Poverty causes people to spend more time obsessively worrying about short-term problems which can make matters worse according to a study that could explain why being poor leads to a cycle of deprivation.
Poor individuals often engage in behaviour that reinforces their poverty, such as excessive borrowing at high interest rates, but rather than being a result of personality disorders or their poor environment, scientists suggest it may actually be caused by the way people have to divide their time when resources are scarce.
Anuj Shah and colleagues of the University of Chicago said that personality traits and environmental factors such as poor housing or education may not be the sole reasons why some people seem incapable to doing their best to extricate themselves from poverty.
"We suggest that scarcity changes how people allocate attention. It leads them to engage more deeply in some problems while neglecting others," the researchers say in the journal Science.
"Across several experiments, we show that scarcity leads to attentional shifts that can help to explain behaviours such as over-borrowing….resource scarcity creates its own mindset, changing how people look at problems and make decisions," they say.
The scientists tested their idea by enrolling about 60 people in two psychological experiments where they were divided into "rich" and "poor" based on how many "resources" they were given to play computer games.
The people with less to "spend" tended to take more time focussing on problems, but not necessarily making the right decisions. Because of this extra intellectual effort, they became more tired than those who were better off.
"Taken together, these studies provide compelling support for the notion that scarcity elicits greater engagement and that a focus on some problems leads to neglect of others, manifesting in behaviours such as over-borrowing," they concluded.