Worry, it’s been said, is the thief of joy. Financial worries, however, may be in a league of their own, robbing the worrier not only of joy, but of needed IQ points too.
Poverty impedes cognitive function — that’s the thesis statement of a recent study by researchers at Harvard and Princeton universities that attempted to establish how poverty and financial worry affects mental capability.
As someone who has worried about money for as long as I have had the cognitive ability to do so, my interest was piqued by the headline.
But the researchers’ hypothesis — they make the unhappy generalization that the poor “often behave in less capable ways” than the wealthy — made me wonder if the researchers approved of the behaviour of wealthy pillars of the community (ahem, Miley Cyrus).
While the assumption that poor people as a social class are somehow less intellectually capable than their financial betters leaves little to be desired, the study’s findings do offer food for thought.
To test their theory that poverty places a mental burden on the poor, the researchers asked both the impoverished and the wealthy to consider a problem that involved a large sum of money. For example, they asked them what they would do if they had car trouble: would they take a loan, pay in full or do nothing?
When asked to consider these kinds of dilemmas, the poor showed a reduced cognitive capacity on IQ testing. In fact, they scored, on average about 13 points lower than their wealthy counterparts.
The good news: this kind of money-worry induced impairment isn’t congenital or permanent. During brief respites from financial strain, cognitive ability is restored to normal levels. For example, when they asked a farmer the same question before and after the harvest, his cognitive ability was higher afterwards, once he’d been paid. That finding suggests that the only thing that distinguishes the wealthy from the poor is how much money they have (or don’t have) in their bank accounts and how much the excess or want keeps them up at night.
Given the strain they exist under, I think the impoverished (and just plain broke among us) deserve a little more credit. Now, how to explain why the wealthy behave poorly…that’s a subject Harvard and Princeton may want to tackle next.
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