Nice teachers lie under oath. I've long wondered how Chula Vista Elementary School District, and, I'm sure, every other school district in the country, is able to get employees to lie under oath. But here's something I learned when I was deposing teachers: after they've told several lies, they will compensate by telling the truth a few times. I thought it was guilt that caused the switch, but new research indicates I may have been wrong.
Maybe their self-control was depleted.
They wanted to please their employer and their guilty friends. They really did. But it's hard for nice people to tell lies. They have to force themselves to do it. And after a while, some of them simply get fatigued, and what do you know, out pops a little piece of the truth.
"...Exerting self-control...immpaired self-control on subsequent tasks: Consumers became more susceptible to tempting products; chronic dieters overate; people were more likely to lie for monetary gain."
Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty?
A radical new explanation from psychologists.
The New Republic
June 6, 2011
...In the 1990s, social psychologists developed a theory of “depletable” self-control. The idea was that an individual’s capacity for exerting willpower was finite—that exerting willpower in one area makes us less able to exert it in other areas. In 1998, researchers at Case Western Reserve University published some of the young movement’s first returns. Roy Baumeister, Ellen Bratslavsky, Mark Muraven, and Dianne Tice set up a simple experiment. They had food-deprived subjects sit at a table with two types of food on it: cookies and chocolates; and radishes. Some of the subjects were instructed to eat radishes and resist the sweets, and afterwards all were put to work on unsolvable geometric puzzles. Resisting the sweets, independent of mood, made participants give up more than twice as quickly on the geometric puzzles. Resisting temptation, the researchers found, seemed to have “produced a ‘psychic cost.’”
Over the intervening 13 years, these results have been corroborated in more than 100 experiments. Researchers have found that exerting self-control on an initial task impaired self-control on subsequent tasks: Consumers became more susceptible to tempting products; chronic dieters overate; people were more likely to lie for monetary gain; and so on. As Baumeister told Teaching of Psychology in 2008, “After you exert self-control in any sphere at all, like resisting dessert, you have less self-control at the next task.”
In addition, researchers have expanded the theory to cover tradeoff decisions, not just self-control decisions. That is, any decision that requires tradeoffs seems to deplete our ability to muster willpower for future decisions. Tradeoff decisions, like choosing between more money and more leisure time, require the same conflict resolution as self-control decisions (although our impulses appear to play a smaller role). In both cases, willpower can be understood as the capacity to resolve conflicts among choices as rationally as possible, and to make the best decision in light of one’s personal goals. And, in both cases, willpower seems to be a depletable resource...
But the core of the breakthrough is that resolving conflicts among choices is expensive at a cognitive level and can be unpleasant. It causes mental fatigue.
Nowhere is this revelation more important than in our efforts to understand poverty. Taking this model of willpower into the real world, psychologists and economists have been exploring one particular source of stress on the mind: finances. The level at which the poor have to exert financial self-control, they have suggested, is far lower than the level at which the well-off have to do so. Purchasing decisions that the wealthy can base entirely on preference, like buying dinner, require rigorous tradeoff calculations for the poor. As Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir formulated the point in a recent talk, for the poor, “almost everything they do requires tradeoff thinking. It’s distracting, it’s depleting … and it leads to error.” The poor have to make financial tradeoff decisions, as Shafir put it, “on anything above a muffin.”
Last December, Princeton economist Dean Spears published a series of experiments that each revealed how “poverty appears to have made economic decision-making more consuming of cognitive control for poorer people than for richer people.” In one experiment, poor participants in India performed far less well on a self-control task after simply having to first decide whether to purchase body soap. As Spears found, “Choosing first was depleting only for the poorer participants.” Again, if you have enough money, deciding whether to buy the soap only requires considering whether you want it, not what you might have to give up to get it. Many of the tradeoff decisions that the poor have to make every day are onerous and depressing: whether to pay rent or buy food; to buy medicine or winter clothes; to pay for school materials or loan money to a relative. These choices are weighty, and just thinking about them seems to exact a mental cost...
Some promising approaches have already been tried. Starting in 2002, economists Nava Ashraf, Dean Karlan, and Wesley Yin created and analyzed a unique type of savings account at a small rural bank on the island of Mindanao in the Philippines. The Green Bank of Caraga’s SEED accounts (Save, Earn, Enjoy Deposits) let clients place restrictions on when they could access their money. SEED clients could set either a date before which or a minimum savings amount below which they couldn’t access their own funds. Twenty-eight percent of existing bank clients who were offered the accounts enrolled in them, and, after one year, the economists found, customers saved over 300 percent more with SEED accounts than they would have without them. The accounts offered an opportunity to circumvent self-control failure, in the same way Ulysses bound himself to the mast to resist the Sirens’ call...
The developed world offers numerous such “commitment products”: certificates of deposit, pension plans, government savings bonds, and education savings accounts, to name a few. But, in the developing world, institutional supports for flagging willpower are far fewer...
Michael Dunn said...
Blame the poor. They have bad will power. They have bad genes. They have too many babies. Analyze, medicate and castrate them. It doesn't matter. There will continue to be poor people (primarily the children of other poor people).
Poor people cannot escape their poverty because privileged people are unwilling to share their privilege, and they enact laws and unleash state power to protect their privilege (e.g., union busting, poor houses, bankruptcy "reform," and outright slaughter, as we are seeing in the Middle East).
Furthermore, privileged people inherit the wealth and privilege of their parents, directly through inheritance and indirectly through growing up with financial and social advantages. Poor children, for example, are much more likely to be born with low birth weight, suffer iron deficiency anemia, lead poisoning, malnutrition and numerous other problems that can impair cognitive development and cause learning disabilities. Poor children are read to far less often than middle class children, resulting in an academic achievement gap by the time they are 3. Poor people suffer far more stress than privileged people because of economic uncertainty and because they tend to have low status jobs and little or no control in the workplace. This chronic stress causes the overproduction of cortisol, which impairs memory and learning and increases risk of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and cancer. Thus, there is a linear relationship between wealth and health.
The only solution to poverty (and the achievement gap, which is due almost entirely to social class differences) is to end poverty by ensuring that all members of society have material security. That can only happen if the privileged make do with less.
Blogger Maura Larkins said...
This article is not saying that the poor have less will-power and self-control. It's saying that MORE self-control is required of them by their circumstances. The circumstances, not the people themselves, perpetuate poverty.
The article also notes that in wealthy countries, people get outside help to force them to save. Money is taken out of their paychecks for pension plans, insurance premiums, etc., basically taking decisions out of their hands.