Poverty and Perception


Text Analysis: Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sundhil Mullainathan  and Eldar Shafir

Relevance to Schools & Ecosystems: Impact of mindset, context, and poverty on behavior; compare especially against recent posts, “How Can We Mitigate the Errors in Our Minds?” and “QBism and Subjective Experience

Thanks to a review, which I posted an excerpt from here in May, I discovered an interesting little book called Scarcity. I subsequently checked it out from the library (♡ NYPL) and gave it a read through. I find the author’s concept of “scarcity” to be a useful lens to view the effect of mindset and subjective perception on behavior.

The authors broaden the concept of “scarcity” beyond that of a physical shortage to that of a psychological construct, and they introduce some terms to help explain this: scarcity trapbandwidth, and tunneling.

Life in the Scarcity Trap

Life in the scarcity trap is about having even less than you could have. It is about playing catch-up, dealing with each ball just before it lands and the messy patchwork that emerges as a result.

By Boris van Hoytema from Amsterdam, The Netherlands (Barren Wasteland) [CC BY 2.0]
When we’re living in a scarcity trap, whether financial or mental, we’re juggling too many things, entangled in the overwhelming urgency of now. And somehow just when we’ve seemed to achieve some semblance of stability, yet another ball inevitably gets dropped in on us. A bill comes up, an emergency room visit needs to be made, a family member passes away.

In schools, educators watch students get caught in these kinds of traps in an endless loop, defined by marking periods. Many are continually one step behind, always scrambling to get “caught up” at the last minute before report cards are due and causing their teachers consternation.

After failing for too long, some students give up trying altogether. Somehow, they continue to get passed on to the next grade anyway.

Poverty Taxes Bandwidth

Anyone who has been taxed with too many tasks and deadlines knows what it means to have limited bandwidth. Teachers especially know this well—during the school year, we’re so overwhelmed we have to schedule in time to speak to our spouses.

In one of the many catch-22s of poverty, those most in need of more bandwidth never seem to have enough.

In the moment, faced with a particularly appealing project or purchase, we often can’t resist saying yes. Following through on a plan requires bandwidth and cognitive control, and scarcity leaves us with less of both.

Nearly every advanced cognitive function relies on bandwidth. . . . So if you want to understand the poor, imagine yourself with your mind elsewhere. You did not sleep much the night before. You find it hard to think clearly. Self-control feels like a challenge. You are distracted and easily perturbed. And this happens every day. On top of the other material challenges poverty brings, it also brings a mental one. [Bold added]

This is a mental state we all can relate with, whether or not we are poor. The book provides examples of studies that place subjects into a momentary state of scarcity, irregardless of their actual socio-economic standing, and they find that subjects act in the same manner.

And this is, for me, the greatest insight that this book provides. The mindset of scarcity is something anybody can relate to. This is critical. Mullainathan and Shafir make it clear that any of us would make similar decisions if we were in a state of poverty.

Tunneling

In a great variety of circumstances, poverty appears to correlate with failure. . . 

The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place. Under these conditions, we all would have (and have) failed.

. . . myopia is not a personal failure. Tunneling is not a personal trait. . . . it is the context of scarcity that makes us all act that way.

Tunnels limit everyone’s vision. [Bold added]

When we tunnel, we effectively delimit our sphere of thought to what lies immediately before us. As the authors point out, this can be a positive thing in certain instances, such as while working under a deadline. But for many living in poverty, tunneling can become a devastating handicap. When your decision-making is defined primarily by what you want or need each moment, you tend to neglect the future. You may, for example, take out loans for quick cash that places you further into debt. And the scarcity trap thus perpetuates.

Authors Mullainathan and Shafir also point to the influence of context and environment on perception and mindset. When we perceive ourselves to be in a position of scarcity, we evaluate and make judgments that are different than when we are flush with options.

Perceived color, much like perceived distance, depends on surrounding cues. And as it turns out, so does perceived value.

