Databyte: Mind the Gap

The burden of financial insecurity on cognitive function

Published on September 19, 2013by Chris Tait

The wealthy stand relatively untroubled in the face of the economic consequences of their spending. While those confronted with conditions of poverty are forced to focus more intensely on the implications of their financial decisions, exhausting their cognitive load which may in turn reduce their capacity for positive thinking.

The human cognitive system has limited capacity. And while previous research has suggested that characteristics of the poor themselves lead to counterproductive behaviors, authors of a new study published in Science propose that poverty requires so much mental energy that fewer cognitive resources remain to guide positive choice and action.

Research has posited that the poor are more prone to detrimental attitudes and health-related behaviors. Impoverished people have low levels of using preventive health care, adhering to drug regimens, and keeping medical appointments.

A review of the literature suggests that one’s socioeconomic position has different effects on levels of cognitive function such that there is a graded association between cumulative socioeconomic disadvantage and cognitive function.

An international research team collaborated to test this construct in an experimental setting. The study, led by Dr. Anandi Mani, Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, challenges the idea that the poor are less capable in their behavior due to inherent traits, and alternatively proposes that the circumstances of poverty itself compromise cognitive function.

Mani and colleagues tested this theory in two contexts: the first in a laboratory study and the second in a quasi-experimental field study, a design similar to a randomized controlled trial that aims to demonstrate causality between an intervention and an outcome without the use of randomization.

The laboratory study was designed to induce rich and poor participants to everyday financial demands in hypothesizing that similarly sized financial challenges would have different impacts for the rich and the poor.

Researchers presented participants with four hypothetical scenarios describing a financial problem one might experience. Participants were randomly assigned to a “hard” condition (involving relatively high costs) or an “easy” condition (involving lower costs). Participants were then tasked with thinking about how they might go about solving the problem, while performing two tests of cognitive function.

The first test was the Raven’s Progressive Matrices, which is often used to measure fluid intelligence, or the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations. The second was a spatial compatibility task measuring cognitive control, or the ability to guide thought and action in accordance with one’s goals.

When presented with easy scenarios, there were no differences in either cognitive function test between the rich and poor. However, when presented with the hard scenarios, the poor performed significantly worse than the rich. Furthermore, whereas the rich were unaffected by the difficulty of the scenarios, the poor performed much worse when thinking about the hard scenarios than the easy ones, as shown in the Figure.


The authors conducted a second study to assess what happens when income varies naturally in a field study of Indian sugarcane farmers. They performed two tests of cognitive function: pre-harvest, when the farmers faced greater financial pressures, and post-harvest, when their financial burdens had been relieved.

The Raven’s test was used again to measure fluid intelligence, but a different method, known as the Stroop test, was used to measure cognitive control, as the cognitive control test used in the laboratory experiments could not be administered in the field.

Both tests showed marked differences between pre-harvest and post-harvest scores. The average number of errors committed by the farmers was much higher before receiving payment as compared with post-harvest after the receipt of their payment.

The researchers also found that the farmers’ perceived intensity of their financial constraints had a negative correlation with their performance on both tests of cognitive function.

Mani and colleagues compare the magnitude of the cognitive effects observed in their studies to effects reported by researchers in the sleep and substance use literatures. Concern with financial constraints is cognitively comparable to losing a full night of sleep, or to being a chronic alcoholic, which has been associated with a 13-point IQ deficit.

The two studies support the researchers’ theory that poverty has the overwhelming ability to capture attention, breed intrusive thoughts, and trigger persistent concerns rendering the poor unable to function cognitively at a high level. And this has policy implications.

“When we think of poor people and design policies and programs to help them, we are only particularly cognizant of the fact that they have less material resources. I think that programs don’t often appreciate that they’re also, precisely because of poverty, a bit challenged in terms of the mental resources and attention that they have. To the extent that we want to make anti-poverty programs effective, we want to design them in a way that is mindful of that,” Dr. Mani told to The Guardian.

In discussing the social determinants that affect cognitive function, Dr. Mani and colleagues emphasize that the findings of this study are not about poor people intrinsically, but rather about anyone who may find themselves poor at various points throughout life.

This notion underscores the capacity of cognitive abilities to return when the burden of poverty has disappeared. Similar ideas have been put forth by cognitive neuroscientist Charles Nelson in describing cognitive plasticity in Romanian orphans. Nelson’s work highlights the ability of orphans to recover from the cognitive deficits they faced while institutionalized after being placed in an actively engaging environment that stimulated brain development.

What hope, then, do the poverty-stricken have? The authors call for greater attention to policies that address economic instability, not simply as a means to increase financial security, but to promote the realization of constructive cognitive abilities.

Such research has the ability to shift the conversation about poverty and its many deleterious effects, including those on health. It seems that the conditions of poverty themselves occupy so much head space that always making the right decisions—which the advantaged don’t do—is a persistent challenge. This research gives us yet another reason to mind the gap between those with and those without economic resources and the opportunities to generate them.

Edited by Dana March