Human mental bandwidth is finite. You’ve probably experienced thi= s before (though maybe not in those terms): When you’re lost in co= ncentration trying to solve a problem like a broken computer, you’= re more likely to neglect other tasks, things like remembering to take t= he dog for a walk, or picking your kid up from school. This is why peopl= e who use cell phones behind the wheel actually perform worse as drivers. It’s wh= y air traffic controllers focused on averting a mid-air collision are le= ss likely to pay attention to other planes in the sky.
We only have so much cognitive capacity to spread around. It's a sc= arce resource.
This understanding of the brain’s bandwidth could fundamentally c= hange the way we think about poverty. Researchers publishing some groundbrea= king findings today in the journal Science have concluded that poverty imposes such a ma= ssive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left ov= er to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty – = like go to night school, or search for a new job, or even remember to pa= y bills on time.
In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, an= d the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think = about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests= , saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire= night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed = a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognit= ive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and= normal adults.
The finding further undercuts the theory that poor people, through inhe= rent weakness, are responsible for their own poverty – or that the= y ought to be able to lift themselves out of it with enough effort. This= research suggests that the reality of poverty actually makes it harder = to execute fundamental life skills. Being poor means, as the authors wri= te, “coping with not just a shortfall of money, but also with a co= ncurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.”
This explains, for example, why poor people who aren’t good with = money might also struggle to be good parents. The two problems aren&rsqu= o;t unconnected.
“It’s the same bandwidth," says Princeton’s Eldar Sha= fir, one of the authors of the study alongside Anandi Mani,= Sendhil Mullainatha= n, and Jiaying Zhao<= /a>. Poor people live in a constant state of scarcity (in this case, sca= rce mental bandwidth), a debilitating environment that Shafir and Mullai= nathan describe in a book to be published next week, Scarc= ity: Why having too little means so much.
What Shafir and his colleagues have identified is not exactly stress. R= ather, poverty imposes something else on people that impedes them even w= hen biological markers of stress (like elevated heart rates and blood pr= essure) aren’t present. Stress can also positively affect us in sm= all quantities. An athlete under stress, for example, may actually perfo= rm better. Stress follows a kind of classic curve: a little bit can help= , but beyond a certain point, too much of it will harm us.
This picture of cognitive bandwidth looks different. To study it, the r= esearchers performed two sets of experiments. In the first, about 400 ra= ndomly chosen people in a New Jersey mall were asked how they would resp= ond to a scenario where their car required either $150 or $1,500 in repa= irs. Would they pay for the work in full, take out of a loan, or put off= the repair? How would they make that decision? The subjects varied in a= nnual income from $20,000 to $70,000.
Before responding, the subjects were given a series of common tests (id= entifying sequences of shapes and numbers, for example) measuring cognit= ive function and fluid intelligence. In the easier scenario, where the h= ypothetical repair cost only $150, subjects classified as “poor&rd= quo; and “rich” performed equally well on these tests. But t= he “poor” subjects performed noticeably worse in the $1,500 = scenario. Simply asking these people to think about financial problems t= axed their mental bandwidth.
“And these are not people in abject poverty,” Shafir says. = “These are regular folks going to the mall that day.”
The “rich” subjects in the study experienced no such diffic= ulty. In the second experiment, the researchers found similar results wh= en working with a group of farmers in India who experience a natural ann= ual cycle of poverty and plenty. These farmers receive 60 percent of the= ir annual income in one lump sum after the sugarcane harvest. Beforehand= , they are essentially poor. Afterward (briefly), they’re not. In = the state of pre-harvest poverty, however, they exhibited the same short= age of cognitive bandwidth seen in the American subjects in a New Jersey= mall.
The design of these experiments wasn't particularly groundbreaking,= which makes it all the more astounding that we’ve never previousl= y understood this connection between cognition and poverty.
“This project, there’s nothing new in it, there’s no = new technology, this could have been done years ago,” Shafir says.= But the work is the product of the relatively new field of behavioral e= conomics. Previously, cognitive psychologists seldom studied the differe= nces between different socio-economic populations (“a brain is a b= rain, a head is a head,” Shafir says). Meanwhile, other psychology= and economics fields were studying different populations but not cognit= ion.
Now that all of these perspectives have come together, the implications= for how we think about poverty – and design programs for people i= mpacted by it – are enormous. Solutions that make financial life e= asier for poor people don’t simply change their financial prospect= s. When a poor person receives a regular direct-deposited paycheck every= Friday, that does more than simply relieve the worry over when money wi= ll come in next.
“When we do that, we liberate some bandwidth,” Shafir says.= Policymakers tend to evaluate the success of financial programs aimed a= t the poor by measuring how they do financially. “The interesting = thing about this perspective is that it says if I make your financial li= fe easier, if I give you more bandwidth, what I really ought to look at = is how you’re doing in your life. You might be doing bett= er parenting. You might be adhering to your medication better.”
The limited bandwidth created by poverty directly impacts the cognitive= control and fluid intelligence that we need for all kinds of everyday t= asks.
“When your bandwidth is loaded, in the case of the poor,” S= hafir says, “you’re just more likely to not notice things, y= ou’re more likely to not resist things you ought to resist, you&rs= quo;re more likely to forget things, you’re going to have less pat= ience, less attention to devote to your children when they come back fro= m school.”
At the macro level, this means we lost an enormous amount of cognitive = ability during the recession. Millions of people had less bandwidth to g= ive to their children, or to remember to take their medication.
Conversely, going forward, this also means that anti-poverty programs c= ould have a huge benefit that we've never recognized before: Help pe= ople become more financially stable, and you also free up their cognitiv= e resources to succeed in all kinds of other ways as well.
For all the value in this finding, it's easy to imagine how propone= nts of hackneyed arguments about poverty might twi= st the fundamental relationship between cause-and-effect here. If living= in poverty is the equivalent of losing 13 points in IQ, doesn’t t= hat mean people with lower IQs wind up in poverty?
“We’ve definitely worried about that,” Shafir says. S= cience, though, is coalescing around the opposite explanation. “Al= l the data shows it isn't about poor people, it’s about people= who happen to be in poverty. All the data suggests it is not t= he person, it's the context they’re inhabiting.”