Does poverty lead to a negative state of mind, or does a negative state of mind lead to poverty? Are the two connected at all? What role does psychology play in understanding poverty?

The psychology of poverty is another facet of poverty’s debilitating toll on individuals. An article by the Association for Psychological Science states that people who deal with “stressors” like poverty and discrimination are more susceptible to physical and mental disorders.

Studies have demonstrated that children who grow up poor have lesser amounts of gray matter in their frontal and parietal lobes. Poverty also affects the size of their hippocampus and amygdala, parts of the brain responsible for memory, learning and processing social and emotional information. Furthermore, children from poor families have decreased access to cognitive stimuli. Cognitive stimuli include things such as books, computers and other learning resources. These effects impede a child’s learning ability.

Psychology Problems Linked to Poverty

Living in poverty, especially persistent poverty, increases an individual’s likelihood of suffering from anxiety, depression and attention problems. These are complex symptoms that provide more barriers to escaping poverty.

Martha J. Farah, a University of Pennsylvania professor, says that studies have shown that many people think that those who are poor are poor because they do not try hard enough. She says that neurons should not be blamed, though.

Commenting on Carson’s statement about poverty as a state of mind, Gary Evans, a professor at Cornell University, said that “he’s correct in identifying that there’s this link [between the state of mind and poverty], but I think he’s got the relationships backward.”

The American dream mentality that encourages individuals to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and march onward towards a better life has merit in its promotion of perseverance. Its harms, especially when intermingled with poverty, lie in its tendency to individualize progress. In other words, it may frown upon outside help. Furthermore, it may diminish the complexity of poverty’s hold on households.

The psychology of poverty further demonstrates its complexities. And complex problems rarely have simple solutions. Poverty is a beast that must be tamed collaboratively with individual insight, community collaboration, a national passion and global innovation.

Rebeca Ilisoi

Photo: Flickr

The Power of Touch: New Method to Help End Poverty?
A simple, nonsexual, touch can make a huge difference in the people around us. Through our five senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch we perceive the world around us. In our current world, we rely mostly on our eyes and ears and we base our opinions and focus on the information we hear and the sights we see. However, touch is also as vital to our everyday lives because even the slightest touch can influence the way we think and act.

In a recent article by Spring, a Psychology blog, they discussed the different types of touch that can influence behavior. There is the money touch, such as a well-timed touch on a patron’s arm by a waitress, which has been shown to encourage a bigger tip. Another is the compliance touch, where a light touch on the upper arm extended a broader range of compliance out of the receiver.

The article discussed many different types, but one that needed closer examination was the touch for help. In a study, strangers who were touched lightly on the arm when asked for help were more likely to help with a variety of tasks than those who were not. In fact, the percentage of those who helped went from 63 percent when they were not touched on the arm to 90 percent when they were touched.

If something as simple as a light touch could provide such a drastic change in the results of individuals, think of the potential applications it could have with helping those in poverty.

Many poverty-stricken people within the United States beg on the streets, and organizations that try to help them usually have little success trying to make change, whether that be political, social or economic. If both could involve slight well-timed touches into their appeals to pedestrians, think of the amount of change that could potentially occur.

Although the direct causes of poverty have been generally seen as a topic of debate, it is a fact that those subjected to poverty have higher rates of depression and other illnesses. It has also been medically proven that the power of touch can help alleviate the stresses of depression and help show support to those in need.

If we were to focus some efforts on using the power of touch and spending time being a little more compassionate to those in need, it’s possible that change to the state of poverty could be made.

Alysha Biemolt

Sources: Spring, Nicolas Gueguen, Gallup, The Borgen Project, Fast Coexist, Prevention
Photo: Flickr

art alleviates poverty
Researchers at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile have found a way to combat some of the negative psychological effects of poverty by using art.

Marianne Daher and Ana María Haz’s study, published in 2011, looked at the impact of artistic activities on the minds of 10 impoverished women living in Chile’s capital, Santiago. The study used art to help these women better understand the impact of poverty on their lives.

