09 June 2011

Willpower Against Poverty: Second Take

[Jenial Thanks once again to Global Voices Online for selecting My "Willpower Against Poverty" post. As you can see, I'm addressing that same topic in this post.]

The same day I wrote "Willpower Against Poverty," a quick research for further information led Me to this article in The New Republic, titled "Why Can't Poor People Escape Poverty?" The publication has decidedly liberal leanings, but the article focuses on extensive research relating willpower to poverty. Here are excerpts summarizing key findings and outlining an argument that sounds familiar. (All emphasis is Mine):

In the 1990s, social psychologists developed a theory of “depletable” self-control. The idea was that an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower was finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas. Resisting temptation, the researchers found, seemed to have “produced a ‘psychic cost.’” 

...Researchers have found that exerting self-control on an initial task impaired self-control on subsequent tasks: Consumers became more susceptible to tempting products; chronic dieters overate; people were more likely to lie for monetary gain; and so on. As Baumeister told Teaching of Psychology in 2008, “After you exert self-control in any sphere at all, like resisting dessert, you have less self-control at the next task.” 

In addition, researchers have expanded the theory to cover tradeoff decisions, not just self-control decisions. That is, any decision that requires tradeoffs seems to deplete our ability to muster willpower for future decisions. Tradeoff decisions, like choosing between more money and more leisure time, require the same conflict resolution as self-control decisions (although our impulses appear to play a smaller role). In both cases, willpower can be understood as the capacity to resolve conflicts among choices as rationally as possible, and to make the best decision in light of one’s personal goals. And, in both cases, willpower seems to be a depletable resource...

Nowhere is this revelation more important than in our efforts to understand poverty. Taking this model of willpower into the real world, psychologists and economists have been exploring one particular source of stress on the mind: finances. The level at which the poor have to exert financial self-control, they have suggested, is far lower than the level at which the well-off have to do so. Purchasing decisions that the wealthy can base entirely on preference, like buying dinner, require rigorous tradeoff calculations for the poor. As Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir formulated the point in a recent talk, for the poor, “almost everything they do requires tradeoff thinking. It’s distracting, it’s depleting … and it leads to error.” The poor have to make financial tradeoff decisions, as Shafir put it, “on anything above a muffin.” 

...Many of the tradeoff decisions that the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost... If a doughnut costs twenty-five cents, (Sendhil Mullainathan and Abhijit Banerjee) wrote, then that “$0.25 will be far more costly to someone living on $2 a day than to someone living on $30 a day. In other words, the same self-control problem is more consequential for the poor.” And so, in addition to all the structural barriers that prevent even determined poor people from escaping poverty, there may be another, deeper, and considerably more disturbing barrier: Poverty may reduce free will, making it even harder for the poor to escape their circumstances

All of this suggests that we need to rethink our approaches to poverty reduction. Many of our current anti-poverty efforts focus on access to health, educational, agricultural, and financial services. Now, it seems, we need to start treating willpower as a scarce and important resource as well. 

...Third, money itself can go a long way toward altering the dynamic that leads to willpower depletion among the poor. Government transfers of money have proven successful in Mexico and Brazil, for instance. In particular, attaching conditions to these transfers—such as requiring school attendance, regular clinic visits, and savings behavior—may allow for an end-run around the kind of willpower-based poverty traps that too frequently seem to end with the poor making unwise decisions. [GTJ: Workfare, anyone?]

...Of course, to argue that stressful decisions can exhaust precious mental resources is not to suggest that the decisions of the poor can’t be attributed to human agency. Still, while free will is real, it is also subject to complications. The economist Amartya Sen, in his well-known volume Development as Freedom, notes how an individual’s “freedom of agency” is “constrained by the social, political and economic opportunities” available to them. He’s right: Fewer options do reduce freedom. But now, we may need to grapple with a new possibility: that poverty doesn’t simply reduce freedom by constraining an individual’s choices, but that it may actually alter the nature of freedom by reducing an individual’s willpower. 

The Jenius Has Quoted.

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