Debt Help Getting Rid of Debt

This is Your Brain on Poverty

Aaron Crowe
Written by Aaron Crowe

If you’ve ever gone a night without sleep, you know how difficult it is to concentrate and focus on getting something done. Being poor can cause the brain to work just as poorly, according to a recent study on poverty published in the journal “Science.”

Poverty impedes cognitive function, created by a challenging background of financial problems that can leave the poor more distracted and unable to concentrate on solving the daily problems of life, says Eldar Shafir, a Princeton University professor and one of the authors of the study.

Just as an air traffic controller focused on averting a mid-air collision will pay less attention to other planes in the sky, or a driver is more likely to crash if they’re using a cellphone while driving, much of the poor’s mental bandwidth, as the study calls it, is busy dealing with poverty.

IQ falls 13 points

Trying to pay bills for rent, groceries, electricity and other basic needs takes up so much of their cognitive capacity that they can’t concentrate as well on doing things to get them out of poverty, such as looking for a job, going to school or borrowing money through payday loans that they can’t afford.

[pull_quote align=”left”]”The poor have a lot more on their mind than just juggling finances,” says Eldar Shafir, author of a study on poverty.[/pull_quote]”The poor have a lot more on their mind than just juggling finances,” Shafir said in a phone interview.

The brain goes slower when a person is poor, he says.

The researchers conducted two field studies, finding that financial concerns have a cognitive impact comparable with losing a full night of sleep. In other IQ tests, they found that being in poverty was equal to losing 13 IQ points, or the same cognitive difference between chronic alcoholics and normal adults.

The experiments on effects of poverty

The researchers had people take a series of cognition tests after being told to consider a financial problem.

About the author

Aaron Crowe

Aaron Crowe

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the Bay Area who specializes in personal finance. He has been a writer and editor at newspapers and websites, including AOL's personal finance site, WiseBread, Bankrate, LearnVest, AARP and other sites. Follow him on Twitter at @aaroncrowe, or at his website,

Leave a Comment