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In some ways, scarcity appears to make people better problem solvers. In these game versions of the world, says Shah, the players randomly assigned to be poor focused on what was concrete and in front of them. And that’s what happens in real life, too, write Shah, Mullainathan, and Shafir. When money is tight, “the very lack of available resources makes each expense more insistent and more pressing. A trip to the grocery store looms larger, and this month’s rent constantly seizes our attention. Because these problems feel bigger and capture our attention, we engage more deeply in solving them.”
Unfortunately, one way to solve the problem in the short run is to borrow, which can backfire. In the experiments, when poor participants were allowed to borrow resources, that borrowing undid some of the advantages of scarcity. When the researchers looked at performance as a function of borrowing, they find that poor players often borrowed more than they should have, and performed better when they weren’t permitted to borrow. Poverty led to wise decisions, but it also led to counterproductive ones.
Trade-offs become real
Shah, Mullainathan, and Shafir looked further into how poverty affects decision-making, and find that poor people may evaluate trade-offs better than their wealthier counterparts. Just as the Angry Birds players spent more time lining up a shot, people with actual financial concerns might also make better, more focused decisions, closer to what economists consider ideal.
The researchers asked real people of various socioeconomic strata if they were willing to travel an extra 30 minutes to save $50 on a $300 tablet. Some said they were. But when asked if they’d drive that far to save the same amount on a $1,000 tablet, some of the respondents changed their minds. Their answer depended on their income.
In one experiment, the researchers had participants look briefly at a list of words that were either related to money or to men but contained neither the word “money” nor “man.” The researchers then asked the participants to recall as many words as they could.
Poorer participants looking at the money-related list were more likely than wealthier participants to say that “money” was on the list. Income didn’t appear to affect how people responded to the other list.
“Everyone regularly deals with most of the items on the money-related list,” write the researchers. “But strikingly, wealth affords us the luxury to see those items—rent, phone, grocery—as largely disconnected. For poorer participants, however, that list takes on a different texture. The items are all associated with prominent financial concerns, strongly related to the one concept that is not there but is often remembered: Money.”
In another experiment, the researchers asked participants from a range of income levels to imagine different scenarios in which they encountered some unexpected activity, such as ending up at a fancier-than-expected restaurant with a group of friends. What kinds of thoughts were most likely to come to their minds? Poorer participants, more often than wealthier ones, mentioned cost-related thoughts. And the thoughts were intrusive. Thinking about receiving bad medical news, poorer participants worried about impending treatment costs. Thinking about driving routines, they had trouble suppressing thoughts about transportation costs. The research collectively suggests that poverty shifts a person’s focus and attention. And once thoughts about money emerge, they’re difficult to suppress.
Many people were, irrationally, more likely to say yes when buying a $300 tablet rather than a $1,000 one. But that response was more common among wealthier people. For poorer individuals, the cost of the tablet often didn’t matter—regardless of the price, they were just as likely to travel for the discount.
That’s the correct financial decision, according to traditional economics—to drive the extra distance no matter the original cost. Saving $50 is the same regardless of the amount of the item in question. But wealthier participants saw the savings in relative terms, noticing the percentage savings. By contrast, poorer participants thought in absolute terms. To them, $50 saved was $50 to spend on groceries or the electric bill.
The same pattern showed up in experiments that involved smaller and larger amounts of money or other rewards. Even calories fit the pattern: people who were dieting, and therefore in a scarcity mind-set, recognized that an order of McDonald’s fries was just as fattening whether thought of in terms of daily or weekly calorie intakes. But people who were not dieting were more swayed by context. Once again, scarcity prompted the more accurate decision.
Put it into practice
If people in poverty are making smart decisions considering the situation, how could that be recognized and better encouraged? There may be ways to help people when they’re facing potentially expensive borrowing decisions. For example, Chicago Booth’s Marianne Bertrand and University of California at Berkeley’s Adair Morse studied high-interest payday loans and find that people made better decisions when the interest rate was expressed in terms of dollar amounts, namely the cost they’d pay over three months. “We’d explain this by saying that a dollar amount is a lot more concrete,” says Shah. “You can think about exactly what you’d have to give up to pay off the loan.”
