British of Columbia researchers discovered that for people in poverty, remembering better times — such as past success — improves brain functioning by several IQ points and increases their willingness to seek help from crucial aid services.
Reconnecting the poor with feelings of self-worth helps individuals overcome the stigma and psychological barriers that make it harder for them to get back on their feet.
Making good decisions and learning to access appropriate assistive services can be a significant benefit to low income people and can lead to a way out of social economic constraints.
“This study shows that surprisingly simple acts of self-affirmation can improve the cognitive function and behavioral outcomes of people in poverty,” said University of British Columbia professor Jiaying Zhao, Ph.D., who co-authored the study.
The study will be published in the journal Psychological Science.
The main experiments took place in a New Jersey soup kitchen over two years. Nearly 150 study participants were asked to privately record a personal story with a tape recorder before doing a variety of problem-solving tests.
Compared to a control group, participants randomly assigned to “self-affirm” — to recount a proud moment or past achievement — performed dramatically better on the tests, equivalent to a ten-point increase in IQ.
They were also more likely to seek out information on aid services from the local government.
While previous studies have successfully seen self-affirmation improve test scores in two other marginalized groups — African-American students and female math students — this is the first study to show it in the poor, and the first to use oral self-affirmation techniques tailored to participants’ low literacy levels.
The study has important policy implications, including the potential to improve enrolment in government or charity assistance programs (health care, food stamps , tax rebates), which are used by only a fraction of eligible participants.
Before the study, Zhao and co-authors Drs. Eldar Shafir of Princeton University and Crystal Hall of University of Washington, theorized that self-affirmation can help to alleviate the mentally overwhelming stigma and cognitive threats of poverty — factors which can impair reasoning, cause bad decisions and perpetuate financial woes.
This study builds on previous research by Zhao and colleagues from Princeton, Harvard and University of Warwick, which found that poverty consumes so much mental energy that those in poor circumstances have little remaining brain power to concentrate on other areas of life.
As a result, less “mental bandwidth” remains for education, training, time-management, assistance programs and other steps that could help break out of the cycles of poverty.
Source: University of British Columbia