Poverty Lowers IQ

September 4, 2013

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, according to research based at Princeton University. As a result, people of limited means are more likely to make mistakes and bad decisions that may be amplified by — and perpetuate — their financial woes.

Published in the journal Science, the study presents a unique perspective regarding the causes of persistent poverty. The researchers suggest that being poor may keep a person from concentrating on the very avenues that would lead them out of poverty. A person's cognitive function is diminished by the constant and all-consuming effort of coping with the immediate effects of having little money, such as scrounging to pay bills and cut costs. Thusly, a person is left with fewer "mental resources" to focus on complicated, indirectly related matters such as education, job training and even managing their time.

In a series of experiments, the researchers found that pressing financial concerns had an immediate impact on the ability of low-income individuals to perform on common cognitive and logic tests. On average, a person preoccupied with money problems exhibited a drop in cognitive function similar to a 13-point dip in IQ, or the loss of an entire night's sleep. But when their concerns were benign, low-income individuals performed competently, at a similar level to people who were well off, said corresponding author Jiaying Zhao, who conducted the study as a doctoral student in the lab of co-author Eldar Shafir, Princeton's William Stewart Tod Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs.


The cognitive effect of poverty the researchers found relates to the more general influence of "scarcity" on cognition, which is the larger focus of Shafir's research group. Scarcity in this case relates to any deficit — be it in money, time, social ties or even calories — that people experience in trying to meet their needs. Scarcity consumes "mental bandwidth" that would otherwise go to other concerns in life, Zhao said.

"These findings fit in with our story of how scarcity captures attention. It consumes your mental bandwidth," Zhao said. "Just asking a poor person to think about hypothetical financial problems reduces mental bandwidth. This is an acute, immediate impact, and has implications for scarcity of resources of any kind."

Morgan Kelly. "Poor concentration: Poverty reduces brainpower needed for navigating other areas of life". News at Princeton, August 29, 2013.

The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. We hypothesize that poverty directly impedes cognitive function and present two studies that test this hypothesis. First, we experimentally induced thoughts about finances and found that this reduces cognitive performance among poor but not in well-off participants. Second, we examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor. We discuss some implications for poverty policy.

Mani et al. "Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function". Science, 2013.

Related: Parasite prevalence and cognitive development


Anonymous said...

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/ Giovanni

Caribou said...

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You're also in my "affiliates" list.

Don't forget to mention me in a post too!

Maximo Macaroni said...

This post seems just like the book "Scarcity" by Mullanaithen and Sharif. They call the stress factor the "bandwidth tax" and apply it to areas such as loneliness and dieting as well as poverty.

georgesdelatour said...

"They call the stress factor the "bandwidth tax" and apply it to areas such as loneliness and dieting as well as poverty."

In which case we're talking about characteristics like impulsivity (in the sense of being bad at resisting temptation), high time preference, poor ability to think ahead and consider long term consequences. And we're back to the argument in a circle. Does having small amounts of cash make you less able to think ahead and consider long term consequences, or does high time preference tend to make you short of cash?

I'm dipping my toe in this debate. I don't pretend to be up to date with all the research. It seems to me there's likely a mix of genetic and environmental factors behind such personality traits. I'd be amazed if it's 100-0 or 0-100. Is 50-50 a good starting assumption?

Unknown said...

I find that hard to fathom about the statement that poverty lowers IQ! As I have stated before, one cannot pass laws (the land of freedom, really prior to 1970's USA) for 200 years forbidding education for a segment of the population, then forbid said population from exercising their rights (under the laws! to enter the commons then refuse to acknowledge the injustice of the past. Then come up with the statement "Poverty lowers IQ" as some recently discovered factoid.
1. How about denied access to such education
2. How about the refusal to let children into schools
3. How about the burning down of institutions of learning to prevent education from being taught in the greater segmented communities.

Mary said...

Of course poverty lowers IQ! Poverty often causes poor nutrition, starting with prenatal, which causes poor brain development and other physical problems. This is related to nutrition rather than genetics. Health of the body drives physical brain development as well as mental and emotional development.

Unknown said...

Many of these studies rely on secondary and terciary results that show no relationship to what is being studied.
The cultural of institutional racism legalized by laws de jure and by practice, allows for choosing winner and losers implying the former is downplayed and only the lagacy of those policies (i.e. the poverty) and the pretense that same poverty was instituted and maintanined by the ones suffering the poverty. Just like native Americans being kicked off their land, put onto reservations where they had no resources (compared to their previous hunter-gatherer existence) then blame them that they are where they are! The settlers never paid rent nor were the native Americans given the full entitlement of that unequal exchange. Then a researcher comes up with those epopel as being responsible for their own poverty!