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

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)

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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