Poverty can reduce brainpower, study

POVERTY HAS been found to use up mental energy and result in making mistakes and bad decisions that can amplify one’s poor financial status. As a result, the poor have less ‘brainpower’ to address other areas of life according to an international study published in the journal Science.
Dr Cory Couillard
Dr Cory Couillard

POVERTY HAS been found to use up mental energy and result in making mistakes and bad decisions that can amplify one’s poor financial status. As a result, the poor have less ‘brainpower’ to address other areas of life according to an international study published in the journal Science.

The researchers, from Harvard and Princeton universities, the University of Columbia, and the University of Warwick, said the study “presents a unique perspective regarding the causes of persistent poverty”.

The daily struggle impairs one’s ability to concentrate on more complex but less immediate matters such as advanced education, job training, preventative health care and improving one’s standard of living. Poverty robs the poor of their ability to manage their time and places more importance on being reactive versus proactive. 

“These pressures create a salient concern in the mind and draw mental resources to the problem itself. That means we are unable to focus on other things in life that need our attention,” says Jiaying Zhao, co-author and assistant professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia.

“Previous views of poverty have blamed poverty on personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success. We’re arguing that the lack of financial resources itself can lead to impaired cognitive function. The very condition of not having enough can actually be a cause of poverty,” she adds.

The results suggest that poor people are far from stupid but those living on tight budgets could lose up to 13 IQ points. It’s not stress in general but financial worries that led to a reduced ability to make sound decisions. This increases the number of bad choices that amplify one’s financial worries, researchers found.

“Late fees tacked on to a forgotten rent payment, a job lost because of poor time-management - these make a tight money situation worse. And as people get poorer, they tend to make difficult and often costly decisions that further perpetuate their hardship,” says Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology at Princeton University.

The research team found financial worries to be associated with the influence of “scarcity”. Scarcity can be described as lack of time, money, social connections and resulting health challenges that poor people face when trying to cope.

The poor are often exposed to greater personal and environmental health risk factors, have less access to health care services and have limited lifestyle-related choices. They are also more likely to experience discrimination, abuse and exploitation. 

Unclean water, deficient sanitation and food safety are all major concerns to the poor. They play a significant role in the development of cholera and viral hepatitis, and contribute to neglected tropical diseases such as schistosomiasis. 

Lack of education and inadequate housing often contributes to high rates of maternal mortality, adolescent pregnancy, sexual assault and high rates of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV and human papilloma virus (HPV).

Poverty has historically contributed to infectious diseases but it also impacts noncommunicable diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and cancer as well. These conditions are emerging threats to the poorest populations.

Dr Cory Couillard works with the World Health Organization’s goals of disease prevention and global health care education. Views do not necessarily reflect endorsement. 

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