before (though maybe not in those terms): When you’re lost in concentration trying to solve a problem like a broken computer, you’re more likely to neglect other tasks, things like remembering to take the dog for a walk, or picking your kid up from school. This is why people who use cell phones behind the wheel actually perform worse as drivers. It’s why air traffic controllers focused on averting a mid-air collision are less likely to pay attention to other planes in the sky.


We only have so much cognitive capacity to spread around. It's a scarce resource.

This understanding of the brain’s bandwidth could fundamentally change the way we think about poverty. Researchers publishing some groundbreaking findings today in the journal Science have concluded that poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty – like go to night school, or search for a new job, or even remember to pay bills on time.

In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.

Written By: Emily Badger
continue to source article at theatlanticcities.com

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  1. Tell me something new.

    Take away all the funding of the researchers, then fire/dismiss them with no references, They will soon figure it out, without having to spend any research money at all.

  2. Wow. Thank you. That was a very interesting article. It should be read by all the Worshippers of the Holy Free Market. These kinds of facts are what prevent me from endorsing the US brand of libertarianism, and keep me in the political center.

  3. I know of a few stupid people that are very rich….what does that say about brain function ? that passed a certain level of ‘dollars in bank’ some brains become not only secure of their lifespan but positively arrogant and forgetful of the every day pain of powerlessness, striving and the stress of judgemental class divisions..
    There are wise and clever people who don’t strive for personal wealth and consumerism – they are the happiest ‘poor’ people…and there are millions of intelligent poor people striving to ‘worship the dollar’ who value education regardless of personal wealth…

  4. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.

    Hmm, I wonder if the effect is cumulative or if, being drunk, one worries less about finances. Either way it’s cool, I can spare the bandwidth.

  5. In the easier scenario, where the hypothetical repair cost only $150, subjects classified as “poor” and “rich” performed equally well on these tests. But the “poor” subjects performed noticeably worse in the $1,500 scenario. Simply asking these people to think about financial problems taxed their mental bandwidth.

    “And these are not people in abject poverty,” Shafir says. “These are regular folks going to the mall that day.”

    The “rich” subjects in the study experienced no such difficulty.

    I recall when I was struggling financially. It was extremely stressful. Little things that people take for granted took much effort and time that wealthier kids did not even need to think about. I needed to rely on a poor/slow transportation system to get me where I needed to go while my peer drove in their own cars. Every bit of change in coins mattered. The worrying was incredible. At times, I needed to rely on medical help from clinic that would not charge. I recall how I could not even enter a high end store in the mall. I felt unworthy to even enter the place. Even working for a business with a beautiful interior was a point of stress. Now imagine being employed with a company that gives you a budget to do business juggling more money than you currently have. You need to overcome your own sense of being “cheap” to get the job done. (No wonder the subjects performed worse in the $1500 scenario.) It took me many years to get where I am today. I cannot help thinking I would have been further along if I have the means and support to get where I wanted to go. Yes I was also not in abject poverty and went to the mall. It seems to me that researcher from Princeton, Harvard and the likes would need to do a study of this issue. My guess is that most cannot relate to a situation other than their own.

    Yes, this research is nothing new. We’ve all heard of Maslow’s heirarchy of needs, the effects of stress, etc.

  6. nah. not buying this one. [i'm an ex sociologist] often academics predefine search parameters subliminally and voila! out comes the answer they sub congnitively sought out. Amazing! I’m on a disability pension and life is good. I’m writing [crap] playing [crappy] piano paint [crappy] pictures and read heaps. the problem with the poor [western rich mainly] is their dopey attitude to everything. I travelled through Asia twice and hate to say it: esp India/Nepal that those who struggle [unfair I know] seem still to be content because of their culture, their communialities, their weltgeist which borders on the KosmiK. We [& esp academics] have a lot to learn. Me included

    • In reply to #7 by almostvoid:

      Don’t get me wrong, for most of you poor average sods personal poverty is probably extremely taxing on the mind. I find it more of a distraction from real problems out there, like general poverty for instance.

