Behavioral economics has a plan to fight poverty—and it’s all about redesigning the “cockpit”

What if poverty isn’t about “personal responsibility?
What if poverty isn’t about “personal responsibility?
Image: Reuters/Larry Downing
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Dr. Bryan Bledsoe was just trying to keep up. The ER at the small rural hospital was always packed and the top brass had urged him to move patients through more quickly, so when a woman in her sixties came in complaining of head and neck pain, he briskly examined her, hustled her off for an x-ray, gave her some pain medication for a pulled muscle, and dispatched her home.

The next morning, though, she was back—this time in an ambulance. Bledsoe had missed the signs of an impending stroke. The woman died in the hospital that day.

Dr. Bledsoe didn’t lack training or a desire to help; the doctor, who today serves as a faculty member and physician in the trauma center at the University Medical Center of South Nevada in Las Vegas, was as eager then to see his patients get better as he is now. But in the moment, strapped for time and overwhelmed with the varied needs of so many patients, he missed a diagnosis. It would haunt him for years.

Whether we’re doctors, or teachers, or anything else, we all have a finite amount of mental bandwidth, and if we use that space to concentrate one thing, it can’t be used for something else. Sounds obvious, but emerging research show that it has profound implications, especially for people who are financially barely scraping by. While everyone juggles work, family, and financial obligations, for low-income families these decisions involve constant, agonizing tradeoffs(“Should I pay the rent or the heating bill? Should I fill this prescription or buy food?”). And the process of making those painful, fraught tradeoffs day after day comes at a cognitive cost—the equivalent, researchers say, of living each day as if you hadn’t slept the night before.

Living in poverty, having so much bandwidth wrapped up just making it from one day to the next, decreases a person’s—any person’s—cognitive function, making it harder to solve problems, resist impulses, and think long-term. If a well-off professional were transplanted into a life of poverty tomorrow, he’d lose the same bandwidth too—and his brain function would show it.

The context of “scarcity,” as researchers Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan dubbed it in their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, actually changes the way we think. We get tunnel vision, able to focus only on the present problem—the thing we lack—in a kind of fire-fighting mode, leaving us with less bandwidth for everything else.

Intriguingly, this effect can occur with any key resource—not just scarce money, but also food, and even time. A time-crunched professional feverishly finishing a project will likely fail to eat balanced meals and forget to show up for appointments. A calorie-counting dieter plagued with visions of ice cream will have a harder time concentrating at work or restraining her impatience during the 27th reading of Goodnight Moon. It’s not that they don’t want to—there’s just no bandwidth to spare.

Indeed, Shafir and Mullainathan’s research shows that subjects perform worse on cognitive tests when they are dieting (they’re especially thrown off when the puzzles include words like “doughnut” and “cake”). And when the two researchers asked students to play brain games under time pressure with the opportunity to borrow more time at exorbitant interest rates, the students couldn’t resist borrowing—interest rates notwithstanding—once they started running low. “In the lab, we can make it happen to anyone,” even highly educated Princeton students, says Shafir. “So it’s not the person, it’s the context they’re in.”

As for the effects of financial scarcity, Shafir and Mullainathan tested the cognitive function of sugarcane farmers in India, first right after harvest time when they were flush with cash, and then again the next year right before harvest, when they were barely scraping by. This meant that the “rich” and “poor” subjects were actually the same person, taking the test several months apart….yet they performed like different people, losing nearly 10 IQ points and faltering in other measures of higher-level thinking. They hadn’t become dumber, or lazier, or somehow deficient in character or ambition in the months since they were last tested. But in poverty, their brains were like computers trying to download too many files at once: They simply had less mental bandwidth available to devote to the test.

“There’s a classic study that shows that if I have you memorize a four-digit number, if I say, ‘Don’t forget 1271,’ and have this other guy memorize an eight-digit number—‘Don’t forget 12714627’—the eight-digit guy is going to do less well on cognitive control tests because his bandwidth is already taken up, his mind is busy elsewhere,” Shafir says. “This is basically the same logic.”

But while most diets will eventually fall by the wayside and most work projects will eventually get done, a person living in financial straits feels the mental pull of scarcity every day, all the time. For those who are constantly juggling to make ends meet—which by Shafir’s estimation is some 100 million Americans—the load on their bandwidth is constant.

Take Sirrea Monroe, a former nursing home aide currently managing the night shift at a convenience store to support her kids. She’s an engaging woman with curly dark hair; the day we meet, she is wearing a light brown sweater, jeans, and a pink-and-white scarf she knitted herself.

