Skip to content
Join our Newsletter
Join our Newsletter

Poverty can make you stupid, UBC study claims

VANCOUVER -- Being poor not only depletes your bank account, but it also diminishes how you think, reason and remember, says an intriguing new study by a University of B.C. professor.
Being poor not only depletes your bank account, but it also diminishes how you think, reason and remember, says an intriguing new study by a University of B.C. professor.

VANCOUVER -- Being poor not only depletes your bank account, but it also diminishes how you think, reason and remember, says an intriguing new study by a University of B.C. professor.

People living in poverty are often blamed for not improving their lives, but this new research argues being poor uses so much mental energy there is little brainpower leftover to make good, life-changing decisions.

If you are worried about how to pay the rent or feed your kids, says UBC psychology professor Jiaying Zhao, then that lowers your cognitive ability to do other mental tasks, such as studying at school or performing well in your job.

"Previous views on poverty blame poverty on the poor themselves because they are not capable, or because of their personal failing, or because of lower education, etc.," said Zhao, who grew up in a poor household in China.

"We take a very different, almost the opposite view: This in not about the individuals themselves, but the context — you are in poverty, you don't have enough cognitive resources."

The findings from the five-year study, which Zhao conducted with three other professors while a graduate student at Princeton University in the U.S., are published today in the journal Science.

The research paper, Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function, argues governments and society can help poor people improve their financial status by reducing bureaucratic hurtles, such as filling out long forms or deciphering new rules.

The study was broken into two parts which analyzed responses from 400 people with varying finances recruited in a New Jersey mall, as well as the experiences of 464 impoverished farmers in India.

For the first part, the participants had annual salaries ranging from $20,000 to $160,000, with a median of $70,000, to reflect U.S. demographics, Zhao said.

One hundred of those participants were described four financial scenarios, such as their cars needed repairs and they could either pay, take out a loan, or ignore the problem. The questions were intended to trigger thoughts of their own personal finances.

Before giving their answers, the participants performed two computer-based psychology tests which measure cognitive functions, such as thinking logically and solving problems.

In the car scenario, half the participants were told the repairs would only cost $150, while the bill for the other half was $1,500. The group with the lower bill performed similarly on the psychological tests regardless of financial backgrounds; but of those with the more expensive bill, the poor performed much worse than the rich.

"In both tasks, the rich were uninfluenced by condition," the study notes, "where as the poor performed significantly worse in the hard condition."

Three other tests with other participants in the lab aimed at weeding out alternative explanations for this finding, such as "math anxiety" causing the poor to achieve lower cognitive scores during the financial stress scenarios.

The outcome — that those in poverty have less mental capacity left for other tasks when they are in a financial crisis — remained consistent, but researchers then wanted to know if the findings would be the same in real life.

Therefore, they conducted a field study involving 464 sugarcane farmers in small villages in Tamil Nadu, India.

The farmers were given two psychological tests in 2010 before the harvest, when they were poor, pawning personal belongings and taking out loans. Then they were interviewed again after the harvest when they had money.

In the post-harvest, when the farmers had fewer financial woes, they answered questions on the tests faster and more accurately.

The study also ruled out other factors that could explain these results — such as before the harvest farmers physically work harder and/or eat less, and after the harvest it was the second time they had taken the test.

"Taken together, the two sets of studies — in the New Jersey mall and the Indian fields — illustrate how challenging financial conditions, endemic to poverty, can result in diminished cognitive capacity," the study concluded.

But how much is the poor's brain power diminished by financial concerns?

The study says it is the equivalent of trying to function after losing a full night's sleep.

It is also the equivalent of a swing in 13 IQ points, which is sizable enough, Zhao said, to move a person with average intelligence up to superior smarts or down to borderline retardation.

Therefore, just as governments tax the poor less, they should also not intellectually strain them when they need help, the study argues. For example, farmers should be sent information about new agricultural practices post-harvest, and those without jobs should not face complicated forms.

"The hurdles you have to go through in order to receive welfare all consume cognitive resources, and these are resources the poor don't have because they are struggling with other financial issues," Zhao said.

Eliminating such red tape, the study argues, would not only contribute to economic stability but also increase society's pool of brain power.

"By giving the poor resources, you are not just making them a little richer but enabling more cognitive resources, and as a result other aspects of their lives will improve," Zhao said.

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks