Growing up poor erodes a sense of control over life well into adulthood, study finds

A child waits with her mother at a homeless shelter.
A child waits with her mother at a homeless shelter.
Image: AP Photo/LM Otero
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More than a half century after Stanford University’s landmark marshmallow test, in which children who managed to defer the pleasure of eating a candy for a few minutes were rewarded with two, self-control is still said to be the key to success. And current educational thinking exalts the value of overcoming obstacles with grit and perseverance.

But those very qualities, said to lead to achievement and happiness, are eroded by the experience of childhood poverty, researchers say. A University of Minnesota study (pdf), released Wednesday by the American Psychological Association, presents evidence suggesting that growing up poor can influence people’s sense of control over their lives well into adulthood, even if they have become much wealthier. The result, the researchers say, is more impulsive decision-making and giving up quickly on challenging tasks in uncertain situations.

“Persistence is directly tied to myriad important outcomes, including self-control, academic achievement, substance abuse, criminal behavior, healthy eating and overspending,” one of the study’s co-authors, Vladas Griskevicius, said in a release on the paper. “Future research should investigate strategies to prevent individuals from poor childhoods from potentially quitting challenging tasks in the face of adversity.”

The researchers conducted five experiments with adults in different age and income brackets and at different stages of their life, to test how exposure to economic uncertainty influenced their sense of control. Researchers asked how much they agreed with statements such as “I can do just about anything that I really set my mind to” or “Whether or not I am able to get what I want is in my own hands.” To hone in on the issue of childhood poverty, they asked participants to describe their childhood household incomes by indicating agreement with statements such as: “My family usually had enough money for things when I was growing up,” or “I felt relatively wealthy compared to the other kids in my school.”

One of the more revealing tests found that among 95 people, those who grew up poor had a lower sense of control after looking at photos depicting economic hardship, such as unemployment lines, home foreclosure signs, and empty office buildings.

The researchers conclude, however, that sometimes persistence is not the most logical behavior, especially when people are faced with an impossible task. “Although past research has viewed persistence on such impossible tasks as good and desirable, the adaptive behavior is to quit, since persisting on the task is not all that different from dancing in hopes that it will start raining,” they write. “Time and energy are limited resources, and sometimes it is adaptive to stop expending effort on an endeavor one cannot control in order to pursue more promising opportunities.”