Study finds being poor places heavy burden on mental capacity

The Globe and Mail:

Poverty is like a tax on the brain, a team of researchers has reported, because it imposes a measurable burden on the mental capacity of those who must struggle with it day after day.

The result, part of a study of cognitive reasoning across income groups, may explain why low-income people seem to have a harder time with certain tasks that require focus or planning and appear to make decisions that work against their best interests. It also suggests that policies and programs designed to help the poor improve their lot may not be successful if they do not take into account how much brain power is used simply in the act of trying to get by with scarce resources.

“If you’re dealing with having to pay the rent or face eviction, you don’t have the mental luxury of saying: ‘I’ll deal with that tomorrow,” said team member Eldar Shafir, a behavioral economist at Princeton University.

Dr. Shafir, whose work is supported by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research, is co-author of a new book that explores the theory of mental bandwidth called Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much.

In a separate perspective piece in Science, Kathleen Vohs, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who was not involved with the study, called the work “eye-opening.” Observing that “the lives of poor people are filled with land mines of desire, trade-offs and self-control dilemmas,” she said governments and organizations need to recognize the drain on mental reserves when imposing administrative tasks on low-income groups. That could mean designing better application forms, or making banking and other financial transactions more automated to help reduce mental overload.

Read the whole story: The Globe and Mail

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