Scarcity, Hope, and the Psychology of Poverty

A psychologist walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full” question. Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?”

Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.

She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”

She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”

Remember to put the glass down.

This is good advice for many people. For many of us, the stresses and worries in life are similar to a glass of water. We can put glass-of-waterthe glass down when we need a break. We can take vacations from work, relax during and ‘evening in’, and forget about whatever is stressing or worrying us for a little while. This sort of behavior is healthy for us to practice and provides us with the rest we need to succeed in life.

For other people, however, ‘putting the glass down’ may not be possible. For some, it may be practically impossible to take a break or a vacation from the stresses and worries in their life. These people are the global poor all over the world. The people who, in local currency equivalents, consume less than $2 per day – that includes every major dimension of consumption: food, housing, education, health, security, transportation, etc.

This is the broad point of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s book Scarcity: Why Having So Little Means So Much. Sendhil (a behavioral economist at Harvard) and Eldar (a psychologist at Princeton) demonstrate through lab and field experiments how the mind is taxed by stresses and worries in our life. When humans are busy, or sleep deprived, or poor we focus extra mental “bandwidth” toward whatever is stressing us. This allows us to do amazing things on a deadline or despite a lack of sleep but it takes attention away from other important aspects of life as our minds only have so much bandwidth. The kicker is the busy and the sleep deprived can take a vacation or sleep in on a Saturday morning; the poor however, can’t take a vacation from their poverty. They can’t put the glass down.

This is an important understanding in itself, but there is increasing evidence that there is an added (perhaps secondary) effect of poverty on human cognition.

Although is is not a standard view in economics, many development economists are coming to the understanding that individual desires and economic behavior are often influenced by historical experience and social observation. Rather than existing in isolation, so-called consumer preferences are conditioned by memorable experiences or are formed by comparison with others. In this vein, for many of the poor around the world the environment in which they life (i.e. multi-generational life-stealing poverty) may influence their behavior specifically as it concerns decisions to invest in the future.

In short, the most devastating aspect of global poverty may the critical lack of aspirations, or more broadly hope in the future.

There is a growing literature on the economics of hope (see herehere, here, and here). This literature can be briefly summarized in the conclusion of an important series of lectures given in 2012 by Esther Duflo, an economist at MIT:

A little bit of hope and some reassurance that an individual’s objectives are within reach can act as a powerful incentive. On the contrary, hopelessness, pessimism, and stress put tremendous pressure both on the will to try something, and on the resources available to do so.

I am currently in Myanmar (a place where George Orwell’s grandmother lived and where he himself spent several years working for the Imperial Police). I am here working to implement a field experiment to measure the psychological and economic effects of hope. The study is still in preliminary stages and I’ve spent the last several days in open ended interviews with small-holder farmers and landless villagers in the rural areas of Mon State.

Myanmar is unique and fascinating place to study the formation of hope at the present time. In 2011 democratic elections led to political and economic reforms. While opportunity abounds in many places as prices of important goods and services (i.e. vehicles, electricity, 3G mobile connectivity, health care, ect.) become more affordable due to the opening of the country to global trade, some areas of the country are still constrained and lack access to this opportunity.

I met with a family yesterday that expresses these challenges all too well. The family is Christian in a country and village that is predominately Buddhist. They live on the grounds of their local church for free and, in return, maintain the church property. They own no land and rent no land. Both the mother and father are day laborers and both are currently unable to find work. The mother forages in the forest for bamboo shoots and mushrooms. They have six children, two of which have migrated to Thailand to find work. None of their children have completed formal education and the chances aren’t great for the younger children, according to the father.

When I asked when the last time the family was happy the father responded, “When we are able to have a good meal”. When I asked how often that happened, he responded, “About twice a week”.

I asked what would make their family happy in the future, the father responded, “Last year the church gave each family $100, we’d be happy if that happened again”.

Psychologists say hope is comprised of three elements: goals, agency, and pathways. This family, at least anecdotally, lacks each of these elements. Their aspirations for the future are low and their goals rely heavily on other people.

George Orwell once wrote, “Within certain limits the less money you have the less you worry”. As I sit in the setting of his classics Burmese Days and Shooting an Elephant I have come to realize, he was wrong. The global poor are subject to incredible levels of stress: diseases, expectantly for children, are more likely to be life-threatening; crop failure can lead to starvation. And as shown by the work of Sendhil and Eldar stress makes good decision-making harder.

