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When You’re Poor, Bad Decisions Are Rational

When delaying gratification becomes a fool's errand.

Nov 24 2013, 1:30pm

Being poor messes with a person’s cognitive capacity. If you’re a child, it can impact your brain development. If you’re an adult, it can cloud your long term judgement.

A landmark study in August showed that the effect was equivalent to knocking off thirteen points from your IQ, that being poor produced a predilection for poor decision making, a vicious cycle that’s nearly impossible for the impoverished to break out of.

But what’s most depressing about the whole ordeal isn’t that those living in poverty are constantly making bad decisions, it’s that those bad decisions might actually be the most rational path to take. A poignant contribution by Linda Tirado to Gawker’s Kinja platform provides an eye-opening first-hand perspective to these scientific developments. Being poor is a soul-sucking vacuum where the normal rules to life simply don’t apply. Being poor means living without hope.

I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing.

Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.

The rest of her moving and insightful anecdote is worth reading. Thanks to the traction her words have had on the internet, Tirado has been urged to write a book about her experience. She’s already raised two-thirds of her goal to fund that endeavor, which will be a necessary voice for a growing subsection of the US population that has long been willfully ignored.

It’s yet another indictment of the overly simplistic interpretation of the famed Stanford marshmallow test, in which children are offered a marshmallow, but also the promise that, if they don’t eat their treat immediately, they’ll be offered even more later. Those who couldn’t help themselves were deemed impatient. Tracking those children into adulthood, the ability to delay gratification directly correlated toward success in the real world: better grades, healthier lifestyles, and higher-paying careers.

A recent re-interpretation of that classic test may be more apt. Celeste Kidd, a cognitive science graduate student at the University of Rochester, added a dimension of trust. The setup was the same, except with half the kids, the researchers broke their promise. Instead of providing a treat for their patient fortitude, they were offered an apology.

When the researchers re-tried the experiment, nine out of the 14 kids who had received their initial treat as promised stayed patient. The contrast in the other group was stark. Only one was willing to risk being disappointed again. The others ate their marshmallow almost immediately.

As University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire point out in their own research about decision making, the issue of delayed gratification may come down more to a person’s worldview than their willpower. In that sense, rather than a dieter who is convincing herself to not eat the entire cake immediately, it’s more like a person waiting for a train that they’re unsure will ever arrive.

“The timing of real-world events is not always so predictable,” the researchers write. “Decision makers routinely wait for buses, job offers, weight loss, and other outcomes characterized by significant temporal uncertainty.”

For the poor, life’s inherent unpredictability becomes predictable over time, as Tirado suggests, where striving for a middle class existence becomes self-defeating, even foolish, like a neverending Taylor Swift song where the girl keeps going back to the same guy only to allow him to break her heart all over again, on repeat. And when you’re poor, the only guys available are the ones who will disappoint you.

As Andrew Golis suggests, “maybe the psychology of poverty, which can seem so self-defeating and irrational, is actually the most rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes.” Rather than make the same mistake all over again, you give up on love altogether when you know that the system will only break your heart. Such is the plight of the poor.


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