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Poverty Reduces Brainpower, Study Finds

Research based at Princeton University found that poverty and all its related concerns require so much mental energy that the poor have less remaining brainpower to devote to other areas of life.

Poverty by definition means a scarcity of financial resources. But new research just published in the prestigious journal Science reveals that our typical concept of poverty may in fact be entirely too limited. In addition to its other connotations, economic deprivation has now been linked to cognitive poverty, as those who do not have enough money to meet all of their financial responsibilities or properly care for their families are so overtaxed by worry, stress and insecurity that it diminishes their ability to concentrate or perform challenging mental tasks.

In order to study the cognitive effects of socio-economic status, researchers from Harvard, Princeton and the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom recruited 400 New Jersey residents to participate in a role-playing exercise that would require them to navigate their way through theoretical scenarios that could potentially bring financial hardship. As these people attempted to develop strategies to solve their dilemmas, they were asked to submit to tests designed to measure and evaluate their mental performance within the context of the exercise.

Incredibly, it was discovered that when people were asked to manage scenarios that were likely to cause minimal strain on their pocketbooks, they performed much better than when the hypothetical situations they were asked to imagine involved real financial hardship. Furthermore, when people were asked to imagine scenarios where financial penalties were relatively low, test performance varied little between study participants. However, when the amounts of money involved were increased to the point where they would cause hardship for poorer test participants but not for those who were more well-to-do, the cognitive abilities of the poorer group seemed to decline while those of the more prosperous group remained unchanged.

Poverty-Intelligence Connection Confirmed

In order to verify the study findings, a second stage of the experiment was carried out involving farmers in India, this time in a real-world context. The farmers were given a variety of intelligence tests both before and after selling food products from their annual harvest, and it was found that their intellectual performance improved when they had money in their pockets and were no longer worried about feeding their families or paying their bills. Once again, the poverty-intelligence connection was confirmed, as the farmers’ functional IQs fluctuated in coordination with the state of their financial health.

“These pressures create a salient concern in the mind and draw mental resources to the problem itself,” said Jiaying Zhao, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and a co-author of the study. “That means we are unable to focus on other things in life that need our attention.

“Previous views of poverty have blamed poverty on personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success,” she said. “We’re arguing that the lack of financial resources itself can lead to impaired cognitive function. The very condition of not having enough can actually be a cause of poverty.”

A lot more work will need to be done to establish a firm and clear connection between difficult economic circumstances and a measurable decline in cognitive abilities. Studies that track people’s performances over many years on a wide variety of intelligence tests as their financial conditions change would be especially useful, but because the field of behavioral economics is still so new these sorts of projects have yet to be completed. Nevertheless, the Science study’s revelation that a person’s cognitive functioning can be measurably affected by economic factors is a remarkable finding in any context, and this discovery could have enormous implications for public policy makers and others seeking to understand how the much-debated “cycle of poverty” really works.

The Harvard, Princeton and Warwick researchers responsible for this study hypothesize that poverty interferes with human cognitive capacities in much the same way that trees or tall buildings interfere with the flow of air around a wind turbine. Bad economic circumstances cause feelings of stress and anxiety that can affect focus and memory, and they also fill a person’s mind with negative thoughts and constant fears that leave little room for other types of more constructive mental activity. Much as a wind turbine will struggle to produce useful energy when wind flow is reduced, so will a mind taxed by difficult economic circumstances find it hard to process important information from the surrounding environment efficiently and effectively. So rather than poverty being a product of low intelligence (an idea that reactionary commentators and racist theorists used to routinely assert), if there is any relationship at all it works in the opposite direction, as people’s inherent mental capacities are apparently obstructed by circumstances that leave them feeling vulnerable, fearful and ridden with anxiety.

In Search of a New Parable

It is possible that old ideas about the cycle of poverty will have to be replaced by a more nuanced understanding that recognizes the degree to which scarcity in general will inevitably breed more scarcity. If poverty tends to disarm those who are caught in its grip, leaving them short of the personal resources they need to make their lives better, they may require a type of intervention that has gone somewhat out of fashion in a world where public investments are usually portrayed as an automatic waste of money—meaning that a poor family’s chances of lifting themselves up out of poverty might be enhanced if all its members were to be guaranteed life essentials such as health care, food, housing and a living wage right from the very beginning. This may require a reorientation in public policy, but it may be the only practical way to solve our most thorny and persistent economic problems.

There is an old parable that says “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” This sounds like a sensible recipe for helping those who are stuck in poverty. But if their sense of existential insecurity is so great it undermines their cognitive processes and makes it impossible for them to actually learn how to fish, it may be necessary to fill their freezers with food first so they will be able to relax and concentrate on improving their fishing skills—and economic circumstances—one day at a time.

There is still hope.

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