The researchers defined poverty as a deprivation both of physical needs and psychosocial needs, the latter of which includes self-knowledge, education and confidence.

Deprivation of both has been shown to arouse anxiety and affective disorders in women who live in poverty.

The study’s participants worked with a variety of materials and in a variety of mediums, including drawing, collage and painting. They worked alone and collaborated with other participants as well. At the end of the study, they invited friends and family to an exhibition of their work.

Researchers collected qualitative data through interviews with the participants. The women answered questions that asked them about their psychological state before, during and after the creation of their art.

Through their work, the scope of the burden of poverty became clear both to researchers and to the women themselves, who noted they rarely had chances to express themselves before. The women felt overwhelmed by their lack of education, their large families, their dangerous neighborhoods, their inadequate access to health services, their unfulfilling and unappreciated role as housewives and their inability to hire others to look after their children.

Art alleviates poverty by combating the stress that threatened to overwhelm these women. Women described the process of painting as relaxing, and they appreciated having time for self-development. Many women also learned about themselves during their artistic experiment.

“I find something absolutely different,” one participant said. She continued, “I find myself and my feelings. More than the painting itself, I find something I have always had, but now I got it: I find myself.”

Researchers discovered that the feeling of well-being nurtured by the artistic process carried over into the women’s daily lives. One participant described the metaphor between the correction of her mistakes while painting and the correction of her mistakes in her daily life:

“Many times I have complained because it [the painting] went wrong, but finally I could fix it! So, why shouldn’t I believe this is possible if I was also capable to correct my mistakes [at home].”

In the study’s conclusion, the researchers noted art’s potential to serve as a defense against the stresses of poverty. However, the study also shows how effective the artistic process can be at digging up the frustrations that impoverished women bury within themselves as a coping mechanism.

Bringing those frustrations into the open is a challenge that has perplexed many who have sought to find a way to measure poverty’s impact on the mental well-being of the poor.

During the past decade, traditional measures of poverty have seemed more and more inadequate—Chile’s CASEN survey, for example. The CASEN survey focuses on economic factors, comparing “homes’ per capita income with a minimum expected income,” but these factors say nothing about the psychological traumas that poverty can inflict on the impoverished.

To uncover those traumas, art may be the answer.

Ryan Yanke

Sources: Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative 1, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative 2, Psychology Today, American Journal of Community Psychology

Photo: Photography Blogger

effects of poverty on the adult brain

A recent study examined the effects of poverty on the adult brain and how it is influenced by childhood development. Results of the study showed that children from poor families performed more poorly on academic tests later in life. Furthermore, the study found that children who dealt with stress inducing factors, such as poor housing, in addition to poverty performed the worst of all tested subjects.

What does this mean for the future of children that are presently living in extreme poverty? With more than 1 billion children worldwide who lack one or more essential needs critical to survival and development, this can present even more problems in the future.

Most children living in extreme poverty face stress-inducing factors in addition to poverty. According to UNICEF, 101 million children currently do not attend primary school, and 148 million children under the age of 5 are underweight. A total of 270 million children worldwide do not have access to health care, and one out of five do not have access to clean drinking water, according to CARE, a nonprofit aiding in the fight against extreme poverty.

With more than 300 million children worldwide chronically hungry and 90 percent suffering from long-term malnourishment, these stressors can have lasting effects on their intellectual performance, and subsequently their financial stability, as adults.

For every additional year of primary school in developing countries, a girl’s wages are raised by 10 to 20 percent. This shows a direct correlation between education and income.

Children from poorer households are three times more likely to not attend school than those from wealthy homes. The largest population of non-attending school aged children is in sub-Saharan Africa, where 45.5 million children do not attend primary school. Much of this is caused by poverty, as many parents and families cannot afford required school fees and supplies to send their children to school.

