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Does Poverty Lower Your IQ? August 31, 2013

Posted by geoff in News.
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A pair of scientists from Harvard and Princeton claim that they have shown that poverty can degrade your intellectual functions (a more accessible article from the LA Times here):

There’s a widespread tendency to assume that poor people don’t have money because they are lazy, unmotivated or just not that sharp, said study coauthor Sendhil Mullainathan, a behavioral economist at Harvard University.

…shoppers were divided into groups designated as rich or poor based on their incomes. The researchers prompted them to consider their financial situations by asking them how they would pay for an unexpected car repair.

For half the subjects, the hypothetical bill was $150, a relatively low amount. For the other half, it was $1,500 — enough to make a person of modest means do some mental arithmetic.

Then the shoppers took a spatial intelligence test and another that measured their ability to control their impulses. The rich did fine no matter what the repair cost. The poor did OK too when the bill was just $150. But when it was $1,500, their IQ test scores dropped by 13 points.

The researchers surmised that concern about the looming expense had sucked up their brainpower.

Now, I don’t really doubt that they have verified a fundamental but long-known truth:

Being distracted during tests lowers your scores.

Yawn. That banal observation is harmless in itself, but of course the authors felt the need to try to form policy based on their results:

Many programs designed to help the poor require tedious paperwork, inconvenient appointments and the need to make extra financial decisions. Such requirements may undermine their intended aims, Mullainathan said.

Time is a resource anyone can run out of, Johnson said, but there are ways to reduce the burdens, whether it’s filling out financial aid forms in advance, sending out reminders for payments, or setting optimal default choices for selecting healthcare.

“Governments and other people should avoid putting cognitive taxes on people” whether they’re rich or poor, he said. “Making choices easier is going to help everyone.”

Because I’m a helpful sort of guy, I’m going to save the authors a lot of time and spare busy people from having to take IQ tests by telling them the conclusion of their next study:

Everybody’s got troubles.

The authors’ mistake is in assuming that only poverty-stricken people have worries, when in fact we all have worries that drain our mental horsepower. Everybody worries about money, kids, health, relationships, work/school, repairs, government regulations, and the future. The rich may have a higher threshold of pain when it comes to financial issues, but they certainly do have a threshold of pain, and it’s just as distracting as the financial difficulties of the poor.

This is why you’ll sometimes hear people in the middle class and up complain that their lives are too complicated, and they’d like to go back to a simpler time with less money and fewer problems. It’s almost always an idle threat, but is indicative of the stress and fatigue of coping with life.

Save for a few fortunate souls who have found some sort of inner peace, I think most adults generate worry commensurate with their lifestyle. That is, you just keep adding to your worry bucket until it’s overflowing, no matter how much money you have. So we’re all laboring under the same mental handicap. It’s possible that income level has an effect on that handicap, but I doubt it. Tell everybody in the survey that their significant other is breaking up with them and then see how income level correlates with distraction. I’m thinking everybody but the sociopaths would be a basket case.

The authors would have you believe that their results indicate that poverty has a special influence on mental processes, and that underachievement by the poor is due to poverty, rather than poverty being due to underachievement. I don’t believe that either statement is true.

Comments»

1. AKA John Galt - August 31, 2013

Reblogged this on U.S. Constitutional Free Press.

2. Jimbro - August 31, 2013

If only they could simplify tax forms I could worry less and boost my IQ dramatically

3. geoff - August 31, 2013

I had those in mind, actually. Also, all the insurances you acquire as you rise in income. What a pain.

4. Nan G - August 31, 2013

I only have anecdotal evidence about this.
My brother has been a super-successful salesman.
He married a developmentally challenged girl he got pregnant.
They had the child.
The child was given every educational toy, great schools, and yet did not go to college because he hated studying.
But he found a great niche.
He married an RN who had three small children.
He’s a wonderful stay-at-home dad.
I’m sure his quality of life is better than it could have been had he been the breadwinner.
His children have thrived.
So, low IQ, but lots of opportunities.
And lateral thinking with ego taking a back seat.


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