“Program designers and policy makers often suffer from a failure to accurately take the perspective of the people they are trying to help,” says Chicago Booth’s Christopher J. Bryan. “They design programs that would be appealing to people if they had the luxury of being able to devote careful thought and attention to considering them. But poverty imposes a heavy attentional ‘tax’ that prevents people from devoting that kind of thought to new opportunities, so program uptake is low.”
Financial worries affect a person’s ability to function and focus, especially at work, according to a survey conducted by Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Polling 1,200 employees at companies of all sizes and all over the United States, the company finds that 56 percent of people were stressed about their finances. Of these, 53 percent said that their financial stress affected their ability to concentrate at work.
The company argues that financial planning would help the situation, prodding employers to offer additional resources to increase “financial wellness” and reduce financial stress. Forty percent of people polled said they wished their employers would take a more active role in assisting with financial planning, and 85 percent said they’d participate in an employer-provided financial education program.
Northwestern Mutual, for its part, recently partnered with a neuroscience research firm to understand more about what’s going on in the brain when people make financial decisions, with and without an adviser.
To see what areas of the brain are involved in financial decision-making, they hooked participants up to an EEG machine, which measures brain activity, then had them imagine scenarios that included making choices about investing in a child’s college fund or devising a budget after a divorce. The participants were sometimes given additional information to guide them in making their decisions. The results suggest that the brain is less stressed when help is offered: signals in the brain associated with calm decision-making were 21 percent higher when participants had more financial advice. Conversely, signals that indicate attention were 20 percent higher when the participants were not given any additional help, suggesting that these participants’ brains were working harder to process the information. The takeaway, says Northwestern Mutual’s Rebekah Barsch, is that having assistance can make a big difference in a person’s perception of financial stress.
This aligns with what Chicago Booth’s Abigail Sussman has suggested in her own policy work as part of the Behavioral Science and Policy Association’s working group on financial decision-making, a consortium of academic researchers. In 2017, the group released a report outlining some of the behavioral variables that may contribute to consumers’ poor financial decisions, and describing what companies can do to help customers make better ones.
One suggestion: lenders should be more transparent and make information easier to understand. A credit-card company could notify customers before a charge is added to their account, or provide online tools to help customers understand how interest accrues. For instance, visualizations could illustrate how compound interest works, and calculators could show the total cost of a purchase under various repayment plans. Similarly, the researchers suggest that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau might create a tool for people applying for mortgages, showing the best type of mortgage based on the individual’s data, as well as her projected risk of defaulting. Companies act in their own interests, but “it’s generally not in the company’s best interest to have all of their customers defaulting,” says Sussman. To some extent, she says, “they’re interested in helping.”
“2017 Brain on Finance Study,” Northwestern Mutual Newsroom website (news.northwesternmutual.com/brain-on-finance-study), Accessed January 2017.
“2017 Workplace Benefits Report,” Bank of America Merrill Lynch report, June 2017.
Brigitte C. Madrian, Hal E. Hershfield, Abigail B. Sussman, Saurabh Bhargava, Jeremy Burke, Scott A. Huettel, Julian Jamison, Eric J. Johnson, John G. Lynch, Stephan Meier, Scott Rick, and Suzanne B. Shu, “Behaviorally Informed Policies for Household Financial Decisionmaking,” Behavioral Science and Policy, January 2017.
Bryan was the lead author of a policy paper that recommended new strategies to policy makers and other relevant parties based on recent findings. Among other things, he and his coresearchers advise that an effort be made to reduce the up-front cost of future-oriented behaviors. For example, they point out that in a study by researchers at the World Bank, Harvard, and Yale, giving kids free school uniforms boosted school enrollment in Kenya by more than 6 percentage points. Similarly, researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the University of Toronto, in conjunction with H&R Block, find that offering US students assistance with their applications for federally funded college student aid has been shown to increase enrollment in college by 24 percent.