Extreme poverty certainly involves several stress inducing factors besides lack of money, and these issues compound the problem of intellectual performance further. According to Professor K. Luan Phan, the author of the study, “the stress-burden of growing up poor may be an underlying mechanism that accounts for the relationship between poverty as a child and how well your brain works as an adult.”

By this same logic, helping these children out of extreme poverty today will lead to more intellectual men and women of tomorrow – men and women who will have the education needed to help other children escape poverty.

– Christopher Kolezynski

Sources: PsyBlog, The Borgen Project, CARE, Compassion
Photo: Flickr

Seasonal Greed
Navigating the Seasonal Greed Jungle

One of the seven deadly sins, greed is something that our modern-day materialist society is deeply saturated with, especially so during this part of the year – the holiday season. This is the time for giving, but also the time when many cast their eyes toward that new television set or pompous coat they have been craving. It is too easy to become swept away with the hysteria of Christmas shopping and seasonal sales and forget the true essence of any such holiday: the family. Following are some of the many detrimental effects of greed, together with ways you can counter them and not get afflicted:

Evil circle of misery

Didn’t get what you expected for Christmas? Constantly feel unhappy with what you have and never get enough of new things? It would appear that you are stuck in a down-spiraling, materialistic loop. The void that you so desperately are attempting to fill will never go away if you just keep throwing in garbage. It is part of human nature, it is detrimental to your psychological well-being, and it has a rather simple solution: make someone else happy instead. To realize how much of an impact this could really have, do a good deed for someone directly; feed a homeless man, buy toys for puppies at the local shelter, bring a present for a child you know to have a rough life. The sheer joy of being gifted with something so simple will give you a different perspective on life and raise your mood, as well.

People consumed by greed often seek to control their loved ones, forgetting about the needs of everyone but themselves. Somehow money gains more importance than family ties, and before you know it, your relationships start to falter. What may have started out as an innocent quest for the best gifts for your loved ones suddenly turns into an issue of money. Perhaps you even start to blame your spouse for spending too much, forgetting that what sparked this is you, searching for a present for said spouse to begin with! This Christmas, explore the possibility of giving handcrafted and personal things over expensive stuff. Discuss it with your family and make it into an activity that you can all engage in. It doesn’t have to replaceother items from everyone’s wish lists, but when time comes, you will realize that the gifts you spent time making may mean so much more than everything else, combined.


Greedy people are, essentially, hollow inside. The longer one spends his life living with greed, the emptier one becomes. It can induce a complete lack of excitement, of love, of compassion – similar to a drug addiction; greed will push you into a bland state of idleness with no possibilities for spiritual satisfaction. Find something else to focus on to get out of this black hole: donate money to charity, invest in a global aid project. The wealthiest people are all philanthropists – not by chance, but by choice. You spend all your time grinding away at work, but for what? Aim your efforts to helping others; see it as an investment in leaving your footprint on the world if you have to, but do something. Heal the world, heal yourself.

– Natalia Isaeva 

Sources: Psychology Today, Washington State University, APA, Thom Hartmann
Photo: Josic

What causes someone to become a humanitarian or a philanthropist? Are selfless acts inherently selfish? Does it even matter why someone gives? The psychology of philanthropy is a fascinating look at what makes compassion tick.

Humanitarians are found to share one particular experience: “a transformative engagement with ‘the other.’”  When recounting their initial motivation for becoming a humanitarian, they express that from an early age, they got to know someone different from them and came to the understanding that they were more alike than they thought.  They also share interesting traits, including “an awareness of the complexity and interrelatedness of human problems; and an ability to turn anger, sorrow, and other negative emotions into a force for good.”

Some anthropologists contend that humans could not have survived and evolved without the charity of a group.  Even more interesting, health-wise, our level of stress appears to be influenced by our connection to others.  Our stress systems “calm down when we are feeling close to people we care about – whether related to us or not – and spike during isolation and loneliness.”

