Your Brain on Poverty

Your Brain on Poverty

Imagine you’re visiting a college campus, and you notice something odd. You see a student so painfully skinny and weak he can’t push a revolving door without help. You notice other students look emaciated as they slowly shuffle down the sidewalk. Why are people starving at this college?

In spring 1945, starvation was a reality for 36 men participating in what became known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiments.

These men were conscientious objectors to World War II who several months earlier had responded to a flyer that asked, “Will you starve that they be better fed?”1Kalm, Leah M. and Richard D. Semba – “They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment [PDF]“, Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 135: 1347–1352, (2005), also the starvation experiment was discussed in Scarcity (referenced below) pages 5-8

The experiment was designed to study starvation and learn how bring people back from near death to health. In the closing days of World War II, the results couldn’t come fast enough. Each week, Allied forces liberated thousands of starved civilians and concentration camp survivors.

As each man lost more and more weight, two interesting things happened. First, they began to obsess about food. Not just the desire for more food, but about everything related to food.

One participant collected and read over 100 cookbooks. Others discussed detailed plans to open restaurants when the experiment completed.

One participant, Harold Blickenstaff described it as:

“…food became the one central and only thing really in one’s life. And life is pretty dull if that’s the only thing. I mean, if you went to a movie, you weren’t particularly interested in the love scenes, but you noticed every time they ate and what they ate.”2Kalm and Semba, page 1349

The other interesting observation was how efficient each man became conserving energy. The men had to walk 22 miles each week for the study. As their strength vanished, they created little shortcuts.

Participant Samuel Legg remembered when walking:

“…we would look for driveways when we got to a cross street…so we wouldn’t have to walk up one step to get from the road to the sidewalk…”3Kalm and Semba, page 1349

After six long months the starvation period ended, and the men slowly recovered. But they hadn’t starved in vain. The study was so valuable that researchers released some data mid-study to help starving European refugees.

But what’s fascinating about the Minnesota Starvation Experiment is how relevant it is to current poverty research.

Our brains think much the same way when responding to a lack of money as they do with starvation.4Mullainathan, Sendhil and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, page 5-7 paperback Like starvation, poverty is all consuming. It makes us experts at surviving today. But poverty consumes mental capacity, inhibiting intelligence, and long-term decision-making.

In the upcoming election, income inequality will be a major talking point of the Left.

Why? Because the Left believes it’s a wedge issue that paints us as caring only for the rich. They believe Republicans can’t empathically discuss poverty. The Left thinks they’ll beat us on this issue because we will argue with logic and not engage with emotion.

For Republicans to better discuss and think about this issue, we must understand poverty’s effect on our brain.

There are three major ways poverty affects our thoughts and actions.

Feeling poor can reduce functional IQ by 13 points

In one study, researchers asked mall shoppers to take a short test that approximated IQ. Before the test, subjects read a short statement:

“Imagine that your car has some trouble which requires a $300 service. Your auto insurance will cover half the cost…How would you go about making such a decision? Financially, would it be an easy or a difficult decision for you to make?”5Mullainathan and Shafir, page 49 paperback

When they read this question and took the test, both high income and low-income people scored nearly the same. But then they added a twist.

They changed the repair to $3,000.

Now there was a clear difference based on income. Functional IQ scores stayed constant for the wealthy, but poorer individuals performed much worse. A 13-point average reduction in their functional IQ.

That’s more than the impairment seen when people go a full night without sleep and take the same intelligence test.6Mullainathan and Shafir, page 50-52 paperback

People in poverty are experts “at making ends meet today.”7Mullainathan and Shafir, page 104 paperback

Just as the starved men conserved energy, the poor become highly efficient at making ends meet in the short-term.

One study asked shoppers leaving a grocery store how much they’d just spent on groceries and specific items. The middle and high-income shoppers knew roughly how much they’d spent but didn’t know the price of specific items. For the low-income shoppers, they knew both the total of their shopping bill and the cost of each specific item.8Mullainathan and Shafir, page 49 paperback

Further research found low-income individuals in Boston knew the minimum fare of taxis. But higher-income individuals who used taxis much more often had no idea the minimum price.

