Poverty and self-control

The psychology on self-control is fascinating to me, and a recent article at The New Republic relayed how that research is intersecting with research into poverty. Here’s the gist:

…psychologists and economists have been exploring one particular source of stress on the mind: finances. The level at which the poor have to exert financial self-control, they have suggested, is far lower than the level at which the well-off have to do so. Purchasing decisions that the wealthy can base entirely on preference, like buying dinner, require rigorous tradeoff calculations for the poor. As Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir formulated the point in a recent talk, for the poor, “almost everything they do requires tradeoff thinking. It’s distracting, it’s depleting … and it leads to error.” The poor have to make financial tradeoff decisions, as Shafir put it, “on anything above a muffin.”

The article also contains a very good summary (at least to my non-expert eye) of the literature here. Basically:

In the 1990s, social psychologists developed a theory of “depletable” self-control. The idea was that an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower was finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas…

…This theory of depletable willpower has its detractors, and, as in most academic topics studied across disciplinary fields, one finds plenty of disputes over the details. But this model of self-control is now one of the most prominent theories of willpower in social psychology, at the core of what E. Tory Higgins of Columbia University described in 2009 as “an explosion of scientific interest” in the topic over the last decade. Some skeptics correctly emphasize the vital role of motivation, and some emphasize instead that “attention” is limited. But the core of the breakthrough is that resolving conflicts among choices is expensive at a cognitive level and can be unpleasant. It causes mental fatigue.

And:

what about the possibility of strengthening the willpower “muscle”? Here, the research is complicated. While one line of research has found reason to think that drained willpower can be restored in the short term—by taking a walk in nature or watching a humorous video, for instance—studies on how to strengthen the willpower muscle in the long term are far less conclusive. This second line of research seems to be more promising in children than in adults. As Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota, who has done extensive research on willpower, put it, “There might be something of a developmental sweet spot.” In twelve U.S. states, a program called Tools of the Mind is explicitly aimed at improving willpower functions in prekindergarten and kindergarten children. While some of the strategies would be quite difficult in much of the developing world, many are not, or could be adapted.

Read the full article. And if you want more resources, I’ve tagged some. www.delicious.com/wfrick/selfcontrol