Some academics explain the doer of good acts as being motivated by a “helper’s high: when you extend yourself to someone else, it produces an altered state of consciousness. You feel aroused, you feel wonderful, you float on air.”

The problem with being motivated by only extrinsic factors is that a person will lose their ability to be intrinsically motivated.  When there is no longer an outside force involved (fame, recognition, reward, etc.), the person becomes demotivated and cannot see the value in what they are doing.  Deep meaning, like that derived from philanthropy,  is said to be found only intrinsically.  Brain researchers have found that deep meanings “are the source of our reasons to keep going even when we do not understand…Deep meanings shape what we are willing to look at how we interpret our experiences.”

Understanding one’s underlying motivations may not necessarily be important when it comes to philanthropy, because in the end they are giving to an important cause.  It is important to understand, however, for an individual’s own growth and development. Extrinsic motivation is not completely bad, if accompanied with the capacity to be motivated without the expectation of a reward. Operating from such a foundation will equip an individual with the necessary skills to apply in situations in which there are not any immediate, tangible rewards.

– Rifk Ebeid

Sources: Psychology Today, Psychology Today, Health Land, Sage Pub
Photo: UiO Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law

The Psychology of Giving Towards Poverty Empathy Caring Shared Experience
“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” – Mother Teresa

Empathy is the capacity to sense the distress of others and be moved by it, even so much as to act to help or protect them. Empathy, however, is not innate–there is no gene for empathy. But our personality type has a lot of influence over our capacity to be empathetic towards others. As children, we can sense the distress of our parents and siblings, but what matters most is how we are able to make sense of their feelings, while sorting out our own, and still prevent ourselves from becoming distressed as well.

For years, empathy towards charitable causes has been popularized as “conspicuous giving.” “Conspicuous giving” occurs when individuals donate in search of recognition and public adulation for giving. The idea of giving to receive enhanced social leverage is not new. For hundreds of years, the rich have made charitable contributions to humanize themselves in the face of the masses. Many people believe that this is the only reason why others give.

However, this is simply not true. There are a lot of factors which influence our “psychology of giving” or our propensity towards charity. More recently, charitable giving has become something in which ordinary people take part. Whereas before, when charities were isolated to those rich enough to give, the celebrities and social media movements of recent decades have made the middle class more likely to give.

So why do we give? Contrary to common belief, most people do not give because they want to show off how good of people they are. People are most likely to give when they can empathize with others, more specifically, when they feel the same pains as they do. For example, take this study on empathy. Individuals were shown Xs and Os. The Xs meant that they were about to receive a mild electric shock on their ankle, while the Os meant that they were not going to be shocked. When participants held the hand of a friend during the experiment, and they knew that their friend was going to be shocked, they would experience the same sense of fear as they would if they knew that they were going to be shocked. Whereas, when the participants held the hand of a stranger, the same regions in the brain were not activated. When charitable organizations can put a face on the cause, or even bring it a little closer to home, individuals put themselves in the shoes of the less fortunate.

It’s easier for people to feel compassionate when they look a person in the eye or when they can experience their struggle firsthand. But, just by human nature alone, people will never feel compassionate towards groups of others. Once people lose their ability to relate to others, they feel no reason to help them.

This is a paradox of psychology. If we feel compassionate towards the individual, shouldn’t we feel even more compassionate as they multiply? Yet, the exact opposite occurs. Our compassion is stretched thin to the point that we hardly give at all. This phenomenon is known as “scope insensitivity” (Christopher Hesse). When we give to a group of people, we often ignore the number of people to whom we are giving. Instead, we focus on giving to the one needy person, whose face we imagine in our heads to humanize the situation. But, if we are as empathetic with the group as we are with the individual, shouldn’t we expect to give the individual as much as we would give to the group? Well, as it turns out, when a charity focuses on an individual to make the case for the whole, people give more to the charity than they would when they are simply asked to think of the whole.

