(Apologies for the lack of recent posts while I was ill – we’re back to our normal schedule now!)
Among the oldest of old political battles, liberals and conservatives have constantly sparred over the causes of poverty – whether it is due to failings in the individual, or whether the causes lie outside of people’s hands. A new twist on this old debate, however, comes from the latest psychological research on willpower, joining the long list of trendy behavioural economics research hitting the headlines. This research can help explain why people in poverty (on average) have less willpower, which in turn may partly explain worse parenting practices – but other research shows the political limits of getting people to empathise with the problems of willpower .
Willpower in psychology
The psychology of willpower has been getting attention recently due to a book by Roy F Baumeister and John Tierney, called Willpower: Rediscovering our greatest strength, based on over a decade’s psychological research by Baumeister and others. [I've taken summaries of the research from Baumeister et al 2007, Gailliot et al 2007 and particularly Loewenstein & O'Donoghue 2007; the book itself has had mixed reviews, approvingly from Steven Pinker in the NYTimes and Jonah Lehrer, but criticism ranging from the minor from Cordelia Fine in the WSJ to harsher attacks by Will Self and Mind Hacks].
Obviously the importance of willpower is ‘common sense’ – but where Baumeister’s research offers insights is from their metaphor of willpower as a muscle. Put simply, willpower gets tired by using it. For example, if you place cookies in front of someone and tell them not to eat them, then they will give up more easily on a difficult task that follows.
Willpower is like a muscle in other ways too – regularly flexing your self-control increases its strength (so that trying hard to control your spending will also help your efforts to exercise more), and people faced with a self-control task will conserve their energy so that their willpower muscle can cope with the later tasks. Baumeister et al 2007 note that “How far the muscle analogy can be pushed remains an open question. Are there self-control states resembling sprained or injured muscles?” But so far, it’s a metaphor that stretches well.
Willpower and poverty
“The lower-class individual lives from moment to moment … Impulse governs his behavior … He is therefore radically improvident: whatever he cannot consume immediately he considers valueless … [He] has a feeble, attenuated sense of self.”
And actually there is good evidence that willpower matters for life chances. The classic ‘Stanford Marshmallow experiment’ showed that kids with greater willpower (resisting the tempting allure of a marshmallow) grew up to be more successful adults [there's a typically wonderful description of this by Jonah Lehrer, and you can even watch a re-enactment]. Researchers now often bundle this in with other ‘non-cognitive skills’, which people like James Heckman have shown are central to life chances and social (im)mobility.
But what’s new here is the idea that living in poverty itself may be detrimental to willpower. Building on Baumeister’s research above, here’s the view of influential behavioural economists George Loewenstein and Ted O’Donoghue (2007:51):
“If poor people are constantly required to exert willpower to live within their means (i.e., to constantly forgo enticing purchases), then they will have relatively little willpower strength remaining to resist inexpensive temptations like cigarettes or a willing sexual partner”
In other words, there may be something about the experience of poverty that leads to lower willpower – even beyond the fact that people with more willpower are more likely to escape poverty. And these pressures can cascade through generations. As Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan writes, “being a good parent, even when you know what to do, is hard. It requires constant attention, effort and stead-fastness.” He continues:
… those with less income are not as fortunate [as well-off people]. They have the same (limited) capacity for self-control and attention – but are forced to expend a large fraction of it on dealing with the ups and downs of everyday life… This leaves less psychic resources for the important things in life… Put in this light, is it any surprise that low-income parents look like worse parents?“
Sympathy and politics
If this evidence was more widely know, would this tilt the ancient political battle of left and right towards structural explanations of poverty? Well… The truthful answer is ‘probably not’.
Unfortunately there is further research showing that people are simply not good at understanding the link between visceral, physical pressures and behaviour. This partly goes back to that classic of Psychology 101, the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’. When we see other people’s behaviour, we explain it through their personality – but for ourselves, we know that we’re not really like we sometimes behave, but instead are sensitive to cues around us. In other words, we’re biased to explaining away our bad behaviour, but to see this as a core personality trait in others.
But it’s also more than that. People are amazingly prone to explain their behaviour through ‘willpower’, even when there are other obvious explanations. For example, one study shows that people who staple their stomach to lose weight suddenly experience a surge of ‘willpower’ (Gawande, 2001 in Loewenstein & O’Donoghue 2007).
The only exception to this is when we ourselves are in a ‘hot’ state, feeling physically/emotionally affected by something around us – hunger, thirst, sexual desire et al. In hot states we become more able to see the impact of similar desires on ourselves and others, as research by Nordgren & colleagues shows. This extends to moral judgements about other people - we blame and stigmatise people less when we’re in a hot state than when we’re in a rational, ‘cool’ state.
So when we’re feeling tempted, we may well be sympathetic to the temptations that other experience. When we’re in a cool state though, we may hear that people in poverty will use up their mental reserves of willpower on daily living – but we’ll still be tempted to explain their behaviour as a feature of their personality. Like most of the oldest political battles, the chances of this being settled by evidence appear slim… But nonetheless, for our own understanding of the way that social structure affects human agency, this research is a rich vein.