The Correlation between Poverty and Willpower
Poverty is the state of being extremely poor. It is not the same as broke or a transient financial problem. Poverty is persistent. Willpower is self control. It is the ability to act or react. It is also the ability to restrain oneself from doing something. To develop willpower is to give yourself the chance to lift you out of tough times. Poverty may also be social or political but we are talking about economic elements, primarily money or material wealth. Willpower is not always about actions or reactions. It may also be purely psychological and confined to thoughts. Poverty and willpower usually go hand in hand. This does not necessarily mean that all rich people or everyone who is born into privilege have greater willpower than those living in or born into poverty.
The marshmallow test is probably the most quoted willpower experiment in existence. It’s implications on what willpower does to success later in life was in a way, both ground breaking and common knowledge, although some researchers are calling into doubts the conclusions of that experiment.
Poverty is Financial but also Psychological
Willpower is mostly psychological. You may refer to it as determination, resolve, drive, self discipline or self control. Psychologists define willpower as the ability of a person, regardless of all other variables, to delay instant gratification and hence being capable of successfully resisting temptations for an ulterior objective, which could be a short term or long term goal. Since poverty has a psychological impact, it has a direct correlation with willpower. Let us explore the psychological ramifications of being financially poor and hence living in poverty.
Case Study 1
It is necessary to first establish the connection between money and willpower to subsequently explore the correlation with poverty. Ronald Faber and Kathleen Vohs conducted an experiment at University of Minnesota to study the depletion of willpower when subjected to temptations or triggers of impulse buying. Volunteers were showed a silent video in which a plethora of common words, each of one syllable, was shown on the screen at the bottom. Some participants were asked to ignore the one syllable words. These participants were to be tested for their self control or willpower. After the video, the volunteers were shown cars, watches and other products. They were asked to decide if they would buy those items and if so then how much they would be spending on such a purchase. Those who exerted self control or willpower during the video to ignore the words at the bottom of the screen agreed to spend more than others, around thirty thousand dollars against twenty three thousand.
Faber and Vohs conducted another experiment wherein they followed up the self control exercise with an inventory of low cost items, like playing cards and mugs. The volunteers who were asked to exercise their willpower before being asked to make purchasing decisions chose to spend more and expressed the intent to buy more items than others. This establishes willpower depletion. Depleting self control can increase spending. Now, let us bear in mind these findings and take into context poverty, wherein affordability becomes the key and hence affects willpower.
Case Study 2
Dean Spears of Princeton University carried out a series of experiments in two villages of India. Despite both being in rural India, the two villages had different levels of income. The people of these two villages were asked to buy a soap of a well known brand at a markdown. The discount was generous and the deal was really good. It was still a difficult financial decision for people living in poverty in the two villages. After they had decided to purchase or to pass, the participants were given an exercise handgrip and asked to apply as much strength as they could to squeeze the device. The handgrip is a common tool used to assess strength determined by self control or willpower. The participants who were poorer or lived in abject poverty squeezed the handgrip for much shorter periods of time than those who were relatively better off, if not prosperous. Participants living in poverty but not asked to make the decision of whether or not to buy the soap squeezed the same exercise handgrip with much more strength and also squeezed it for longer periods of time.
This clearly establishes the correlation between poverty and willpower. Simply because those living in poverty were asked to make a financial decision that demanded pondering, their willpower depleted and they were unable to generate the strength that they otherwise can if they are not asked to make difficult choices. Eliminating the financial decision retains and in some cases enhances willpower.
Bring in the context of money, which makes matters more complicated for those living in poverty than the reasonably better off, and the psychological impact impairs willpower.
Poverty, Stress and Willpower
Poverty leads to perpetual stress. Willpower also varies depending on how much stress a person experiences. The depletion of willpower is directly proportionate to the complexity of a financial decision. Poorer people are more stressed while making financial decisions that would be easy for richer people. Stressed people, regardless of economic standing, will have reduced willpower or self control. Dean Spears of Princeton University had also conducted a study in the United States to assess the shopping pattern of a cross-section of Americans. Richer shoppers experience fewer conflicts in regards to money while making decisions and poorer shoppers experience stress owing to the financial decision they must take. This depletes willpower and lets the guard down for poorer people, who are more likely to indulge in foods and drinks, even binge eating or unhealthy snacking, simply because their self control has already taken a hit while dealing with the financial decisions.