At first blush, what strikes you about Monroe is her wry sense of humor and her seemingly endless creativity in saving money: There’s the knitting side business (complete with business cards), a weekly family coupon-clipping production (she and one kid cut them out, another checks expiration dates, and they file them all in a three-ring binder), her encyclopedic knowledge of free local children’s events, and the slew of funny homemade Halloween costumes she’s made for the kids out of cardboard boxes (Legos, Rubix cubes, a giant flip-flop). “One year I cut a circle out of the front of two white boxes, put some blue cellophane over it, super-glued my oldest daughter’s Barbie-doll clothes in the windows, and they were a washer and dryer,” Monroe says, laughing. “It was kind of awesome.” She pauses, then grins. “Well, until my daughter wanted those Barbie clothes back.”

Monroe, 36, tells her stories with a generous twist of humor, like a woman who doesn’t want you feeling sorry for her. But behind her stories is an astonishing array of mental juggling that never stops. No job Monroe has ever held has paid more than $10.50 an hour. She doesn’t have sick time or paid time off, and working from home is a pipe dream; if the car breaks down or her kids get sick, there’s just no pay that day. A simple trip to the grocery store requires extensive arithmetic and a binder of coupons. Halloween costumes are homemade not for fun, but because they have to be. Even the smallest surprise expense—kids’ clothes for a school program, a hike in the price of gas—can throw Monroe’s finances into a tailspin. A bigger surprise, like a major car repair or an emergency trip to the dentist, can make that tailspin last for months or even years. Most months, despite her best efforts, there’s just not enough.

“It’s always just, ‘Who do I have to pay today?’ ‘Can I slide this gas bill three or four days?’ ‘Can the rent wait ’til next week?’ With the lights, the phone, food, and maintenance on the car, I’m always scraping and moving stuff around,” Monroe says. “And then my daughter just grew two inches and she needs new pants, so it’s always something. Always.”

Indeed, reframed in the context of mental bandwidth, the fact that Sirrea Monroe successfully holds a job, keeps her kids fed and clothed, and maintains her apartment while simultaneously wrangling the onslaught of brain-taxing complexity inherent in her everyday life starts to seem pretty impressive. The fact that she does it all while also making handmade costumes and knitting her own winterwear makes it seem downright herculean.

* * *

The mentally overwhelming nature of poverty might seem daunting to policymakers—just one more challenging aspect of an already complex problem.

But where some see cause for despair, Anthony Barrows sees opportunity. “I actually find this research to be incredibly refreshing, because it shows that everyone’s brain reacts the same way in the context of poverty—it affects the way you think, the choices you make, and the outcomes that stem from them,” says Barrows, a senior research analyst at ideas42, a behavioral economics consulting firm in New York City.

“So we can stop lecturing low-income families about bootstraps or ‘not trying hard enough,’ or suggesting that people are poor because they somehow deserve it, and we can pivot the conversation toward something that’s actionable,” Barrows says. “There’s stuff we can do about this.”

Consider this: During World War II, the military was plagued with a series of accidents in which bomber pilots would successfully complete difficult missions but inexplicably retract their wheels during landing, thus crashing their planes on the runway. No one could figure out why. The pilots were some of the military’s best and brightest. Had they gotten sloppy? Fatigued? Forgotten their training?

It turned out that, in the cockpit, the lever for the wheels looked and felt almost exactly like the lever for the flaps. In the flurry of activity during landing, the pilots were just pulling the wrong one, as Shafir recounts in his book. When the military changed the levers so they could be differentiated by touch, lo and behold, the crashes stopped.

Think about that. The military didn’t need to get into the pilot’s heads, lecture them about personal responsibility, or tell them to try harder.

They just needed to re-design the cockpit.

“In product design, it’s long been understood that you can design things to be more or less conducive to successful performance,” Shafir says. “When you design a stove, if you have four burners in a square and the knobs in a row, people are always going to confuse which knob goes with which burner. But if you put the knobs in a square, too, it’s very clear—top left goes with top left, bottom right goes with bottom right—and you reduce errors enormously.”

That’s what Shafir, Barrows, and others in the field want to do with anti-poverty programs. “Instead of saying, ‘What is wrong with this person that he is poor?’” Shafir says, “the question should be: ‘How do we design the cockpit around this person to make it more conducive to success?’”

This isn’t coddling—personal responsibility still matters a great deal. “This doesn’t get the pilot off the hook,” Shafir says. “The pilot still has to land the plane, and the pilot that isn’t trying is still going to crash.

