Being poor and making poor financial decisions can often go hand-in-hand. But is that a cause or consequence of poverty? New research suggests being preoccupied with an economic situation can actually reduce brainpower.
As one of the study’s co-authors explained to The Washington Post, there are misconceptions about being poor: “Past research has often blamed [poverty] on the personal failings of the poor. They don’t work hard enough; they’re not focused enough … What we’re arguing is it’s not about the individual. It’s about the situation.”
To test their theory, researchers at Harvard and the University of British Columbia carried out separate IQ tests. First, they subjected 400 random mall goers to a series of cognitive tests. (Via YouTube / Rachel5923)
About half of the participants were first given a financial question — what they would do if their car broke down and they need $1,500 to fix it. Low-income shoppers performed worse on the IQ test if they first had to consider their economic situation.
The same went for a group of sugar cane farmers in India measured at different points in their harvest. After the harvest, when their crops were doing well and they had more money to spend, they performed better on the cognitive tests. (Via YouTube / WWFIndia)
Overall, the researchers determined the mental strain put on those who are struggling leads to about a 13 point drop in their IQ. That’s about the same for someone who goes a night without sleep. (Via CBS)
The reason? The scientists behind the study say spending time worry about paying bills or getting the next meal can leave less mental capacity for other tasks — much like a computer that’s slowed down when too many programs are running. (Via The Economist)
The Los Angeles Times explains the findings back up “the idea that many behaviors linked to being poor — using less preventive healthcare, having higher obesity rates, being less attentive parents and making poor financial decisions — may be caused by poverty rather than the other way around.”
The researchers say the findings have important implications for policymakers. As one of the authors told The Guardian, anti-poverty programs should be designed to help them with day-to-day worries.
“When they have 20 things that are grabbing their attention, which seem very urgent, to remind them of something that’s important at the right time, that’s also an effective strategy.”
The researchers suggest programs designed for the poor have applicants fill out financial aid forms in advance and send out reminders when their bills are due as a way of easing their mental burden.
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