Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function

October 30, 2013 at 1:34 am 3 comments

An interesting experiment, with a deeply disturbing result.

The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. We hypothesize that poverty directly impedes cognitive function and present two studies that test this hypothesis. First, we experimentally induced thoughts about finances and found that this reduces cognitive performance among poor but not in well-off participants. Second, we examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor. We discuss some implications for poverty policy.

via Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function.

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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Robert Flight  |  October 30, 2013 at 8:28 am

    Interesting. Besides the obvious implications for grade school students learning basics, I wonder how this impacts graduate students and post-docs in academia, who are often living on wages that allow them to “get by”?

  • 2. Monica McGill  |  October 30, 2013 at 8:29 am

    Timely, Mark, given the CNN article posted this morning (http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/29/opinion/sutter-lake-providence-income-inequality/index.html?hpt=hp_t1) by John Sutter:

    “Nationally, a 2011 study from Sean Reardon at Stanford University shows students from poor families test the equivalent of three to six years behind their rich peers [in school].”


    “You could blame Gilmore’s hardship on bad luck, but huge income gaps also are associated with gaps in empathy and trust, and that eventually morphs into hopelessness.

    Surprising links have emerged between income inequality and a host of social problems, including mental illness, substance abuse, incarceration, educational failure, teenage pregnancy, lower life expectancy, violence and infant mortality.

    Such links don’t exist when you look just at average income.

    The inequality itself is to blame.”

    In other words, income inequality costs taxpayers.

    This is an issue not only related to income level, but to race, as Sutter points out.

    I would like to think that efforts to broaden participation in computing can help with this issue in some small way. Not only is there way too much wasted talent when people don’t reach their potential due to economic concerns, but it also seems unconscionable to stand by and let this happen. And, as these articles point out, we all do better as a society.

    If one must look at this from a purely economic standpoint, the nation continues to address the lack of STEM workers, including in computing. It seems to me that the future workers are here, right here in the States, if we only can be bold enough to fully address it.

  • […] are lots of reasons why rich kids are unequal to poor kids (see the issue about poverty and cognitive function.)  Cultural knowledge is just part of […]


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