Poverty, Shortsightedness and Willpower
Poverty compels people to be shortsighted. Shortsightedness depletes willpower. People who cannot see beyond immediate gains or an obvious benefit in the short term will not be able to harness impeccable self control. Such people will give in to temptations or would never think beyond the obvious and hence have little willpower to pursue such goals, if there are any at all in the first place.
Economist Nava Ashraf (PhD), formerly of Harvard Business School and who is now at London School of Economics, and some of her colleagues asked relatively poor people in the Philippines to open savings accounts but they could only withdraw the funds after a certain date or when they would save a certain amount of money. The participants had the freedom to choose the amount they would save. In a span of twelve months, those who signed up for these special accounts saved around eighty percent more than others who had similar or identical economic standing. The elimination of the decision of whether to spend or save helped people in poverty to head towards one direction with sheer self control or willpower.
Poor people focus on immediate gains, even if the pursuit keeps them from achieving greater things. Rich people, especially investors and those in flourishing business, can afford to hold back temptations and this enables them to focus on the larger long term objectives. They are likely to benefit more in the near and distant future. Poverty does not allow people to think beyond today or tomorrow, in some cases the week or at the most the present month. Survival is at stake and hence the luxury to think beyond the obvious simply does not exist. This makes people shortsighted. Shortsightedness will always impair willpower. Worse would be scenarios when someone living in poverty is exposed to other stressful circumstances that further deplete their self control or willpower.
Ways to Develop Willpower regardless of Economic Standing
•Willpower is probably the most important “muscle” that you can have. Use it wisely, don’t overuse it and you won’t find yourself crying for motivation to finish that last task.
•A good way to exercise this “muscle”, is to push yourself a small amount each time you feel like giving up. Much like your biceps, your willpower too will remember this new, improved threshold that you set. The next time you reach this threshold, again push yourself just a little. Day by day, stone by stone you will find yourself with improved willpower and concentration to boot. Caution: If you overexert you will plateau. Take a break in between to recharge those “muscles”
For example: Studying for a test and feel that sleep coming on? Force yourself to sit through for another 10 minutes. And when that 10 minutes is up go for another 5 minutes. By this time you would have some second wind and can go on for hours. But doing this everyday for 21 days, you can turn this into an habit. There! You have already effortlessly created a good habit that will run on autopilot for the rest of your life!
• Money and stress or the lack thereof, farsightedness or shortsightedness and willpower influence the decisions of people to take or avert risks, even if those are necessary for long term gains. These real problems are cyclical in nature. Poverty leads to stress, there is an impact on willpower and shortsightedness is the immediate fallout. All of these are interrelated and hence they would collectively impair self regulation or determination, preventing people living in trying circumstances or abject poverty to succeed in anything. It is necessary to disassociate money from some decisions. Not every decision should be taken through the prism of economics or financial standpoint. If necessary, the whole premise of having to decide can be eliminated to prevent depletion of willpower. One can harness willpower by focusing on the ulterior objective, rather than giving into the temptations of the moment.
• Willpower takes years of practice to strengthen and retain. People, regardless of economic standing, must avoid situations that trigger willpower depletion. Only those decisions that are worthwhile should be considered and one must put in sufficient thought. Then one must switch to thinking about or doing something that does not deplete their willpower any further. Avoiding temptations, fuelling imagination, thinking about things that are more pleasurable and good habits in day-to-day life would help develop strong willpower. Those who can hold on to their good habits even when they are stressed, tempted and hence tested for their willpower will always fare better than others.
• Take one step at a time, focus on one thing and avoid multitasking, especially when it involves making more than one complicated decision. If you are to give in to your temptation then you must have a plan to deal with the fallout.
•Do not sweat the small stuff. I mean the everyday stuff like planning what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner should be automated by now. You ought to have a grocery list for all the items you need for a week. Spend the weekend planning your meal for the next week. When the time comes to eat lunch you don’t have to waste your willpower into deciding what to eat and where. You already have a meal prepared. Check out this subreddit for inspiration.
•Persistence alone is key to develop willpower. It alone will help you in your journey to success.