Does poverty negatively affect your IQ

UZH News


Poverty affects thought and action. Those who are poor often make wrong decisions and therefore remain poor. The Brazilian economist Guilherme Lichand wants to change that - via SMS.

Thomas Gull

The cognitive capacities are absorbed: if you are poor, you have to constantly deal with the problems that come with being poor. (Image: Pixabay)


Poverty makes you stupid. Because the deficiency and the risk that comes with it affect the mental abilities. Being poor negatively affects intelligence and engages the brain in ways that lead to those who are poor often making the wrong decisions and therefore staying poor.

"If we want to find ways out of poverty," explains economist Guilherme Lichand, "then we have to understand how it affects our cognitive abilities." The Brazilian is Professor of Child Well-Being and Development at UZH. His chair is supported by the children's aid organization UNICEF Switzerland. Lichand's mission is to understand how poverty works out mentally and he develops specific projects to help overcome its negative effects.

Poverty makes you stupid - how can this diagnosis be justified? There are two scientific methods to test this thesis: Experiments in the laboratory, which are popular with economists because they allow us to research our behavior under controlled external circumstances. The Zurich economist Ernst Fehr has gained groundbreaking insights with the help of such experiments. The second option is field research. But this is difficult. Because where can you find a larger number of people who live under similar conditions and are sometimes poor, sometimes rich?

Poor today, rich tomorrow

The scientists found what they were looking for among sugar cane farmers in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Their life cycle comes closest to the experimental set-up of “poor today, rich tomorrow”. Because they only harvest once a year. If they have sold their crops, they are comparatively wealthy for the moment. However, the money must be enough for the whole year until the next harvest. Shortly before that, they are usually very poor again, also because it is difficult for them to divide the money over such a long time and to manage it sensibly.

The researchers compared the IQ of the sugar cane farmers just before and just after the harvest. The result was impressive: "Before the harvest, the farmers were classified as cognitively impaired," explains Lichand, "after the harvest they had a normal IQ again." So poverty makes you stupid in the truest sense of the word.

A laboratory experiment provides an explanation for this. It works like this: Test persons are “primed”, that is, they are provided with certain information that influences their thinking. Some are told that they had damage that could be repaired for 100 francs, others that the repair would cost 1000 francs. Those for whom the repair costs 1,000 francs are considered “experimentally poor”. "You are stressed," explains Lichand.

The experiment reproduces the psychological processes associated with poverty. It turns out that priming affects the subjects' cognitive abilities: those who are more concerned do worse when their memory and attention are tested. “In the laboratory, there is a direct connection between poverty and cognition,” Lichand sums up.

Like a lamp in the refrigerator

But why is poverty so devastating to our ability to think clearly? "Our brain has about as much energy as a lamp in the refrigerator," says Lichand. That means: The capacities of our thinking organ are limited. The question is, what are they used for? When one is worried or afraid, it absorbs some of the attention and one has fewer resources for other thought processes.

The effects of such deficiency symptoms are not limited to financial resources, as another experiment has shown. Those who have little time, a form of poverty from which many materially rich are suffering - their cognitive capacities are absorbed and reduced in a comparable way.

Those who are poor have to deal with the problems of being poor every day in a variety of ways. Where does the money for the next meal, the apartment, the bills come from? Should we vaccinate the children? Send to school? Where can you find clean water? And so on. "Poor people have to make a lot more decisions that are made for us, simply because we live in better conditions," says Lichand. Poverty therefore ties up a lot of mental resources that could be used for other things.

So poverty controls and changes attention. Guilherme Lichand drew a very practical conclusion from this: "If this is the case, it also means that we can influence attention." Specifically, it is about filling the best places in the attention ranking list with the right things. For example, when the children go to school. Lichand carried out a large-scale study with more than 19,000 school children in São Paulo, Brazil.

Draw attention

It went like this: The children were divided into three groups. The parents of one group regularly received detailed information from the teachers about their children's school attendance, the second group received an SMS twice a week stating that school attendance was important, the third group received no messages or information at all. As it turned out, sending SMS was the most efficient and cost-effective strategy to keep parents' focus on children's schooling. This form of attentional control is known as “nudging”, which could be translated as “nudging”, or, to put it another way, the SMS provided parents with food for thought: “Don't forget, it's important that your child goes to school!”

For Lichand it is crucial that the simple food for thought via SMS works at least as well as the much more complex informing the parents through the teachers. This is more expensive and often hardly possible because the means of communication are missing. But almost everyone in Brazil has a cell phone. “We can also reach poor parents in a simple and inexpensive way,” says the economist.

Successful food for thought

The food for thought is a phenomenal success: You have reduced the absences and the pace of learning has been accelerated by three months. This means that children whose parents were nudged were three months ahead of the school curriculum at the end of the year. And the most important effect: a third of the children stayed seated less, and the repetition rate was reduced from nine to six percent.

That has direct financial consequences. For every child who remains seated, the Brazilian state has to spend an additional 1300 francs. Converted to all school children, the state saves 40 francs per child and year. "The program costs only three francs per child," says Lichand and smiles, "so the return on this investment is around 1300 percent." That should be an attractive incentive to introduce food for thought via SMS across the board - for the benefit of both the children and the treasury. A similar project is currently running in Ivory Coast, supported by the Jacobs Foundation.

Mental poverty trap

In a follow-up project, Lichand examined how the mental poverty trap works. The parents of the children who had participated in the successful nudging program for one year were offered to continue it. However, against payment. The additional amount, around three francs, was credited to their mobile phone account. They could decide whether they wanted to use this money for the program or to make telephone calls.

The nudging program hadn't worked equally well for all families. Some benefited greatly from it, others not at all. "Thanks to the analysis of our large data sets, we knew exactly what it was like for which family," says Lichand. It was astonishing that the rich parents - they earn five times more than the minimum wage - reacted very differently to the offer than the poor parents, who receive less than the minimum wage.

The richer parents were more willing to invest if they had benefited from the program beforehand. The poorer parents, however, paradoxically invested when the program had failed. However, the more they benefited, the less motivated they were to spend money on the new program. This shows how the mental poverty trap works: The poor make wrong decisions. Why is the question. Lichand's explanation: "The poorer parents are apparently more interested in short-term profit - that is, the phone credit - and lose sight of the long-term effect - their children's school success."

The decision of the poor could, however, be influenced: if they were informed about how they benefit, they made the same decision as the rich. "That underlines the importance of what is at the top of our list of mental priorities," says Lichand.

In any case, the Brazilian economist has shown that even very simple food for thought can have a big impact. In this case, on school success. The strategy of nudging is also used in other areas. For example, by sending people a text message on Friday when they receive their wages, telling them to use the money economically and not to spend it again immediately. A project that Lichand is carrying out with the largest public bank in Brazil.

Whims of fate

In order to implement his scientific findings in everyday life, Lichand founded the company M-Gov in Brazil. She supports the government in the implementation of projects such as parent nudging via SMS.

With his scientific work, Guilherme Lichand shows ways that can lead out of the poverty trap. For him it is also a moral obligation: “In Brazil there are still 25 million people who live in poverty. Children in particular do not have the same chances in life as I had, for example. " That is unfair: «Because where we are born is a coincidence. Some are lucky, others are unlucky. And children in particular cannot influence their living conditions themselves. " Lichand's projects help to better understand the mechanisms of poverty and to at least balance out the whims of fate a little.

Thomas Gull is editor of UZH Magazin