Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function

30 August 2013 vol 341, issue 6149, pages 929-1032

Research Article
Poverty Impedes Cognitive Function
Anandi Mani1, Sendhil Mullainathan2,*, Eldar Shafir3,*, Jiaying Zhao4
+ Author Affiliations
1Department of Economics, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, UK.
2Department of Economics, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138, USA.
3Department of Psychology and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08540, USA.
4Department of Psychology and Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4, Canada.
*Corresponding author. E-mail: mullain@fas.harvard.edu (S.M.); shafir@princeton.edu (E.S.)

The poor often behave in less capable ways, which can further perpetuate poverty. We hypothesize that poverty directly impedes cognitive function and present two studies that test this hypothesis. First, we experimentally induced thoughts about finances and found that this reduces cognitive performance among poor but not in well-off participants. Second, we examined the cognitive function of farmers over the planting cycle. We found that the same farmer shows diminished cognitive performance before harvest, when poor, as compared with after harvest, when rich. This cannot be explained by differences in time available, nutrition, or work effort. Nor can it be explained with stress: Although farmers do show more stress before harvest, that does not account for diminished cognitive performance. Instead, it appears that poverty itself reduces cognitive capacity. We suggest that this is because poverty-related concerns consume mental resources, leaving less for other tasks. These data provide a previously unexamined perspective and help explain a spectrum of behaviors among the poor. We discuss some implications for poverty policy.