Think back to the 1940s. Before Smokey the Bear, few had reason to consider their impact on the environment. In humanizing Smokey the Bear, and by directing the campaign towards individuals in his signature, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires,” the U.S. Forest Service was able to increase wildfire prevention efforts. In a study conducted by Hee-Kyung Ahn of Hanyang University in Korea, Ahn found that humanizing a cause makes people more willing to comply with social causes. In short, this study found that by adding a face and personalized message to the campaign, individuals were more likely to give, and they even gave more than their peers who received a similar, but less personal campaign. This study explains why Smokey, as opposed to a general message from the U.S. Forest Service, was effective at preventing forest fires.

Smokey put a face to the campaign in a way that a generic “Please prevent forest fires,” message never could. Similarly, in campaigns for global poverty, the key to success is the human element. Potential supporters of the cause need to put a face to the campaign. Whether it is their friend, or a child in a developing country, the campaign’s imagery needs to enhance the individual’s propensity towards empathy.

Similarly, these campaigns to alleviate poverty cannot rely on the numbers alone. Yes, there are a multitude of people in poverty, but until individuals can see the people living their lives in poverty as individuals, charitable giving will never achieve its maximum potential. There is still a lot more to be done, but one thing’s for sure: there is at least one person living in extreme poverty for every person living in absolute comfort. Maybe the solution to poverty is bringing these people together, to see each other eye-to-eye and for them to come up with a comprehensive plan together to maximize the utility of both.

Regardless of the means, campaigns to end extreme poverty need to bring a face to their organization and make the struggles of the world’s poor transparent for all the world to see. Because maybe, just maybe, there will be one person out there who can empathize with the struggle of the one of many individuals living in poverty.

– Kelsey Ziomek

Have you ever tried to change someone’s mind about something? It can be extremely difficult, and especially frustrating when you have the facts to prove your case, yet your well-founded arguments seem to fall on deaf ears. Well, believe it or not, it is in our nature to only hear the information that supports what we already believe. Psychologists call this mental phenomenon confirmation bias, and it can really stall the gears of social change.

Humans feel safe and secure when our world is predictable, and for this reason learning new information that disproves the philosophies that govern our beliefs can be a bit startling. We also like to believe that we can trust our own capacities to sort out the truths from the untruths. This is why we human beings tend to seek out information that supports what we already know, and avoid the evidence that would prove us wrong.

The way we naturally default to reinforcing our own beliefs can be quite harmful if we happen to be wrong, and the result of our cumulative avoidance of the truth can have serious implications for society as a whole. Confirmation bias explains why people believe in common myths that are continually repeated, but the good news is that by understanding confirmation bias as a basic psychological drive, it becomes easier to deconstruct false arguments to get to the truth.

Persistent misconceptions, like “foreign aid only makes overpopulation worse,” wouldn’t hold any water if more people decided to do some investigating to test their hypothesis. After setting aside a little time for research, or perhaps after an enlightening conversation from someone who already knows a little about the subject, one would discover that birthrates actually slow as poverty rates decrease, since poor families have no access to family planning services, and because people who live in extreme poverty choose to have more children because the likelihood of one of their children surviving to adulthood is much lower.

Individuals tend to assume they are above average in many areas, and that the groups they are a part of are too. This cognitive bias might explain why Americans, when surveyed at random, believe that their government dedicates a quarter of the federal budget to saving lives around the world with foreign aid. In fact, less than 1 percent goes to foreign aid, making the United States one of the least generous countries in the world, considering the immense wealth of the nation.

In order to make a positive change, it’s necessary to be informed, so if you want to make a difference it is essential to question what you know, and try to prove yourself wrong now and then. Having an understanding of one of our natural quirks, the confirmation bias, makes it easier to change your mind and maybe even convince others, too. People aren’t just stubborn, they just need to be asked the right questions to get their gears turning.

– Jennifer Bills

Sources: PsyBlog, PsyBlog, The Borgen Project