“But what we owe to those who are trying and do care is a cockpit that’s well-designed, so that there’s the best chance that they can fly successfully.”

* * *

Okay, so how does one “re-design the cockpit” to fight poverty? It helps to realize that, even in the best of circumstances (and regardless of tax bracket), the human brain is surprisingly quirky, and in consistent, predictable ways.

As researchers like Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein, and Dan Ariely have pointed out in the bestsellers Nudge and Predictably Irrational, all of us, no matter our education or income level, routinely act in irrational ways. We eat more in restaurants where the plates are bigger. We buy more when the shopping carts are larger. We are more afraid of flying than driving, though driving is more dangerous. We all think we are above-average drivers, despite the fact that that’s impossible. We drive across town to save 20 bucks on an $80 coat, but blithely throw in $200 on extras when buying a $20,000 car. We buy exercise equipment in a flurry of January optimism, and are always genuinely surprised when we’re using it as a laundry rack by March.

Instead of fighting against these and other natural quirks, policies informed by the study of behavioral economics work with them—tailored to the natural contours of our predictably irrational minds.

This is what your company is onto when they display the fresh fruit attractively at eye level in the cafeteria, or automatically enroll new hires in the company 401(k). True, they could lecture you about nutrition, or hand out glossy brochures about the importance of saving, but they’re better off using some of your natural tendencies—gravitating toward a handy choice (the fruit) or a favoring the default option that requires no action or paperwork (the auto-enrollment)—to nudge you in the right direction.

Yet behaviorally informed policies make even more sense for people whose mental bandwidth is already overloaded by the demands of poverty. Rather than asking overwhelmed people to fight upstream against these universal quirks of the mind, it makes sense to design programs that account for them, and even employ them, to propel people to success.

Across the country, non-profits, schools, community colleges, and others are exploring ways to do just that. Sometimes it only takes a small tweak to make a big difference:

Removing the pebble in the shoe

Imagine for a moment that you’re a high school principal, and I tell you I’ve discovered a little green pill that will magically increase the rate of college enrollment among your low-income students by nearly 30%. Crazy, right? But it exists.

Of course it’s not actually a pill. But in a pilot study, when low- and moderate-income families with children between the ages of 17 and 30 came to H&R Block to have their taxes done, a portion of the families were also offered the chance to have someone sit with them, on the spot, to fill out their application for federal student financial aid.

Importantly, they weren’t just told or shown how to do it: The advisor actually guided them through completion of the entire form. This single interaction, often lasting less than 10 minutes, caused the rate of college enrollment among students already out of high school to increase by an impressive 20%, and for graduating high school seniors an astonishing 30%. Thirty percent!

Why did it work? Behavioral research shows that we’re all naturally wired to put off or avoid daunting, unfamiliar, or complicated tasks. That’s why we put off doing our taxes, and only read the fine print on our insurance policies when our basements are full of water.

Research also tells us that, despite our best intentions, even small logistical obstacles can derail us from doing things we actually want to do: It might take us months to make a dentist appointment just because we keep forgetting to look up the number; we might fail to donate blood if the clinic is several miles away.

By simply approaching the families in a place they already needed to go, and having a trusted individual complete the entire form with them, this simple intervention overcame the natural inclination to avoid a daunting task, removed logistical obstacles, and opened up the prospects for college to a whole new swath of individuals—all in less than 10 minutes.

“Fresh mint, double mint, minty mint… bacon?!”

Picture yourself standing in the store near a giant display of toothpaste. There are a hundred variations of mint in every size, plus brands with whitening agents, and even one that’s supposed to taste like bacon. Finally, overwhelmed, you grab the brand you’ve always bought, and flee.

We all freak out a little in the face of too many choices. Many students—especially low-income, first-generation college students—are overwhelmed by the proliferation of classes and majors available at a typical community college. What to study? Where to begin? Who to turn to for help?

“Students who face a cafeteria menu of choices—you know, ‘Pick one class from Column A, two from Column B, three from Column C’—it’s very confusing. It would be confusing to most adults, much less the average recent high school graduate,” says Stuart Cochran, dean of strategic planning at Guttman Community College in New York City.

So Guttman has only five majors. Students are guided through a carefully structured process to help them select the right major and succeed in their courses. Every student starts by taking an extensive, mandatory course exploring different careers, and only after this course’s completion do they choose their major. Once a week, students attend a required group advising session for support and guidance. They also have access to peer mentors, and are grouped together in classes to encourage mutual support and coordinated instruction. “Nobody falls through the cracks here,” says Cochran.

