Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?A radical new explanation from psychologists.
Jamie Holmes June 6, 2011 | 12:00 am
Flannery O’Connor once described the contradictory desires that afflict all of us with characteristic simplicity. “Free will does not mean one will,” she wrote, “but many wills conflicting in one man.” The existence of appealing alternatives, after all, is what makes free will free: What would choice be without inner debate? We’re torn between staying faithful and that alluring man or woman across the room. We can’t resist the red velvet cake despite having sworn to keep our calories down. We buy a leather jacket on impulse, even though we know we’ll need the money for other things. Everyone is aware of such inner conflicts. But how, exactly, do we choose among them? As it turns out, science has recently shed light on the way our minds reconcile these conflicts, and the result has surprising implications for the way we think about one of society’s most intractable problems: poverty.
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. In 1998, researchers at Case Western Reserve University published some of the young movement’s first returns. Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice set up a simple experiment. They had food-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. Resisting temptation, the researchers found, seemed to have “produced a ‘psychic cost.’”
Over the intervening 13 years, these results have been corroborated in more than 100 experiments. 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.
This theory of depletable willpower has its detractors, and, as in most academic topics studied across disciplinary fields, one finds plenty of disputes over the details. But this model of self-control is now one of the most prominent theories of willpower in social psychology, at the core of what E. Tory Higgins of Columbia University described in 2009 as “an explosion of scientific interest” in the topic over the last decade. Some skeptics correctly emphasize the vital role of motivation, and some emphasize instead that “attention” is limited. But the core of the breakthrough is that resolving conflicts among choices is expensive at a cognitive level and can be unpleasant. It causes mental fatigue.
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.”
And poor people tend to be bad at doing financial tradeoff decisions: It's the Lucky Jim principle: nice things correlate with nice things, nasty things with nasty things.
Last December, Princeton economist Dean Spears published a series of experiments that each revealed how “poverty appears to have made 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. As Spears found, “Choosing first was depleting only for the poorer participants.” Again, if 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. 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.
In general, this suggests why traditional morality is better for poor people than more modern a la carte morality.
Also, let me put in a word here for an old-fashioned class system. The idea was that there were respectable modes of behavior for whatever class you aspire to, so you don't have to make up your mind a la carte on every damn thing all day long. You just look at what the people in the class of which you wish to be considered a respectable member do, and imitate it.
Retailers often do well for themselves by offering to take over the brain work of choosing products for a particular class. For example, Sears started out as the respectable farmer's mail order catalog company. Then, in 1924, it hired the former Quartermaster General of the army in WWI, Robert E. Wood, who revamped the company to be the store of the home-owning, car-owning middle class suburbanite.
Today, it's interesting to compare the big box stores Target and Costco. Target might carry 100 different varieties of shampoo, while Costco carries about three. Thus, Target has lots of pretty girls shopping there, people to whom choosing the perfect shampoo is an important gambit in the mating game, worth expending scarce mental energy upon.
Costco, in contrast, has very few pretty girls among its customers. Most shoppers look like they have kids and are shopping for 3 to 5 people, and thus they aren't willing to finetune their purchases to meet individual idiosyncracies: just give us something cheap and respectable. Costco makes a big deal out of how they strike vast bulk deals with manufacturers and thus pass on (some) of the savings to the customer.
But a less obvious strategy of Costco is that they won't go terribly low in quality while pursuing bargains. Nor will they go to the gaudy extremes that poorer people like to splurge upon. Their implicit guarantee is that the products they sell will be, while rather dull, considered respectable by middle class to upper middle class family people.
Upper middle class styles in the U.S. have generally evolved away from the formal and fancy toward the casual and utilitarian. Wearing a $20 casual shirt from Costco to a Memorial Day barbecue is highly respectable for, say, a retired McKinsey consultant. (The truly rich tend to wear stuff that looks pretty similar, but costs much more.)
The opposite of the Costco shopping experience is car shopping. Dealers work very hard to make to make buying a car a stressful experience that preys upon your class insecurities. Their ultimate goal is to make you want to impress the salesman by overpaying for the car.
One of the better ways to buy a car these days is through Zag, which partners with companies whose customers are considered by car dealers to be less intimidatable, such as Consumer Reports subscribers and customers of USAA, the insurance company that specializes in selling to military officers. Zag lets you "build and buy" the exact car you want, then offers you "no-haggle" prices at some local dealers.
But that still doesn't get around the enormous mental energy expenditure of deciding what car and what features you want to build and buy. I think there is a real opportunity out there for some firm, such as Costco, to extend its strategy to car sales.
Say that Costco each year offered one SUV, one family sedan, and one compact car, each equipped with the optimal features for the price. Heck, they could offer just one color. They could negotiate a pretty low price from a manufacturer.
This would be particularly appealing to parents buying cars for their kids. For example, that McKinsey consultant is in the market for a car for his daughter graduating from college. He's interested in safety and reliability, and isn't all that interested in indulging her (no doubt strong) feelings about which car most self-actualizes her image of herself. Generally, young women have expensive theories about what kind of car makes them look most cute, but expenditures on cars have relatively low marginal returns for young women in the mating market versus spending money on their personal looks. (The main exception might be the very expensive car that sends the message to guys, "I'm out of your league, so don't waste my time.")
If Costco told him that this year's Costco family sedan was a silver Ford Fusion with lots of airbags and other safety equipment like hands-free dialing for $18,999, he'd go for it in a flash.
But, there's practically no way to cut out car dealers. They have both contracts with manufacturers and state laws on their side protecting them from end arounds like this.