I’ve never been a big fan of IQ testing. I’ve taken several IQ tests and I score very high, but I’ve never been convinced that they’re all that meaningful. My running half-joke has been that IQ tests are an incredibly accurate means of measuring one’s ability to take IQ tests. One of the reasons is because they appear to be variably on the basis of many different factors. A new study shows that poverty is one of those factors, that it lowers IQ and impedes decision-making:
Researchers publishing some groundbreaking findings today in the journal Science have concluded that poverty imposes such a massive cognitive load on the poor that they have little bandwidth left over to do many of the things that might lift them out of poverty – like go to night school, or search for a new job, or even remember to pay bills on time.
In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.
The finding further undercuts the theory that poor people, through inherent weakness, are responsible for their own poverty – or that they ought to be able to lift themselves out of it with enough effort. This research suggests that the reality of poverty actually makes it harder to execute fundamental life skills. Being poor means, as the authors write, “coping with not just a shortfall of money, but also with a concurrent shortfall of cognitive resources.”
There are other reasons why poverty may impair cognitive function as well. Poor nutrition and hunger can have a significant effect on our ability to reason and make good decisions. Living on inner cities where the housing stock is very old often means exposure to lead paint, which has a huge effect on brain development and cognitive abilities. The idea that the poor are just stupid or lazy ignores a lot of important factors to reach a vastly oversimplified conclusion.