We are dramatically influenced by incidental stimuli and contexts around us. Studies have shown that IQ scores are significantly impacted by a murder in the student’s neighborhood, for example, or by reminders of stereotypes.

Any teacher who has taught a student experiencing divorce, domestic violence, a death in the family, or any other trauma, knows intimately the burden that student is operating under. You can see the struggle visibly in the student’s work and scores.

According to Scarcity‘s authors, poverty itself has a similarly significant impact on behavior and cognitive functioning. Unsurprisingly, this is something teachers have been pointing out since public education’s inception. Poverty affects performance because it affects the mind. This impact is irregardless of nutrition and health—but it goes without saying that lead paint, noise pollution, and gasoline fumes don’t aid the situation.

So What Can We Do?

It is not merely that the shocks hurt us but that they put us in a position for the psychology of scarcity to kick in. We begin to tunnel and to borrow, and soon we are one step behind and perpetually playing catch-up. Yet despite this, it is striking how often we fail to build a buffer stock. While direct research on this question is scant, there are some good hints. For one, the data suggest that we tend to underappreciate the likelihood of many low-probability events. That’s why we underinsure for floods and earthquakes. When everything is going smoothly, we can, of course, imagine dark clouds, but we undervalue their possibility and thus do not prepare properly. . . . What could interfere with your plans are not just floods or earthquakes, but you may get sick, or a family member could get sick, or there could be a break in, or a car theft, or a war, or the loss of a job, or a surprise wedding, or an unexpected birth. All of these, of course, are possible but highly unlikely. But the problem is that any one of these is enough to count as a shock, for which you should have built some buffer stock. And that buffer stock needs to be built during times of abundance. [Bold added]

The author’s suggestions for how to tackle scarcity mindsets unsurprisingly has a lot to do with design. I say unsurprisingly, because if we know that context has a big influence on perception and behavior, then we’ll take steps to design tools and environments for success.

When we encounter programs that have had limited success, we may be tempted to infer that they deliver something people do not want or do not consider important. But perhaps the problem is not in what these programs are trying to deliver but with the actual delivery. Like the bomber cockpits of World War II, these programs might achieve greater success through better design.

So what are some principles of design that we can use to assist those who are tunneling, dealing with limited bandwidth, and caught in a scarcity trap?

1) Automate Opt-Ins

Savings can be a foreign concept when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. But when those checks do come in, there can be brief periods of abundance. Unfortunately, due to the mindset of scarcity, periods of abundance all too swiftly subside back into scarcity, and once again, we are caught in the trap—oftentimes even further in debt.

When I get my paycheck, I have it set up so that 10% of the check is automatically deducted to be put towards my retirement. If I had to do this manually each pay period, the odds that I would do so are pretty slim. I can always use that extra cash. But because the deduction is automatic, I don’t have to think about it. Someday, that surplus will be essential for me and my family.

The authors suggest that automating deductions in this way is critical to assisting those in scarcity in creating savings. Opting-out should require deliberation, rather than opting-in.

There would be no new sacrifices now; only later, in that fuzzy future. The results [of programs using this method] have been stunning. In one firm, more than 75 percent of those offered the plan chose it over trying to save on their own, and only a minority ever opted back out.

Note that this isn’t simply a financial problem—it’s also a cognitive one. Educators know this well when we try—and all too often, fail—to connect a student’s behavior and decisions to future goals. How are you going to get into a good [middle school, high school, college, career] if you don’t do [x, y, or z]? The future is abstract for many children, let alone adults.

In schools, we can design for this principle in our systems of behavior management. I visited a middle school in Brooklyn, MS 442 Carroll Gardens School for Innovation, that has a strong program of PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports). Each student begins the year with a set level of “points.” A disciplinary referral deducts points. In other words, all children are automatically opted in to the system—students are responsible for any loss in points. Points can only be “made up” by approaching the individual teacher and working out how to rectify the infraction with them—in other words, a student can’t go to their favorite “nice” teacher and acquire extra points. They have to negotiate with the teacher who got them into trouble in the first place.

