How Privilege Affects Decision Making

People of low socioeconomic status are often considered responsible for their impoverishment. This mentality—“the poor are poor because they don’t work hard”—is seen so often in those looking from a point of privilege. Even when disregarding hereditary disadvantages, poor  individuals are blamed for bad choices that perpetuate poverty, such as smoking and failing to save money for long-term plans.

These judgments, however, are misguided in the way they criticize individuals so severely. Many psychologists, including University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire,  now believe that poverty influences the way humans—all humans—make decisions. In other words, individuals cannot be blamed before interpreting the psychological wear of poverty.

Complementing their findings, a poignant post on, an online forum, acts as a window into the thought process of someone at the bottom end of the socioeconomic totem pole. Here’s an excerpt:

“I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be.

“Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different baby-daddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.”

This woman’s writing illustrates exactly what Kable and McGuire showed in their experiments. It seems that, contrary to common thought, patience is not always adaptive. Impatience and giving up can be the appropriate action if, for example, the future is unpredictable and may not hold the rewards one is waiting for.

“There are lots of situations, probably the majority of situations, in the real world,” Kable says, “where waiting longer is actually a valid cue that the reward is getting further and further away.”

Patience, which is linked to both intelligence and success later in life, may be a construct of privilege. When one comes from a place of privilege the rewards one waits for are, more often than not, granted. The same cannot be said of the poor, so naturally it is harder to wait when the reward of patience is usually not granted. It is especially hard to plan ahead when one does not have money and giving up is so simple and so instantaneously rewarding—when smoking a cigarette, like the woman on continues to say, is the only relief.

“Our environment trains us about the value of persistence. Sometimes, it makes sense to wait,” said Maria Konnikova in an opinion piece for the New York Times featuring Kable and McGuire’s study. “At other times, the adage about the bird in hand begins to make sense.”

The adage goes, aptly, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” For people of low socioeconomic status this may be not only true, but also adaptive.

Adam Kaminski

Sources: New York Times, Killermartinis
Photo: Salon