Poverty hurts your ability to think, study says

New research suggests the poor are so preoccupied with money issues that they make more errors and bad decisions, which continue the cycle of financial problems.

By Bruce Kennedy Sep 4, 2013 11:54AM

Image: Man holding empty wallet © CharlesSturge.com, Image Source, Getty ImagesWhat do being broke and not being able to sleep have in common? According to a new study, both can tax your brain.

A person preoccupied with money problems can have a decrease in their mental abilities similar to a 13-point drop in IQ -- or about the same as trying to function normally after losing an entire night's sleep.

A team of international researchers says poverty and all its concerns use up so much mental energy that a poor person is more likely to make more mistakes and bad decisions, which in turn can deepen their financial woes.

The study, published in the journal Science, tested several hundred people at random in a New Jersey mall over the course of a year -- having them perform common intelligence and cognition tests while asking them to solve scenarios involving sudden and costly financial problems. The same test was also conducted with hundreds of sugarcane farmers in India.

"These findings fit in with our story of how scarcity captures attention. It consumes your mental bandwidth," Jiaying Zhao, one of the study's co-authors, said in a press statement published by Princeton University. "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."

The researchers say the "mental tax" poverty and money concerns put on the brain is different from stress.

The poor "don't have leftover bandwidth to devote to other tasks," noted Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton and another of the study's co-authors. "The poor are often highly effective at focusing on and dealing with pressing problems. It's the other tasks where they perform poorly."

One of poverty's vicious cycles, the study says, is how being poor dominates a person's time and therefore their thinking.

"There's very little you can do with time to get more money, but a lot you can do with money to get more time," Shafir said. "The poor, who our research suggests are bound to make more mistakes and pay more dearly for errors, inhabit contexts often not designed to help.”

Zhao, meanwhile, says the study undermines claims that poverty can be blamed on a person's personal failings or environment.

"We're arguing that the lack of financial resources itself can lead to impaired cognitive function," she said. "The very condition of not having enough can actually be a cause of poverty."

More on moneyNOW
Sep 4, 2013 2:02PM


Being overweight causes you to eat too much, study says.

Sep 4, 2013 12:38PM
My opinion is that this headline and premise should be reversed - "your ability to think affects your level of income".

Nowhere else on earth are there so many opportunities for education as what we have in the USA.  And many of them are free or low cost.  And in many cases, if you truly can't afford them, your way is paid by someone else, or you can get a loan simply by signing on a dotted line, no qualifications needed.  Think of all the free adult ed classes that are available all over the place.  Just about every single city, town, village or hamlet in this country has a library that not only has books, but also plenty of other educational materials and programs.  There are so many free opportunities on the internet to learn bookkeeping or JavaScript code or web design or data entry/typing or spreadsheets or just about anything else you could imagine.

If you aren't taking advantage of these opportunities, that's on you.  There's too many people making too many excuses for the choices they make.

Sep 4, 2013 2:59PM
How can you think about tomorrow when all your energy is used to providing for today?
Sep 4, 2013 10:23PM
I don't think anyone in the United States knows what real poverty is.  And, it is society that puts these types of pressures on people to think they need financial wealth in order to be successful and happy.  It is a true sign that our education system is truly lacking.  At least the people in this study had the capacity to answer questions.  Some people do not have this luxury.  
Sep 4, 2013 1:29PM
Cutting off oxygen to the brain also causes
those with incomes less than 10 Million
to vote Republican....So, there is a case
to be made for feeding our children well,
and NOT to the crocodiles, either, Fat Cat.

Sep 4, 2013 12:53PM
I think it's the other way around. Your lack of thinking causes your poverty.
Sep 4, 2013 4:17PM

Personally this is just crap!!!!!!!!! How many people have risen above poverty to achieve great things... Sorry, we should be taking excuses away from people, not giving them more.........


Sep 7, 2013 9:29PM

I think its the other way around

Greed effects your ability to think just ask any tea party individual a question

Answer Obama did it.  That's before you even get the question out.

Bush jr with all his millions   fool me once_____-__uh  shame on you ___don't fool me again

I Won't even mention sarah palin


Sep 4, 2013 12:39PM

WOW! What a short sighted conclusion.  Short mental bandwidth may be why these people are poor. 


The observation that all cars that have small diameter tailpipes get good gas mileage, so to get better mileage we should put small exhaust pipes on big trucks does not fly. 


To base cognitive function of sugar cane farmers on their ability to make complex financial decisions may not be taking some very important factors, such as education and experience into account.



Sep 4, 2013 12:08PM
queuing fox news trolls to state the obvious in 3.... 2.....1....
Sep 4, 2013 3:30PM

Therefore, since poverty hurts your ability to think, then WE THE ENLIGHTENED should do the thinking for you.

Sep 5, 2013 5:09AM
Go figure .... and anyone intelligent enough to know that they're impoverished would make the necessary mental adjustments .... before actually losing points on intelligence tests .... Like the false negative drug kit .... Or the fake address for the second government check .... Or the baby-daddy drop by sometimes lie .... Or the nieces and nephews for the earned income tax credit .... Or the world is really a dumb place compared to America anyway standard .... Or YOU CAN BE AS BLANK AS A FART BUT I PAID GOOD MONEY FOR THESE DRUGS .... Or I am really thinking of ways to work less and not more .... OH, THE SWEET IDIOTIZING POVERTY .... IT MUST REALLY BE DIFFICULT GETTING RESPECT FROM PEOPLE WHEN ALL YOU WANT TO DO IS DRINK VODKA, PLAY CARDS, WATCH MOVIES, LISTEN TO COLDPLAY, AND CRY ABOUT THE OLD COUNTRY IN CZECH, POLAND, SERBIA, AND RUSSIA .... WHILE THINKING THAT AMERICA IS TOO DIFFICULT .... REQUIRES WAY TOO MUCH WORK AND EFFORT .... AND THAT BLACKS SHOULD BE DOING ALL OF THE STRENUOUS LABOR .... WHILE YOU WATCH THE BIG BANG THEORY ....
Sep 4, 2013 1:23PM
This idiot must have been poor.

“If you go to the Republican convention in Florida, you see all of the old Republicans with the dead skin cells washing off them,” the professor can be heard telling students on the video.
“They are cheap. They don't want to pay taxes because they have already raped this country and gotten everything out of it they possibly could.”

“I’m a college professor,” he said. “If I find out you are a closet racist I am coming after you.

He told them the country is “still full of closet racists.”

“What do you think is going on in South Carolina and North Carolina. Voter suppression. Its about getting black people not to vote. Why? Because black people tend to vote Democratic.”

“Why would would Republicans want to do it?” he asked. “Because Republicans are not a majority in this country anymore. They are a bunch of dead white people."

“Ann Romney a first lady?” he asked. “And remember this if you are just going to be a greedy bastard all your life and just try to get things (unintelligible) In order to be rich like Mitt Romney and hide all your income offshore, in the Cayman Islands, you have to be -- think about it -- Mitt Romney. Anybody here want to be Mitt Romney? Him? I mean (sigh) married to her?”

MSU Professor William Penn (Fake Name)

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