Poverty consumes so much mental energy that people struggling to make ends meet often have little brainpower left for anything else, leaving them more susceptible to bad decisions that can perpetuate their situation, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Science.
“Past research has often blamed [poverty] on the personal failings of the poor. They don’t work hard enough; they’re not focused enough,” said University of British Columbia professor Jiaying Zhao, who co-authored the study as a Princeton University graduate student. “What we’re arguing is it’s not about the individual. It’s about the situation.”
As part of the study, researchers conducted experiments on two groups of subjects: low- and middle-income shoppers in a mall in New Jersey, and sugar cane farmers in rural India.
In the mall experiment, shoppers underwent a battery of tests to measure IQ and impulse control. However, half the participants were first given a “teaser” question — what they would do if their car had broken down and needed $1,500 worth of repairs — designed to put a pressing financial concerns at the forefront of their thoughts.