It seems to be working. Nearly 50% of Guttman College’s students—most of whom are low-income, first-generation college students—graduated within three years, “which is off-the-charts unheard-of in higher ed,” says Cochran. The average three-year graduation rate for U.S. community colleges is around 20%.

At other schools, students often flounder because “colleges have vastly expanded their course offerings without expanding counseling to help students navigate those options,” says Josh Wyner, executive director of the college excellence program at the Aspen Institute in Washington, DC. “The Guttman School is the antidote to that.”

By limiting choices and guiding students through specific pathways, Guttman overcomes the natural decision paralysis that plagues so many of us in the face of too many choices.

Of organ donors and mac-and-cheese

Here’s a weird piece of trivia: In Germany, only about 12 out of every 100 people is registered as an organ donor. In Austria, the country right next door, however, nearly everyone is. Why? The difference is not, as one might imagine, some major cultural or religious divergence. It’s that in Austria, you are automatically an organ donor unless you opt out. In Germany, though, you have to opt in.

Behavioral research shows that we are naturally inclined to go with the default choice. This finding is helping a program in Gillette, Wyoming, keep more kids in need from being hungry on weekends.

Every Friday afternoon, more than 80 students at Prairie Wind Elementary climb onto their school buses with their backpacks filled with granola bars, mac-and-cheese cups, fruit cups, ravioli, and apples. While these kids depend on free or reduced school lunch during the week, these bags of food, provided by the nonprofit Blessings in a Backpack, are lunch for the weekend.

From the standpoint of mental bandwidth, the program is nearly ideal. Low-wage working parents need not juggle work schedules to make it to a food pantry that’s only open on Saturdays, or fight the embarrassment of publicly admitting their need for help. If the family car breaks down, the food still gets home.

And since every family on free or reduced lunch is automatically signed up for the program and only has to opt out if they’re not interested, the program reaches every child that needs it.

“But whom say ye that I am?”

In a fascinating study about identity, female Asian-American college students were asked to take a math test. Before the test, one group was asked questions that primed them to think of themselves as women first (for example, their views about co-ed dorms). The second group was asked questions that primed them to think of themselves as Asian first (what languages they spoke at home, how many generations of their family had lived in the United States).

Astonishingly, the women primed to think of themselves as female performed worse on the test than those primed to think of themselves as Asian. Simply awakening that side of their identity—and the stereotypes that go with it—actually changed their performance.

Many organizations are realizing that the language they use, and thus the identities they prime, really matter, says Matt Helmer, senior policy analyst at the Seattle Housing Authority and author of a 2015 white paper on behavioral economics in workforce development. “We need to make sure that we’re not unintentionally reinforcing the stereotypes or stigmas people face just by being poor in America today,” he says.

At the workforce development nonprofit Cincinnati Works, participants are respectfully welcomed into an attractive, well-lit office and referred to not as recipients, but members. At the nonprofit Economic Mobility Pathways in Boston, participants are coached by “mobility mentors” toward individualized life goals they have set for themselves. Families in Habitat for Humanity’s homebuilding program are called “homeowners” or “partner families” from day one, and they physically build their homes and pay a low-cost mortgage after moving in.

These choices in language and program design awaken an identity of active participant rather than passive recipient, thus fostering a sense of dignity and possibility.

* * *

There are other ways that insights about mental bandwidth and behavioral economics can help “redesign the cockpit” to fight poverty and help families succeed. The school-based health center movement, for example, is bringing primary health care to the school setting, thus removing any obstacles (transportation, time off work, cost) that might prevent parents from getting their kids to the doctor. An invention called the Glow-Cap—a prescription bottle whose cap glows to remind you to open it on the prescribed schedule—may help overwhelmed patients manage chronic illnesses more effectively. Some community colleges are now offering free metro cards to low-income students to alleviate the strain of unreliable transportation.

These interventions aren’t a magic bullet—all the tweaks in the world cannot match the impact of a major policy initiative, such as mandated sick or vacation time, or an increase in the minimum wage.

“But the things behavioral economics can do are relatively low-cost and relatively small, and they can have a disproportionate impact,” says Anthony Barrows of ideas42. “It’s a complementary tool in the toolbox.”

Understanding the impact of financial scarcity on mental bandwidth can help us re-design the cockpit around low-income families to give them a better chance at success. Behavioral economics may not land the plane, but it can certainly make it easier to fly.