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Sep 09 2013

How Poverty Lowers IQ

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.

22 comments

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  1. 1
    jamessweet

    I don’t like to be the defender of IQ tests, since they have been misused and abused far too frequently in the past… but a lot of the criticisms of them come across to me somewhat like saying, “Well, the 100-yard dash doesn’t actually measure how fast a person can run, because their performance can vary day-by-day, and anyway it doesn’t reflect people who are good at endurance running, etc. Therefore, it doesn’t indicate anything whatsoever about a person’s running speed.” In fact, the very premise of this study somewhat depends on IQ tests being a reasonable measure of current state of cognitive function. Otherwise, you can’t conclude that poverty interferes with cognitive function; you can only conclude that it interferes with the very specific task of taking an IQ test.

    An IQ test is to intelligence what the 100-yard dash is to running: It doesn’t measure all dimensions of the trait in question, it is better viewed as a measure of performance than of aptitude (and this is one way in which IQ tests have been regrettably oversold in the past), and a particular score on a particular day should not be taken too seriously. But to pretend it’s not measuring anything meaningful? Please.

  2. 2
    sbuh

    I JUST got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers (it’s been on my todo list for ages but I only just picked up a copy yesterday…and it was interesting enough that I finished it before bed, which is rare for me). A big theme early in the book is about how we start sorting children by perceived ability very early on and essentially create a self-fulfilling prophecy as we put them on different tracks, with the marginally smarter/faster/stronger/whatever kids receiving marginally more instruction in that field, and we continue doing this with the ones who lucked out early on receiving accumulating minor advantages until by the end the initial inconsequential gap has become an almost insurmountable gulf.

  3. 3
    Alex

    An IQ test is to intelligence what the 100-yard dash is to running

    And that right there should be an argument why they should be regarded as nonsense. What cognitive task is quite as one-dimensional as running 100 yards? IQ is bound to be a hopelessly inadequate projection of anything more complex than the equivalent of running 100 yards.

  4. 4
    Abdul Alhazred

    Not a new observation.

    The social Darwinists took the same as proof that low IQ causes poverty.

  5. 5
    MikeMa

    Haven’t thought about IQ tests in years. Read some research somewhere that made them out as unreliable for many reasons including a ‘suburb’ bias. Don’t remember what questions brought out that bias but the researchers made a ‘city’ bias test and added several questions that the ‘suburb’ kids failed miserably including:

    Roll 2 dice. What is the sum of the sized facing up and the sides facing down. The answer is 14 but unless you played dice games on the street like many ‘city’ kids did, you don’t know that.

    Shown a drawing of a bus, the question asks which way the vehicle is traveling. ‘City’ kids knew because the drawing was of the driver’s side – no door, only windows – while the ‘suburb’ kids who had rarely taken a bus, had no idea.

    Substitute ‘black’ for ‘city’ and ‘white’ for ‘suburb’ and you can imagine an entirely different premise for how the test was used.

    The nutrition component that Ed brings up was discussed as well but not the cognitive burden.

    I remember taking the test in first or second grade. Enjoyed the game (as it seemed then). Never thought much of it but also recognized years later in junior and senior high where the self fulfilling prophesy left lower IQ students shunted away from science, math and college tracks in general.

  6. 6
    badgersdaughter

    My therapist says the same thing exactly occurs with emotions. People with stress and anxiety have less emotional “room” (she used that very word) to respond properly to emotional upsets. I know this is true of poor people because I have felt that exact thing while being poor. Cognitive handicap plus emotional handicap is a poor foundation for good decision-making. Add the physical exhaustion of trying to work two or more jobs on minimum wage, and it’s a train wreck.

  7. 7
    eric

    My running half-joke has been that IQ tests are an incredibly accurate means of measuring one’s ability to take IQ tests

    Binet originally developed them to try and identify the students that needed more help with their studies. He tried to identify questions that correlated well with things like grades. The whole ‘it measures innate aptitude’ angle came later, and as far as I can tell, has about as much connection to historical IQ testing as the meme “we only use 10% of our brains” has to actual brain studies. I.e., none.

    If we tune them to do what they were originally intended to do, I think they can be very useful tools. It would be very helpful, for example, to have a standardized test that reasonably predicted grades (in specific subjects) or likelihood of graduation on time. Not to decide who gets in to honors or AP classes, but to identify the students who are at risk so that the education system can help prevent those negative outcomes from occurring.

