Limited mental bandwidth
The limited capacity the brain has to make hard decisions is different from the mental strain that comes with stress. Rather, Shafir analogized the ability to make good decisions to “bandwidth” — a limited resource that can be used up quickly. Shafir said that one of the most important things their study showed was that small impositions on bandwidth have big impact.
And the fact that the study found similar results in suburban New Jersey and rural India show that this drain on mental bandwidth was not merely a problem reserved for the poorest of the poor, Shafir added. “These (New Jersey mall-goers) are not people living in abject poverty, they are just having lot of budgetary tensions,” he said. “The load on cognitive function is not just affecting extremely poor people in exotic places. We’re talking about much of the middle and lower-middle class, and in that sense, we might capture 150 million Americans.”
Experts stressed that the accompanying strain poverty puts on brain power makes it difficult to engage in the kind of behaviors that pull a person out of poverty, regardless of geographic location or cultural factors.
“When people are already in poverty, it is hard to do the things that get them out of poverty because they are already using all of their mental resources, and so they are more likely to engage in behaviors that disable them from moving out of poverty,” Vohs said. “They need to be very motivated, which is much harder to do when in poverty because of these things that deplete their mental energy or capacity.”
Implications for poverty work
These findings may have profound implications for understanding how to alleviate poverty.
People in poverty already have many impositions on their mental bandwidth, from figuring out how they are going to get to work without a car to how they are going to pay rent that month, said Shafir. And many poverty programs such as job retraining or education programs are only adding to this load by requiring reams of paperwork or very specific times when a person must show up to receive the benefits. Such restrictions, which might seem minimal in isolation, add to the already maxed-out strain on a poor person’s mental ability and thus make it much harder for someone who wants to succeed.
Shafir said that people would generally agree it would be counterproductive to charge a monetary fee to someone to join a poverty-alleviation program, but that procedural hoops and strict requirements for programs are essentially doing the same thing. "Giving very complicated forms and meetings to attend on time charges their limited resource of bandwidth in the same way as charging them money,” he said.
While it's easy to think people failing to be prepared for a training program is a result of them not caring, it may be because the impositions they faced that day trying to succeed — like finding transportation and deciding whether they can afford a suit for a job interview — used up their available mental resources. Vohs said programs that cut down on lots of decision-making or those that start earlier in the day when people haven’t worn down their mental power tend to be more successful than those later in the day.
Shafir said this does not eliminate self-reliance from the equation. Programs that are designed to facilitate success rather than put up barriers will allow those who want to better themselves to do so. He said that a poor person's life like a pilot flying a plane. The pilot has many things drawing his limited mental resources such as how high to fly the plane, what the weather is like, and performing the proper safety crosschecks. And a good poverty program is like cockpit that is set up to help the pilot fly without causing him anymore mental stress.
“If you design the cockpit well, you can establish the good pilots from the bad pilots,” Shafir said. “You need to carefully set it up for the good pilots to succeed instead of setting up a situation — a badly designed cockpit — where good pilots will fail simply because of the setup. So in helping people in poverty, you need to design cockpit of everyday life for people who have lots of imposition on bandwidth.”