Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why are poor people dumb?

Sendhil Mullanathain and Eldar Shafir have a new book out, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means Much More.

The book discusses a few experiments in psychology and introduces a few pieces of jargon to help readers remember the main points:

Focus Dividend - when you don't have a lot of time, or money, etc. you economize on its use, and your mind is better able to focus on the task at hand

Tunneling - the focus you get when time, or money, etc. is short has a negative side-effect: tunneling. You can only see things that relate to your goal. If you are own a diet, for instance, you can't stop counting calories, or thinking about sweets...

Bandwidth (Tax) - bandwidth is a loose word for "computational horsepower." Doing things uses up bandwidth and scarcity--of money or time, etc.--eats up bandwidth since, for instance, dieters are using some of their bandwidth repressing urges to eat sweets

That all happens in the first two chapters. The rest of the book has a lot of applications--to poverty and other things no one will remember--but the discussion of poverty has captured most of the attention of the press, including NYTimes essayist Tina Rosenberg.

She asks whether people are poor because of bad choices or whether they make bad choices because they are poor. It's probably a lot of both, but the scarcity paradigm nudges us to acknowledge that is might be more of poverty causing bad habits than we used to think.

The strange thing about the book is that it makes no mention of meditation or mindfulness. Psychologists know how to treat deficits of attention and lack of focus. Meditation, even as little as 15 minutes a day, trains people to bring their focus back to the present. You would think it would help people avoid tunneling while still reaping some benefits of the focus dividend but the book's recommendations are about text messages, simpler forms, and default enrollment . . . which doesn't sound that different from a traditional liberal focus on changing "the system" instead of changing people's behavior.

Second, we know most of what people do is based on habits, not conscious decisions. The bandwidth tax, they have shown, lowers fluid intelligence and executive control, but how does it influence habits? Is there an interaction: rich people don't get a bandwidth tax because they know what to do by habit (draw on a credit line?) while the poor have to think about which lender, which friends to borrow from, if its worth it to fix the car this week or wait until next week? Isn't going to a payday lender also mostly a problem of habit, not a byproduct of bad decision-making when you are tunneling? (As Tina notes, most loans go to people who visit semi-monthly.) This is surprisingly under explored in the book except in passing, calling the tendency of people given abundance to waste it and end up right back in a  scarcity trap the "psychology of abundance," i.e. habits.

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