A study published this week in Science describes experiments done on two groups of people to determine how the mental stresses associated with poverty affected their decision-making. Half of the test subjects in the New Jersey group were given a hypothetical question about a pressing financial concern before being subjected to IQ and impulse control tests. The other group consisted of Indian farmers who were given tests before the harvest, when money was especially tight, and after, when more money was available. In both groups, “people wrestling with the mental strain of poverty suffered a drop of as much as 13 points in their IQ — roughly the same found in people subjected to a night with no sleep.” Unsurprisingly, once money worries were resolved, clearer thinking returned.
What’s the Big Idea?
Too often the problems of poor people are blamed on one or more personal failings, but anyone who has actually dealt with it knows, as study co-author and Harvard economist Sandhil Mullainathan states, that the strain can affect the brain’s cognitive abilities to the point where bad decision-making becomes more common. He and co-author Jiaying Zhao of the University of British Columbia suggest that influencers of public policy should “beware of imposing cognitive taxes on the poor” such as the types of long forms and interviews encountered when seeking monetary assistance.