Poverty Affects Mental Capacity

Poverty may have many unexpected consequences. Being intensely preoccupied with the problems that arise when you don't have enough money for normal living expenses results in difficulties performing other complex tasks, according to a study by the Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at the University of Warwick in England.

Studies have found that poverty is associated with lower rates of accessing preventative health care, missed appointments, poor adherence to medication schedules, lower work productivity, less attentiveness to children, and worse financial management. But are these behaviors caused by poverty or are they the cause of poverty?

The researchers found that "the cognitive deficit of being preoccupied with money problems was equivalent to a loss of 13 IQ points, losing an entire night's sleep or being a chronic alcoholic." This deficit may lead to errors and bad decisions, which in turn can cause more profound poverty. For example, if a mother is worried about how to get food for their family's next meal, she will not be able to think about getting an education or locating a dentist to care for her child's toothache.

It would be easy to assume that the point of the study is that persons with low income have inherently lower intellectual ability. That would be inaccurate. The poor aren't born less intelligent. What the study showed is that anyone struggling with economic insecurity will tend to have less cognitive ability. Of course, we should not assume that all people who have experienced poverty necessarily have cognitive deficits.

The researchers suggest that one implication of their work is that programs designed to help people out of poverty must accommodate this potentially lower cognitive capacity which is caused by financial distress. Examples include offering assistance in completing applications to persons with cognitive limitations and reminding patients when it is time to take medication or visit the doctor.

In dire economic conditions, any of us would tend to perform less capably. Knowing this could make us pause before blaming those with lower incomes for the crushing problems they face. After all, we each play some role in creating and maintaining the inequities which contribute to poverty.

[The original article in Science is not freely available online. Instead, you can read about it in this article.]

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2 thoughts on “Poverty Affects Mental Capacity

  1. David Bell

    I love the point about how it's more about lack of cognitive capacity due to it's potential being usurped by external stressors. I've seen this working with a low income population.

    When a person is trapped in sympathetic (chronic stress) activity from a chaotic environment and/or severe trauma, the frontal and prefrontal cortex is essentially off line in favor of the more emotional and primitive centers as survival is the foci of life.

    When those problems are properly treated, a person's cognitive capacity will naturally rise. Intelligence is vastly more dynamic than it is usually seen as with this belief in it being one stable number.

  2. Art Wagner

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    That's exactly right! The sympathetic nervous system was not "designed" to be activated for long periods of time, as it is today for many of us.

    By the way, this over-arousal can be tamed with neurofeedback, as well as with the experiential methods you're using, clinical hypnosis, EMDR, etc. It's a shame that so many young people are being given medications for behavior and attention disorders when the problem many of them have may actually not be them, but a chaotic or traumatizing environment.

    Thanks for your comment, David!

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