Scarcity – Whether Time, Money or Calories – Affects our Psychology!

Dear Commons Community,

David Brooks column today examines the issue of how scarcity — whether of time, money or calories — affects your psychology. He refers to the work of two behavioral researchers, Eldar Shafir of Princeton and Sendhil Mullainathan of Harvard who have recently, with federal help, been exploring a theory that scarcity produces its own cognitive traits. For example, he reports one of their findings:

“Shafir and Mullainathan gave batteries of tests to Indian sugar farmers. After they sell their harvest, they live in relative prosperity. During this season, the farmers do well on the I.Q. and other tests. But before the harvest, they live amid scarcity and have to think hard about a thousand daily decisions. During these seasons, these same farmers do much worse on the tests. They appear to have lower I.Q.’s. They have more trouble controlling their attention. They are more shortsighted. Scarcity creates its own psychology.”

Mr. Brooks goes on to make the case that the federal government should seek to support this type of behavioral research, however, the major National Science Foundation Program that funded this work is slated for elimination. He concludes that this is short-sighted. Yes!

However, while I think this was a fine column on all counts, I was surprised that Mr. Brooks did not also make a connection between this account of I.Q. testing and the standardized testing policies in our public schools. Specifically if poverty affects adults taking I.Q. and other tests, how about children of the poor in our American cities who come to school hungry or who have many basic “life” problems with which to deal and then have to take high pressure standardized tests. It seems to me that if the research cited in the column indicates that poverty affects adults taking I.Q. tests that it could affect children taking standardized tests. This research calls into question whether children’s entire psychological state on the day of the test could affect one’s performance. In a sense, are poor children and children with other psychological and emotional needs always at a disadvantage in the high-stakes testing world that now characterizes our public schools?


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