  8. 8
    Modusoperandi

    “Poor not just lazy. Dumb too.” ~ FoxNation

    “House to fight epidemic of Urban Dumb, repeal ACA.” ~ WaPo

    “New revelation; White House Benghazi coverup making Americans poor, dumb” ~ Darrel Issa (Facebook)

    “Is our poor kids dumb?” ~ GW Bush Family newsletter

  9. 9
    Bronze Dog

    I took one type of IQ test or something that was part of the series that got me diagnosed with Asperger’s. Instead of the lone unhelpful number that some people brag about, it divided the whole thing into four measurements. IIRC, it was something like abstract reasoning, long term memory, working memory, and processing speed. I think that sort of thing would be useful for helping struggling students, like eric’s suggestion, since it points out where they might be having trouble and what they might be able to do to compensate. Teaching mnemonic devices to aid long term memory, encourage use of scratch paper to aid working memory, practice drills to aid processing speed through familiarity, and so forth.

  10. 10
    tfkreference

    W my dad entered the US Army in WWII, he took a battery of tests (IQ likely among them) and was assigned to the Corps of Engineers. He promptly went in and explained that he had no mechanical aptitude – he was just good at taking tests. He was reassigned to Officer Candidate School.

  11. 11
    Enkidum

    @abdul – this study (and others by the same team) establish a causal direction. It’s not that poor people are unintelligent, it’s that being poor and thinking about poverty actively lowers their ability to respond intelligently.

  12. 12
    badgersdaughter

    @Enkidum: We were just talking in a chat room I frequent whether this would lend justification to HR people who prefer to hire the already-employed over the long-term unemployed.

  13. 13
    gingerbaker

    The social Darwinists took the same as proof that low IQ causes poverty.

    I don’t know if that was their precise argument, but I would venture that low IQ is not positively associated with higher income strata. There is a penalty to be paid if you are not as intelligent as everyone else, and earning potential sounds pretty darned reasonable to me.

    I believe Ed has argued lead exposure explains the rise and subsequent fall of (urban?) crime rates. One would think that lead exposure would be very positively associated with poverty as well as IQ performance.

    I would also like to see how the study authors felt their conclusions were compatible with the fact that certain cultures are known for being intelligent and have a history of rising out of poverty, while others don’t.The vast majority of Jews who arrived in America in the early twentieth century were as poor as poor can be, yet they rose above their circumstance, as have many Oriental and Asian groups. How did they manage to avoid a “massive cognitive load”?

  14. 14
    MikeMa

    @badgersdaughter: Wouldn’t the employment and (assumed) rise from poverty tend to restore the bandwidth lost to worry and deprivation? Wouldn’t you also get a very grateful and possibly more loyal worker? Just ideas.

  15. 15
    MikeMa

    @gingerbaker,
    Jews and Asians (and others) formed very tight-knit supportive enclaves where you were helped to rise, given breaks and were then expected to continue that process.

  16. 16
    gingerbaker

    this study (and others by the same team) establish a causal direction. It’s not that poor people are unintelligent, it’s that being poor and thinking about poverty actively lowers their ability to respond intelligently.

    Well, it is not that ALL poor people are unintelligent, but it seems to me reasonable that the unintelligent would tend to be poor, which would certainly skew the data so that poverty IS associated with lower intelligence. But this is not the “cause’ of poverty. Poverty is caused by lousy government policies.

  17. 17
    Nick Gotts

    Abdul Alhazred@4

    If you had actually bothered to follow the link, you might have noticed that your “point” is a load of crap (although somehow I doubt it):

    This picture of cognitive bandwidth looks different. To study it, the researchers performed two sets of experiments. In the first, about 400 randomly chosen people in a New Jersey mall were asked how they would respond to a scenario where their car required either $150 or $1,500 in repairs. Would they pay for the work in full, take out of a loan, or put off the repair? How would they make that decision? The subjects varied in annual income from $20,000 to $70,000.

    Before responding, the subjects were given a series of common tests (identifying sequences of shapes and numbers, for example) measuring cognitive function and fluid intelligence. In the easier scenario, where the hypothetical repair cost only $150, subjects classified as “poor” and “rich” performed equally well on these tests. But the “poor” subjects performed noticeably worse in the $1,500 scenario. Simply asking these people to think about financial problems taxed their mental bandwidth.

    “And these are not people in abject poverty,” Shafir says. “These are regular folks going to the mall that day.”

    The “rich” subjects in the study experienced no such difficulty. In the second experiment, the researchers found similar results when working with a group of farmers in India who experience a natural annual cycle of poverty and plenty. These farmers receive 60 percent of their annual income in one lump sum after the sugarcane harvest. Beforehand, they are essentially poor. Afterward (briefly), they’re not. In the state of pre-harvest poverty, however, they exhibited the same shortage of cognitive bandwidth seen in the American subjects in a New Jersey mall.

