causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (71): Poverty of Willpower and of Self-Control, Revisited

marshmallow test

(source)

Almost as old as the problem of poverty itself is the story that poverty is caused by insufficient self-control and willpower. Never mind that things may just as well be the other way around: poverty drains the will. And never mind that the most famous study cited by proponents of the willpower story is apparently misleading:

For the past four decades, the “marshmallow test” has served as a classic experimental measure of children’s self-control: will a preschooler eat one of the fluffy white confections now or hold out for two later? … The research … began at Stanford University in the late 1960s. Walter Mischel and other researchers famously showed that individual differences in the ability to delay gratification on this simple task correlated strongly with success in later life. Longer wait times as a child were linked years later to higher SAT scores, less substance abuse, and parental reports of better social skills.

Because of the surprising correlation, the landmark marshmallow studies have been cited as evidence that qualities like self-control or emotional intelligence in general may be more important to navigating life successfully than more traditional measures of intelligence, such as IQ.

The Rochester team wanted to explore more closely why some preschoolers are able to resist the marshmallow while others succumb to licking, nibbling, and eventually swallowing the sugary treat. The researchers assigned 28 three- to five-year-olds to two contrasting environments: unreliable and reliable. The study results were so strong that a larger sample group was not required…

Children who experienced unreliable interactions with an experimenter waited for a mean time of three minutes and two seconds on the subsequent marshmallow task, while youngsters who experienced reliable interactions held out for 12 minutes and two seconds. Only one of the 14 children in the unreliable group waited the full 15 minutes, compared to nine children in the reliable condition.

“I was astounded that the effect was so large,” says Aslin. ” … You don’t see effects like this very often.” …

The findings, says Kidd, are reassuring. She recalls reading about the predictive power of these earlier experiments years ago and finding it “depressing.” At the time she was volunteering at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, California. “There were lots of kids staying there with their families. Everyone shared one big area, so keeping personal possessions safe was difficult,” she says. “When one child got a toy or treat, there was a real risk of a bigger, faster kid taking it away. I read about these studies and I thought, ‘All of these kids would eat the marshmallow right away.’ “

But as she observed the children week after week, she began to question the task as a marker of innate ability alone. “If you are used to getting things taken away from you, not waiting is the rational choice. Then it occurred to me that the marshmallow task might be correlated with something else that the child already knows—like having a stable environment.” (source, source)

More posts in this series are here.

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causes of poverty, economics, poverty

The Causes of Poverty (46): Poverty of Willpower and of Self-Control

self-control

(source)

Conservatives often argue that the absence of certain mental goods such as self-control and willpower are to blame for the absence of material goods: poverty of the mind and of the will leads to material poverty. Now it seems that things are actually the other way around. Psychological experiments have shown that

an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower [is] finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas. … After you exert self-control in any sphere at all, like resisting dessert, you have less self-control at the next task. (source)

That’s a general rule, but also one which affects the poor disproportionately: their material poverty forces them to exercise self-control and willpower much more frequently and intensely. They therefore deplete their mental “stock” much more rapidly, and as a consequence lose the necessary mental powers in situations where they need them most. This in turn, makes their material poverty worse or at least more difficult to overcome.

The basic process have been shown over and over again in simple experiments. Here’s one:

[F]ood-deprived subjects sit at a table with two types of food on it: cookies and chocolates; and radishes. Some of the subjects were instructed to eat radishes and resist the sweets, and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles. Resisting the sweets, independent of mood, made participants give up more than twice as quickly on the geometric puzzles. (source)

This makes intuitive sense:

Purchasing decisions that the wealthy can base entirely on preference, like buying dinner, require rigorous tradeoff calculations for the poor. … [P]overty appears to [make] economic decision-making more consuming of cognitive control for poorer people than for richer people. … In one experiment, poor participants in India performed far less well on a self-control task after simply having to first decide whether to purchase body soap. …  [I]f you have enough money, deciding whether to buy the soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it. (source)

work

(source)

This leads to some profound philosophical questions. Poverty seems to reduce free will, making it hard for the poor to use their own mental powers as means to escape their circumstances. However, if that is the case, we’ll be tempted to adopt some form of classism, blaming the poor rather than the economic and social structures they live in, the economic ups and downs that determine their job prospects, the discrimination some of them face, the politics and laws they endure etc. And then we’ll be right back where we started, with the conservative criticism of poverty discourse. The poor become a lesser form of humans, devoid of some of the essential human characteristics such as free will, self-control, intelligence etc.

However, the basic logic of the self-control argument remains persuasive, as long as one doesn’t focus too much on it at the expense of other causal explanations. The logic is also reminiscent of another causal theory, namely the bee sting theory of poverty. Both theories focus on the psychological causes of poverty:

A person with one bee sting is highly motivated to get it treated. But a person with multiple bee stings does not have much incentive to get one sting treated, because the others will still throb. The more of a painful or undesirable thing one has (i.e. the poorer one is) the less likely one is to do anything about any one problem. Poverty is less a matter of having few goods than having lots of problems.

If, for example, our car has several dents on it, and then we get one more, we’re far less likely to get that one fixed than if the car was pristine before. If we have a sink full of dishes, the prospect of washing a few of them is much more daunting than if there are only a few in the sink to begin with. …

[B]eing poor is defined by having to deal with a multitude of problems: One doesn’t have enough money to pay rent or car insurance or credit card bills or day care or sometimes even food. Even if one works hard enough to pay off half of those costs, some fairly imposing ones still remain, which creates a large disincentive to bestir oneself to work at all. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

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