Recalling fond memories that invoke a sense of self-worth actually improved brain function by increasing IQ by several percentage points, the study says. After doing this, study participants were more willing to seek out aid from crucial social services and overcome some of the obstacles standing in the way of better financial status.
"This study shows that surprisingly simple acts of self-affirmation can improve the cognitive function and behavioral outcomes of people in poverty," said Jiaying Zhao, co-author of the study, in a press release. Zhao is an assistant professor at at the Department of Psychology and Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability of the University of British Columbia.
The experiment for the project consisted of nearly 150 participants who frequented a New Jersey soup kitchen over the course of two years. The participants were asked to privately record a personal story with a tape recorder and afterward complete problem-solving tests.
Participants selected to recount a moment or achievement they were proud of performed significantly better on cognitive tests than the control group — attaining an impressive10-point increase in their IQ scores. They were also much more likely to solicit information on services they qualified for from the local government that could help them rise out of poverty.
Past studies have shown that self-affirmation can improve test scores in other marginalized group, namely African-American students and female math students. This is the first study that shows it can work for the poor, though, and the first to use techniques tailored specifically to participants' low literacy levels.
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The study seems to confirm what Pulitzer prize-winning journalist David K. Shipler observed anecdotally when conducting interviews for his 2004 book The Working Poor: Invisible in America.
"If you've failed again and again — in school, in relationships, in jobs — you carry a great burden as you try to pick yourself up and perform well in education or at work," Shipler said in an email. "Human dignity is a universal need that cuts across socio-economic levels, and a sense of self-worth is an essential component of fulfilling that need."
The self-worth study is a follow-up to research by Zhao and colleagues at Princeton University, Harvard University and the University of Warwick that found poverty consumes great amounts of mental energy, making it difficult for poor people to concentrate on other areas in their lives. As a result, the impoverished often have less remaining "mental bandwidth" to apply to things such as education, job positions and even general time management.
One set of experiments for this study consisted of choosing 400 participants at a New Jersey mall randomly between 2010 and 2011, dividing them into groups according to income ranges and asking them to ponder theoretical financial problems. The scenarios assigned to the participants were either "easy" or "hard" and would entail either a low or high cost (for example, $150 or $1,500 for a necessary car repair). Participants were asked to perform basic cognitive tests while thinking over these scenarios.
The study revealed that participants of all income groups performed equally well when the financial scenarios were easy. When offered a relatively "hard" or costly scenario, lower-income participants performed significantly worse.
The researchers concluded that the impact of the hard scenarios on the cognitive performances of low-income participants was due to "scarcity" — of time, money, social ties and even calories — that makes it harder for them to cope or plan well.
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"Previous views of poverty have blamed poverty on personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success," Zhao said on Princeton's website. "We're arguing that the lack of financial resources itself can lead to impaired cognitive function. The very condition of not having enough can actually be a cause of poverty."
Overall, the study revealed that impoverished participants in these and other related experiments experienced a drop in cognitive function that would be similar to a 13-point dip in IQ, or the equivalent of losing of an entire night's sleep.
"Poverty imposes a much stronger load that's not optional and in very many cases is long lasting," said Eldar Shafir, Princeton's William Stewart Tod Professor of Psychology and Public Affairs and co-author of the report. "It's not a choice you're making — you're just reduced to few options."
The researchers suggest that services for the poor should take into account the cognitive toll poverty takes and be more accommodating by offering simpler application processes and less stringent guidelines.
Likewise, the more recent companion study on self-worth indicates that social services and charity programs should improve on enrollment policies and processes so that they are more accessible and therefore more affirming to those who are eligible.
"The best job-training programs work not only on hard skills but also on providing trainees with a series of successes that contribute to their belief in themselves," Shipler said.
— By Laura Kiesel