Perhaps most importantly, the poor lack the institutional environment which fosters good decisions. People, everywhere, underestimate the benefits of education, struggle to save their income, and spend on health care. In rich countries, however, kids going to school is a common social norm; direct deposit and pension systems make personal finance and saving for retirement something many don’t even think about most days; clean and drinkable water comes out of every tap and childhood immunization appointments are automatically set up. Poor countries provide few such prompts and many poor people around the world don’t experience these luxuries.

David Brooks (I know, I know. He’s a polarizing figure) recently wrote: “The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology”. I think the wait is over, the thinkers are here. It’s the folks working on the economics of hope and the psychology of poverty.

 

There are Still ‘Good Guys’ in the NFL

Ben Watson has always been one of my favorite all-time (non-superstar) professional sports players. Primarily due to this play…

(P.S. I STILL don’t understand how that play did not result in a touchback. Like, I don’t understand the physics. But ANYWAY.)

Ben sealed the deal for eternity with the following statement he posted on his facebook page after the events this week.

At some point while I was playing or preparing to play Monday Night Football, the news broke about the Ferguson Decision. After trying to figure out how I felt, I decided to write it down. Here are my thoughts:

I’M ANGRY because the stories of injustice that have been passed down for generations seem to be continuing before our very eyes.

I’M FRUSTRATED, because pop culture, music and movies glorify these types of police citizen altercations and promote an invincible attitude that continues to get young men killed in real life, away from safety movie sets and music studios.

I’M FEARFUL because in the back of my mind I know that although I’m a law abiding citizen I could still be looked upon as a “threat” to those who don’t know me. So I will continue to have to go the extra mile to earn the benefit of the doubt.

I’M EMBARRASSED because the looting, violent protests, and law breaking only confirm, and in the minds of many, validate, the stereotypes and thus the inferior treatment.

I’M SAD, because another young life was lost from his family, the racial divide has widened, a community is in shambles, accusations, insensitivity hurt and hatred are boiling over, and we may never know the truth about what happened that day.

I’M SYMPATHETIC, because I wasn’t there so I don’t know exactly what happened. Maybe Darren Wilson acted within his rights and duty as an officer of the law and killed Michael Brown in self defense like any of us would in the circumstance. Now he has to fear the backlash against himself and his loved ones when he was only doing his job. What a horrible thing to endure. OR maybe he provoked Michael and ignited the series of events that led to him eventually murdering the young man to prove a point.

I’M OFFENDED, because of the insulting comments I’ve seen that are not only insensitive but dismissive to the painful experiences of others.

I’M CONFUSED, because I don’t know why it’s so hard to obey a policeman. You will not win!!! And I don’t know why some policeman abuse their power. Power is a responsibility, not a weapon to brandish and lord over the populace.

I’M INTROSPECTIVE, because sometimes I want to take “our” side without looking at the facts in situations like these. Sometimes I feel like it’s us against them. Sometimes I’m just as prejudiced as people I point fingers at. And that’s not right. How can I look at white skin and make assumptions but not want assumptions made about me? That’s not right.

I’M HOPELESS, because I’ve lived long enough to expect things like this to continue to happen. I’m not surprised and at some point my little children are going to inherit the weight of being a minority and all that it entails.

I’M HOPEFUL, because I know that while we still have race issues in America, we enjoy a much different normal than those of our parents and grandparents. I see it in my personal relationships with teammates, friends and mentors. And it’s a beautiful thing.

I’M ENCOURAGED, because ultimately the problem is not a SKIN problem, it is a SIN problem. SIN is the reason we rebel against authority. SIN is the reason we abuse our authority. SIN is the reason we are racist, prejudiced and lie to cover for our own. SIN is the reason we riot, loot and burn. BUT I’M ENCOURAGED because God has provided a solution for sin through the his son Jesus and with it, a transformed heart and mind. One that’s capable of looking past the outward and seeing what’s truly important in every human being. The cure for the Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner tragedies is not education or exposure. It’s the Gospel. So, finally, I’M ENCOURAGED because the Gospel gives mankind hope.

Thank God for Evolution

Here is a spoken word poem about slavery, genocide, and hope by Micah Bournes. Micah is a poet and signer from Southern California. He works mostly with the theme of Justice and how that fits in with theology. This video is very thought provoking and well done. In some places it is difficult to hear, so I took the time to transcribe the lyrics.

On a personal note, the slave fortress where most of this video takes place is one of the places I will visit while in Ghana next semester. It will be interesting to see where fellow humans were bought and sold and to contemplate the reality that we have not changed very much at all. But as Christians we can live renewed lives through faith in Christ.

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