Set levels of points are required to participate in school activities that are motivating to the students, such as to attend field trips, prom, or to walk down the aisle at graduation. Now think about the kind of conversation you can have with a student:

You’re now at [X] points because you didn’t take off your cap in class. In 3 months, if you are still at this point level, you won’t be able to go to prom. What would have been a better decision to have made? How can you make a different decision next time?

That’s powerful, because you’re able to make an abstract future goal concrete and tangible for a student. And that leads us to our next related principle of design.

2) Make Better Choices More Immediately Accessible

In a world of tunneling and neglect, a lot depends on timing. Some of our biggest mistakes happen when deciding for the future, when things far removed from any tunnel look distant and fuzzy.

One insight of the psychology of scarcity is the need to prepare for tunneling and to insulate against neglect: navigate so that bad choices are harder to make in a single moment of tunneling, and arrange it so that good behaviors require little vigilance yet are occasionally reevaluated.

This principle is so similar to our last one that it’s questionable whether I should have distinguished them, but I think it’s worth juxtaposing just to look at it from a fresh angle.

If you want to lose weight, and you have chocolate cake sitting on your counter and soda in your fridge, guess what? You’re going to have a hard time losing weight. But if you have fruits, juice, and healthier snacks immediately accessible, and less healthy snacks tucked away (or not available at all), making poor dietary choices becomes more difficult. When it requires more effort to make a poor decision, you are less likely to make that decision.

Similarly, in a school, we want to make success more readily achievable, not more difficult. That doesn’t mean making tasks and assignments “easier”—it means providing a structure or environment where better choices are more immediately accessible. For example, how many teachers have you heard complain because when a deadline for an essay comes around, a lot students haven’t done a thing? But I kept telling them, the essay is due Monday! We can help our students with bigger projects by breaking up the tasks into deadlines that lead up to the final product.

In graduate school at City College while I was a NYC Teaching Fellow, I had a professor who structured our thesis paper into mini-deadlines for each component. The first deadline was generating the problem statement, the next was the literature review, and so on. She knew that we were in over our heads, overwhelmed with urgent daily demands of teaching, and that we needed help with structuring our time. If she had just set one big deadline at the end of the term, she knew—from experience—that many papers would not be ready, and quality would suffer. By setting deadlines throughout the term, she helped us conduct our research and complete our paper.

And if we want our kids to make healthier eating choices, similarly, we’d design our lunchrooms and plating and options differently.

3) Build a Buffer by Becoming a Self-Directed Learner

This wasn’t a suggestion of the authors, but one worth mentioning in relation to the notion of building a “buffer stock” as mentioned in the quote above. We build cognitive buffers when we establish interconnectedness and redundancy within our brains—this can be achieved through mastery of learning, the sort of mastery that mostly requires self-directed learning, such as that of a jazz musician, a tennis champion, or an entrepreneur.

There’s a tension here that I want to acknowledge, given that the concept of “designing” environments and choice architecture can be viewed as paternalistic or manipulative. We want to design positive environments where better choices can readily be made, while at the same time building greater autonomy and independence over time. Achieving the proper developmental balance certainly will not be easy. But I think it is clear that either leaving people living in poverty, or kids in a school, to go it alone is not an option, any more than providing extensive support with no expectations of improvement is an option.

So if we want to help support self-directed learners, beyond that of the happenstance Bill Gates or Peter Thiels of the world, then we’ll need to consider how to design the proper balance of choice and structure to achieve this.

I’ll leave it there, as I’m trying to get ready for a trip to Ireland and Scotland, wherein I will do my very best to avoid thinking any more about education, news, or otherwise keeping current whatsoever, and will instead attempt to enjoy the here and now of my temporal existence, a good Scotch, conversation, green hills, and a wee bit of literature, so that I can come back to my school afresh. Would love to hear your thinking about Scarcity or Schemas or QBism in the meantime. Over and out.

Mullainathan, Sendhil, and Eldar Sharif. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much. London: Allen Lane, 2013. Print.

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