With limited money, the poor become experts at the price of goods and short-term survival. But the constant short-term precision comes at the expense of long-term planning.

The problems of the moment are all consuming and lead to what’s known as tunneling or focusing only on the very short term. At those moments, you focus merely on survival, that alone is the long-term plan. In fact the greater the poverty, the shorter the time horizon considered in making decisions. For the poor living paycheck to paycheck, their time horizon might be 2 to 4 weeks. For a homeless person, they might only plan 24-48 hours in advance.

Tunneling is why many life decisions of the poor don’t make sense to us. We look at it through the view of our income level and planning scope and don’t consider the world as they see it.

We’ve all thought, “Why would somebody do that?” when it come to a particularly shortsighted financial decision. But often, to them the decision is rational in the short term.

A single mom who gets a payday loan to meet rent might seem foolish. But to her it solves the survival problem of today and this week.

Poverty forces constant tradeoffs and overwhelms our mental bandwidth

Consider having to pack for a five-day trip. But with one catch, you need to fit everything into a small overnight bag.9Packing example from Mullainathan and Shafir, page 69-71 paperback

What do you do?

Well, packing just got harder. Now every piece of clothing you pack will be a decision. If you take an extra pair of shoes, you can’t fit your jeans. You plan and stuff only the most essential items into the bag. It takes you forever, and you worry that you didn’t pack enough.

Now think about this same experience when having a large bag. Want to bring extra shoes? No problem. Extra sweater? Sure. You leisurely pack and fit everything.

Sure your bag weighs 50 pounds, but you’re ready for every contingency.

When money is tight, it’s like we are packing the small suitcase. We forever prioritize one item over another. Poverty makes us have continual tradeoffs that overwhelm our mental bandwidth. We are pick one item we can afford and remove another. All this thinking uses up part of our brains processing power.

When you have no extra in your budget or your life, you are always financially and mentally redlined. Your brain operates on overdrive weighing decisions and tradeoffs against one another.

This scarcity leads to whatever we lack being top of our mind. Like the men in the starvation study with constant thoughts of food, the poor become fixated on their finances.

But unlike the starvation study men, there’s no end date. There’s no vacation from the poverty and mental strain it creates.

Final thoughts

Learning how our brain responds to poverty helps us in two ways. First it allows us to analyze better and assess public policy recommendation designed to help the poor.

Second and most important, it allows us to empathize better and talk with low-income individuals and voters.

As conservatives, we have great policy ideas and plans to help improve government. But we often sell these ideas as long-term solutions. To a voter struggling to make ends meet this month, a long-term solution doesn’t resonate.

For example, instead of saying a tax cut is “$500 more a year to a family of 4.” Talk about it from their perspective.

“What does this tax cut mean to you? It means you take home an extra $20 a paycheck. An extra $20 a paycheck means a lot to a grocery budget. On your last trip to the grocery store, what could you have gotten extra $20?”

You might think $20 a paycheck isn’t a lot. That’s probably true for you. But remember a family in poverty knows exactly how they’d spend each of those twenty dollars.

Photo Credit: “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange

About the Author

Trevor Bragdon

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Hi, I’m the founder of EquipGOP. Every election cycle I meet smart, hardworking Republicans who are running for the first time but don’t know where to start. EquipGOP's goal is to help these local Republican candidates learn tactics and strategies they need to win on Election Day.

Sources & Notes   [ + ]

1. Kalm, Leah M. and Richard D. Semba – “They Starved So That Others Be Better Fed: Remembering Ancel Keys and the Minnesota Experiment [PDF]“, Journal of Nutrition, Vol. 135: 1347–1352, (2005), also the starvation experiment was discussed in Scarcity (referenced below) pages 5-8
2, 3. Kalm and Semba, page 1349
4. Mullainathan, Sendhil and Eldar Shafir, Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, page 5-7 paperback
5, 8. Mullainathan and Shafir, page 49 paperback
6. Mullainathan and Shafir, page 50-52 paperback
7. Mullainathan and Shafir, page 104 paperback
9. Packing example from Mullainathan and Shafir, page 69-71 paperback