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When You Don’t Have Enough Money, It’s Hard to Think About Anything Else

Subjects consumed with money, they found, dropped an average of 13 IQ points, or the equivalent of zapping our brain by pulling a mind-numbing all-nighter

The debilitating affects of poverty are so impactful that they can rob a person of cognitive function, a new study published in Science found. The stress is so overwhelming as to potentially lock a person into a viscous cycle of poverty, making them more likely to pursue bad decisions and less likely to devise ways to improve their situation. In studies, subjects consumed with money, they found, dropped an average of 13 IQ points—the equivalent of zapping your brain by pulling a mind-numbing all-nighter. The researchers think that these effects may be one of the driving factors behind persistent poverty.

To arrive at these findings, the researchers conducted a study at a mall in New Jersey using 400 random participants who, on average, had incomes of $70,000, though they ranged to as low as $20,000 per year.  The subjects were unknowingly divided into two groups based upon their affluence, then were asked to think about how they would handle a sudden car repair of either $150 or $1,500. While they thought about this question, the scientists asked them to solve a few puzzles meant to measure their cognitive abilities. Those who faced the manageable $150 repairs, the researchers found, performed equally well on the cognitive tests regardless of their financial standing. When the repairs skyrocketed to $1,500, however, the less well-off subjects performed significantly worse than the richer ones.

To further explore these findings, the team traveled to India, where they recruited more than 450 sugarcane farmers. Depending upon the time of the year, the farmers are either very poor (pre-harvest) or relatively well-off (post-harvest). The team asked the farmers to take a cognitive test both before and after the harvest, and found that the farmers did indeed perform significantly better after their financial woes were eliminated.

“These findings fit in with our story of how scarcity captures attention. It consumes your mental bandwidth,”said Jiaying Zhao, the study’s co-author, in a statement. “It’s not about being a poor person — it’s about living in poverty.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

Next Stop, Squalor 
How a New Yorker Article Launched the First Shot in the War Against Poverty 

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