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Psychological poverty greatly impacts decision-making

Psychological poverty, or the deep impact that not having enough money has on our minds, is at the heart of psychologist Leon Hilbert’s research.

His findings highlight several key issues. Not having enough money makes financial decisions challenging. It also leads to procrastination – putting things off that should be done.

In addition, a lack of money causes people to avoid important tasks. Furthermore, it results in a feeling of being out of control.

Hilbert’s work reveals that those struggling financially often choose immediate, smaller rewards over bigger ones that could come later, worsening their financial and emotional stress.

The immediate choice: now or later

Leon Hilbert, a socio-economic psychologist at Leiden University, embarked on a journey to explore how monetary constraints influence decision-making processes. His findings show that people facing financial hardships often prefer small, immediate gains over larger, future rewards.

“They more often opt for 100 euros now rather than 200 euros later,” said Hilbert, indicating that these choices are made irrespective of the individual’s personality but are deeply rooted in their current financial predicaments.

The research included an experiment where participants, given a budgeting task, had their incomes adjusted to mimic debt conditions. Those under the burden of debt consistently chose short-term financial decisions, exacerbating their monetary woes.

Hilbert pointed out the stark reality facing those with limited funds: “There’s no room for long-term decisions if you need to put food on the table today.”

Procrastination and avoidance

The study further exposed a direct correlation between financial scarcity and an increase in procrastination and avoidance behaviors. This was particularly evident in a long-term survey of a representative sample of the Dutch population.

Individuals with constrained financial resources were more likely to ignore financial responsibilities, such as not opening bills or failing to monitor their bank accounts, leading to greater financial difficulties over time.

Hilbert described this as a “negative spiral of helplessness,” where the lack of financial control propels individuals into avoidance, further detaching them from opportunities to ameliorate their situation.

Cultural nuances in the experience of poverty

An intriguing aspect of Hilbert’s research is the cross-cultural study, which examined responses to financial scarcity across 52 countries.

The study aimed to discern if the sense of lost control varied in countries offering state benefits. Contrary to expectations, individuals in such countries reported a greater sense of lost control despite financial aid.

Hilbert suggests a reason for this. In societies with individualistic values, people feel a greater loss of control despite financial aid. This contrasts with collectivist countries, where people often turn to family or friends for financial support, which helps reduce the feeling of losing control.

Escaping the poverty trap

The research highlights the psychological poverty trap, where decisions made under the duress of financial scarcity perpetuate the cycle of poverty.

“If you have five final demands in the drawer, you feel you have lost control. That reinforces procrastination, which in turn has negative consequences because you aren’t paying your bills,” said Hilbert.

However, he stresses that these decisions, though problematic in the long run, are rational responses to immediate circumstances.

Hilbert noted that breaking this cycle starts with understanding the mental state of those in poverty. This understanding can help create solutions that lessen stress and improve their sense of control over money matters.

Toward empowerment and control

The ultimate goal of the research is to foster a deeper understanding of the conditions that lead to financial vulnerability. By moving from punishment to providing tools and knowledge, we can find a way out of the psychological grip of poverty.

“You might be in difficulties now, but we want you to get out of this situation and these are the steps that will make it manageable,” said Hilbert, advocating for solutions that allow individuals to regain control of their financial futures.

In summary, Hilbert’s research provides critical insights into the psychological mechanisms at play in the poverty trap, emphasizing the importance of nuanced, compassionate interventions that address the root causes of financial distress.

Through understanding and empowerment, there’s hope for breaking the cycle of poverty and fostering a sense of agency among those most affected.

The study is published by the American Physical Society.


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