The researchers urge service providers to weigh price and inconvenience carefully, particularly when offering health-related services, which many people may forgo if the cost or the distance is too great. A program in Uganda brought health products such as water-purification tablets and antimalarial drugs to people door-to-door, which removed the issue of making people travel to get these products. That simple step to counter the inconvenience of seeking out products and services had an effect. “It can sometimes be better to charge a small fee and make a service very convenient than to charge nothing for a very inconvenient service,” write the researchers. In this case, the cost of delivery was included in the price of the products.
The researchers also recommend taking into account the timing of incentives—and they advise to avoid offering them when money is tight and people are consumed with the pressing need to budget what little they have to meet basic needs. In India, where sugarcane farmers are paid annually after the harvest, farmers’ attention scores were the equivalent of 10 IQ points higher than just before the harvest, when farmers were relatively poor, according to data from the 2013 Science study mentioned earlier.
Offering subsidies or other incentives when people are more receptive to and have the spare capacity to consider them, such as after a harvest or a payday, may make a difference over the long run. One effort, in Tanzania, asked people to sign up for health insurance at cashpoint locations right after payday, and the timing led to a 20 percentage point increase in health-insurance use.
Introducing cognitive aids can help address the limited capacity for attention that may constrain people in poverty. In one study, it helped to show farmers research regarding the most productive ways to plant their crops. When poor, stressed, and in a scarcity mind-set, farmers had a harder time taking in the information. “This result has nothing to do with the intelligence of the farmers,” writes Bryan’s team. “A fact is only obvious if the observer has the spare attentional capacity to notice it.”
They also suggest that reminders, in the form of text messages or stickers, can be effective. Such gentle pushes—for instance, to take medication on schedule—can help people remember to do what they may otherwise forget, since other duties and obligations may compete for attention.
For those who design and implement antipoverty initiatives, it’s important to recognize that while scarcity can help people focus on costs and benefits, it can also cause stress that shifts attention and steals cognitive bandwidth. A big step forward would be to understand these psychological limits that poverty imposes and make some policy tweaks, write the researchers, to “substantially improve the impact they have on the poor.”
- Marianne Bertrand and Adair Morse, “Information Disclosure, Cognitive Biases, and Payday Borrowing,” Journal of Finance, November 2011.
- Eric P. Bettinger, Bridget Terry Long, Philip Oreopoulos, and Lisa Sanbonmatsu, “The Role of Application Assistance and Information in College Decisions: Results from the H&R Block FAFSA Experiment, Quarterly Journal of Economics, August 2012.
- Christopher J. Bryan, Nina Mazar, Julian Jamison, Jeanine Braithwaite, Nadine Dechausay, Alissa Fishbane, Elizabeth Fox, Varun Gauri, Rachel Glennerster, Johannes Haushofer, Dean Karlan, and Renos Vakis, “Overcoming Behavioral Obstacles to Escaping Poverty,” Behavioral Science & Policy, August 2017.
- David Evans, Michael Kremer, and Mũthoni Ngatia, “The Impact of Distributing School Uniforms on Children’s Education in Kenya,” Working paper, August 2013.
- Andrea Guariso, Martina Björkman Nyqvist, Jakob Svensson, and David Yanagizawa-Drott, “An Entrepreneurial Model of Community Health Delivery in Uganda,” Centre for Economic Policy Research discussion paper, September 2016.
- ———, “Effect of a Micro Entrepreneur-Based Community Health Delivery Program on Under-Five Mortality in Uganda: A Cluster-Randomized Controlled Trial,” Centre for Economic Policy Research discussion paper, September 2016.
- Brigitte C. Madrian, Hal E. Hershfield, Abigail B. Sussman, Saurabh Bhargava, Jeremy Burke, Scott A. Huettel, Julian Jamison, Eric J. Johnson, John G. Lynch, Stephan Meier, Scott Rick, and Suzanne B. Shu, “Behaviorally Informed Policies for Household Financial Decision-Making,” Behavioral Science & Policy, August 2017.
- Anandi Mani, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao, “Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function,” Science, August 2013.
- Anuj K. Shah, Sendhil Mullainathan, and Eldar Shafir, “Some Consequences of Having Too Little,” Science, November 2012.
- Anuj K. Shah, Eldar Shafir, and Sendhil Mullainathan, “Scarcity Frames Value,” Psychological Science, February 2015.
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