Saturday, May 7, 2016

Report from the field: We all have too little of something

The field, in this case, is my past academic discipline, Cognitive Psychology, and my present location, the International Meeting of the Psychonomic Society in Granada, Spain. I've done some studying for the past couple of days, and am happy to admit that I've studied Granada more than Psychonomics. (How could I resist the Capilla Real, the resting place of Ferdinand and Isabella, and the famed Alhambra?) So, continuing in that manner, I am missing the final plenary talk by Eldar Shafir on Sunday as we travel on to Barcelona.

By way of atonement, I've done some reading about Shafir's research topic and the the title of his talk: The Psychology of Scarcity and Its Consequences.

Shafir is one of the authors of the book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, reviewed by The Economist. Snippets from the review follow.

The authors of this book both study people for a living—often people who lack money. They may be vegetable sellers in Chennai, India, who borrow money at dawn and repay with exorbitant interest at dusk. Or they may be ill-paid office managers, like Shawn from Cleveland, Ohio, who lives from pay cheque to pay cheque, always finding that there is “more month than money”.

Surprisingly the authors see a lot of themselves in their subjects. As successful academics, neither lacks money (Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard, won a $500,000 “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation before he turned 30). But they do lack time. The way Mr Mullainathan feels about his professional obligations mirrors the way Shawn felt about his financial liabilities. He has been known to miss deadlines, just as Shawn missed bill payments. Mr Mullainathan has double-booked meetings, promising time he has already committed; Shawn similarly bounced checks. Both were too busy putting out fires to prevent them from flaring up, and both fell prey to fresh temptations. Shawn was seduced by a leather jacket at an unbeatable price; Mr Mullainathan accepted an unmissable invitation to write about people like Shawn.

There is a distinctive psychology of scarcity, argues Mr Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton University. People’s minds work differently when they feel they lack something. And it does not greatly matter what that something is. Anyone who feels strapped for money, friends, time or calories is likely to succumb to a similar “scarcity mindset”.

This mindset brings two benefits. It concentrates the mind on pressing needs. It also gives people a keener sense of the value of a dollar, minute, calorie or smile. The lonely, it turns out, are better at deciphering expressions of emotion. Likewise, the poor have a better grasp of costs.

This scarcity mindset can also be debilitating. It shortens a person’s horizons and narrows his perspective, creating a dangerous tunnel vision. Anxiety also saps brainpower and willpower, reducing mental “bandwidth”, as the authors call it. ...

Here is the abstract of one of the pieces of research by Sharif and his collaborators (published in the weekly journal Science ) concerning the cognitive costs of scarcity.

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.

As part of their conclusion the authors say:

The data reported here suggest a different perspective on poverty: Being poor means coping not just with a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources. The poor, in this view, are less capable not because of inherent traits, but because the very context of poverty imposes load and impedes cognitive capacity. The findings, in other words, are not about poor people, but about any people who find themselves poor.

The Economist's review continues.

By making people slower witted and weaker willed, scarcity creates a mindset that perpetuates scarcity, the authors argue. In developing countries too many of the poor neglect to weed their crops, vaccinate their children, wash their hands, treat their water, take their pills or eat properly when pregnant. Ingenious schemes to better the lot of the poor fail because the poor themselves often fail to stick to them. The authors describe these shortcomings as the “elephant in the room”—which poverty researchers ignore because it is disrespectful to the people they are trying to help. But if these so-called character flaws are a consequence of poverty, and not just a cause of it, then perhaps they can be faced and redressed.

So: if you are focused on what is of short supply in your life, how do you aspire to, let alone attain, loftier goals?

Barcelona awaits.

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