    I would also like to see how the study authors felt their conclusions were compatible with the fact that certain cultures are known for being intelligent and have a history of rising out of poverty, while others don’t. The vast majority of Jews who arrived in America in the early twentieth century were as poor as poor can be, yet they rose above their circumstance, as have many Oriental and Asian groups. How did they manage to avoid a “massive cognitive load”? – gingerbaker

    Their results indicate that being poor in itself impedes cognitive performance, even in the same individual over time (see the bit about the Indian farmers in the quote). This is compatible with differences between ethnic groups being entirely cultural, or entirely innate, or partly both because this isn’t what the fucking study was about. It seems that being a bigot like you and Abdul Alhazred also impedes cognitive performance.

  18. 18
    colnago80

    I’m sure that Charles Murray and the late and unlamented Richard Herrnstein would be quite loath to accept this study.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_bell_curve

  19. 19
    gingerbaker

    ” It seems that being a bigot like you and Abdul Alhazred also impedes cognitive performance.”

    I’m a bigot? Fuck off, Gotts.

    Your argument is that some groups managed to rise above the asserted cognitive overload through cultural or innate means. Which implies that other unnamed groups did not – evidently because they were either too stupid or too culturally deprived to do so. And I’M the bigot?

    Did you see what the authors of the study said when asked whether lower IQ tended to make people poor?:

    ” If living in poverty is the equivalent of losing 13 points in IQ, doesn’t that mean people with lower IQs wind up in poverty?

    “We’ve definitely worried about that,” Shafir says.”

  20. 20
    athesis

    As a School Psychologist, I administer “IQ” tests on (almost) a daily basis for special education eligibility. A crucial consideration is that a test (or testing) is only one part of an assessment process. Further, an IQ test IS only measure of performance ability on an IQ test. What is truly being measured is the individual’s performance in a variety of areas believed to be approximations of “intelligence”. For a good idea of the concept, read up on the CHC theory of intelligence (http://goo.gl/1vb2Sl).
    I work in a low income/high need district and frequently assess students whose scores fall into a range of Intellectual Disability, however, when assessing the full student we must take into consideration previous data, interviews with stakeholders, observations of functioning, and multiple sources of testing information. This testing information is often confounded by environmental factors ranging from the attitude of the student towards testing to the fact that some students don’t know where their next meal will come from.
    Analyzing this environmental information and incorporating test scores are a challenge for anyone involved in assessment and are a major reason for the controversy that surrounds the whole concept of IQ.

  21. 21
    ebohlman

    gingerbaker, MikeMa: It’s important to remember that the groups you’re talking about initially tested quite low on IQ tests: the followers of Goddard and Terman and the like were going around claiming that Jewish intellectual superiority was just an unfounded stereotype, and the tests seemed to confirm it.

    Cultural attitudes toward ability are a big factor. Although it’s an incorrect stereotype that the Chinese are all brilliant at math, it’s true that Chinese kids are generally better at math than Anglo-American kids. The major reason for this is that Chinese culture, by and large, regards math as a subject that by its very nature requires a lot of effort to master, but can be mastered by most people who are willing to put in the effort; Anglo-American culture, by and large, regards math ability as an inborn talent, with the population being divided into those who get it right away and those who never will. Thus only the very few who “get it right away” are likely to actually study the subject seriously enough to master it.

  22. 22
    freehand

    The original purpose of the Binet test was to determine who would have trouble in school. It’s still very good for that; anyone who consistently scores low in IQ tests will likely have trouble. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but it’s still true.

    Poverty and lower IQ scores are probably a three way correlation.
    1. People who score low on IQ tests as kids are more likely to end up in poverty.
    2. Poverty tends to lower one’s score, partly due to malnutrition, detrimental behaviors picked up such as cigarette smoking, chronic exhaustion from dual jobs and long commutes, etc., stress over paying bills, stress from dangerous environments, reduced opportunities for intellectually enriching activities, lack of sleep, etc.
    3. Both lower IQ scores and poverty are a marker for other factors, such as recent immigrants with language problems, ethnic minorities (who face various handicaps even if not poor), etc.

    There are different kinds of intelligence. One can be brilliant in math but not language, or movement but not math, or social interactions but not movement, etc. Consistent low IQ test scores can come from being fundamentally slow in those areas tested (usually math, language, and spatial relationships). This is not necessarily genetic, and if genetic it is personal, and may not say anything about intelligence of large groups of people. Low scores may also be a consequence of aging (old people are simply slower, if nothing else), a non-native English speaker, physically handicapped, comes from a troubled home, atypical cognition (e.g. autistic), etc.

    Ed, I would use a different analogy for IQ tests. I would compare them to BMI levels. BMI is real, and it relates to health. But a high BMI score does not necessarily indicate the person is fat. And being fat is not necessarily unhealthy. And so on. But for large numbers of people, the average BMI gives us some real information. They’re easier to administer to, for instance, all students in a public elementary school than a a full blood test of multiple variables, EKG stress tests, plus others.

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