Alternative issues that demand attention, such as calorie counting in a diet, also could reduce cognitive abilities. The difference with money, however, is that one can end a diet anytime; not so with financial stress, Shafir says.
“What’s nice about these studies is we showed the low-income people do exactly as well as high-income people when they aren’t worried about their finances,” he says. “This is a clear way of showing it’s not about being a poor person. It’s about being in a moment of poverty.”
The study is not the last word on the sociology of poverty. The authors did not tackle questions about the impacts of being poor throughout a lifetime nor possible physical or chemical changes in the brain from long-term stress. “This is a major study, and these findings have significant impacts for policy,” McEwen says. “This is a good way of thinking about helping people.” Still, he cautioned, chronic stress may be playing a larger role than addressed in this research because it can surface in subtle ways that affect the brain but would not show up in the biomarkers measured in this study.
These new results also support other research on an overlapping area of study—an emerging field called self-control, says Kathleen Vohs, a consumer behavior expert at the University of Minnesota who published an accompanying commentary piece on the findings in the same issue of Science.* Self-control studies look at the finite ability of individuals to overcome urges and make decisions. They posit, in a similar vein, that when individuals are faced with many decisions that demand trade-offs—such as a scarcity of food, time or money—and do not have a chance to recover from the resulting brain drain, self-control can tank. That depletion, in turn, could lead to decision-making patterns that impede one’s ability to improve their lot in life, she says. “Because the poor must overcome more urges and make difficult decisions more often than others, they are more likely to overeat, overspend and enact other problematic behaviors,” she wrote.
This work should be translated into policy action, the authors wrote. When cognitive load is high and money is short, educational service offers are ill-timed, for example. Freeing up more brain bandwidth by shortening forms needed to apply for a job or assistance, for instance, could also help in adapting to personal financial stress.
*Editor’s Note: Vohs is the author of a forthcoming article in Scientific American.