    • In reply to #9 by ApexDisorder:

      With critically applied logic this article is easily dismantled into the constituent fallacies of this womans fantasies.

      Really? I don’t see any obvious fallacies.

      • In reply to #12 by Peter Grant:

        In reply to #9 by ApexDisorder:

        With critically applied logic this article is easily dismantled into the constituent fallacies of this womans fantasies.

        Really? I don’t see any obvious fallacies.

        I would suggest an easy read, “A practical guide to critical thinking, by Greg Haskins”.
        I’m not gonna hold hold your hand on this one.
        Utilize the the information provided and do the work yourself. You can probably ask alan to Wikipedia it for you as well.

        • In reply to #13 by ApexDisorder:

          I would suggest an easy read, “A practical guide to critical thinking, by Greg Haskins”.

          I’ve read it. How about you show a little intellectual humility when criticising peer-reviewed research, otherwise just STFU.

        • In reply to #13 by ApexDisorder:

          I would suggest an easy read, “A practical guide to critical thinking, by Greg Haskins”.

          I’ve read it. How about you show a little intellectual humility when criticising peer-reviewed research.

  7. It’s not mentioned here, but what would be interesting to see is what the effect would be of applying principles which allow you to decrease your mental burden :

    • Keeping a budget so you have a clear view on what bills are expected ( so you don’t have to try and remember it )
    • Keeping a schedule, todo lists , etc… to get a clear overview of what has to happen next ( without having to try and remember it ) .
    • In reply to #10 by kenny77:

      It’s not mentioned here, but what would be interesting to see is what the effect would be of applying principles which allow you to decrease your mental burden :

      Keeping a budget so you have a clear view on what bills are expected ( so you don’t have to try and remember it )
      Keeping a schedule, todo lists , etc… to get a clear overview of what has to happen next ( without having to try and remember it ) .

      Unfortunately certain systems like to do lists end up being “should” lists. You should do this. You should do that. It becomes a way of beating yourself up when the list is long and overwhelming. Other psychological factors need to be taken into account.

      the problem with the poor [western rich mainly] is their dopey attitude to everything. I travelled through Asia twice and hate to say it: esp India/Nepal that those who struggle [unfair I know] seem still to be content because of their culture, their communialities, their weltgeist which borders on the KosmiK. We [& esp academics] have a lot to learn.

      Pointing to the “happy” Indians or “happy” impoverished Asians always seems to come up. Why is it that these extremely impoverished people are content while wealthier westerners are so miserable? Perhaps they have accepted their karmic lot in life. In the west, an individual struggling financially still has far more challenges and complexities that need to be navigated. Anyone who has had medical bills realizes the stress in figuring out the maze. Most all of us have homes that break down since living in a cave or tent really is not a legal option. Simple lives relieves much stress, but western lives are rarely ever this way. By the way, doesn’t Nepal have the highest rates of young girls being married off?

  8. While certainly not something new altogether, it is an interesting way of looking at the problem of poverty. My interest however would lead to finding ways to propel the brain towards developing more neual pathways and increasing memory and function. That way one can take the problem out and elevate the human mind all the further. Whether a type of training to properly catagorize and segment ones mind or a drug, I am game to explore both options. As with all things however the smoking gun is the less probable so I would put my money on a process of teaching and developing a persons mind.

  9. These effects of poverty are relative the individual. Some further study into what makes individuals react to different types of stress differently might be useful. But certainly I would say this paper is relevant to the majority of western individuals who find themselves in this situation because of the manner and degree to which the economy is regulated. Less developed countries, with less regulated economies offer the individual more freedom and less pressure to perform, and basic needs are often met more easily. Although everyone essentially seeks a means of survival, the reasons for doing so become more individualistic the more competitive an economy becomes, thus negating the aspirations of those who see fulfilment in simpler things in life. The fact that such individuals are then treated as ‘loser’s’ by those who feel the more they have the more successful they are is the big tragedy, tantamount to a slaver’s mentality. What next ? ‘Elysium’ ? Matt Damon to the rescue ?

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