You’ve done a lot of research about the psychology of poverty. Do you see your research as supplying answers to any of today’s problems?

My coauthors and I have really tried to emphasize one of the main perspectives of social psychology: the power of the situation. As a society, we often try to pathologize things about people who are poor, but our work suggests that a lot of problems are situational. Someone who has more means can think more clearly about things in front of her. As people lose their jobs or deal with stress from COVID-19, for example, that taxes mental bandwidth. And there are ways in which we are criminalizing a lack of bandwidth and the effects of being in a hard situation.

What’s an example?

We’ve been doing work in New York City, in partnership with the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, to try and reduce the number of people who fail to appear in court for low-level offenses. For certain offenses such as public consumption of alcohol or disorderly conduct, or even biking on a sidewalk, you might not be arrested but you’ll receive a citation and have to appear in court. If you miss the court date, a warrant will be issued for your arrest. That’s when a minor offense becomes a much bigger deal.

The criminal-justice system treats a missed court date as an intentional failure to show up, but in some cases it could be that people just forgot. We redesigned the summons form and sent text messages to make it easier for people to remember, and that helped. Both interventions were more effective for residents living in poorer neighborhoods, which makes sense because of the way poverty taxes mental bandwidth. When you’re already juggling so much, some things are going to slip your mind. In some cases, punishing people for missing court might really be punishing them for having a lot of competing demands.

This made me rethink other work I did, which involved getting teenagers to pause and reflect before acting. All teens should be pausing and reflecting; it’s not that poor kids need to do it more. But it might be even harder for kids growing up in a disadvantaged neighborhood. There are so many things they need to pay attention to, and the cost of not pausing before acting is higher. They might get caught up in the criminal-justice system because of a mistake that stemmed from being mentally overwhelmed.

Should this inform a rethinking of criminal justice?

Whichever way the conversation about police funding goes, there’s still this whole other set of things we ought to be investing more in. And we should be making sure our criminal-justice system recognizes the fact that it’s dealing with people who make mistakes, not necessarily people who are intentionally trying to break the law. With crime, we assume greater intentionality. We all understand that people make mistakes, but we seem to forget this when talking about the criminal-justice system.

Anuj K. Shah is associate professor of behavioral science at Chicago Booth.

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