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.
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.