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REPORT

Psychological
perspectives on
poverty
Ben Fell and Miles Hewstone

This report provides a review of psychological


research into the causes and consequences of
poverty.
It covers four main subject areas: social processes, mental health, genetic
and environmental factors, and neurological and cognitive effects. The
goal of the review is to evaluate not only the scientific methodology and
theory developed by poverty researchers, but also to highlight the potential
relevance of such research for those involved in social policy. Given that
poverty is a relatively under-studied subject within experimental psychology,
the report also hopes to draw attention to research questions that would
benefit from further empirical investigation. The report includes:
an overview of psychological methods and sub-disciplines, as well as the
criteria used to evaluate the research under discussion;
the social psychological effects of poverty;
psychological explanations for the mental health risks associated with
poverty;
psychological research on the heritability of poverty, and its effect on
human biology at a genetic level;
the effects of childhood poverty on cognitive and neurological
development, and evidence for the existence of a scarcity mindset
affecting anyone experiencing severe resource depletion; and
advice for policy-makers seeking to make use of the findings from
psychological research.

JUnE 2015
WWW.JRF.ORG.UK

CONTENTS
Executive summary 

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1 Introduction
2 An overview of psychological research and its evaluation
3 Social processes
4 Mental health
5 Genes and environment
6 Brain and cognition
7 Conclusions: research and policy

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References
About the authors

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Executive summary
Psychological research has shown that the
experience of poverty significantly influences
the way we think, feel and act. Understanding
the psychological (and neurophysiological)
effects of poverty is a crucial step in ensuring the
effectiveness of poverty-reduction initiatives.

This report reviews the contributions of psychological research to the


understanding and prevention of poverty. The review is structured
around four key content areas: social processes, mental health, genes
and environment, and brain and cognition, with a concluding chapter on
research and policy. These broad subject headings reflect general differences
in methodological and theoretical approaches across the various subdisciplines of psychology (although a number of key themes and principles
will cut across these divisions). At every stage of the review, in addition to
evaluating the methodological adequacy of the research, two specific criteria
were considered for its use in policy-making: whether the outcomes are
useful to policy-makers, and whether the analysis had been conducted at an
appropriate conceptual level to inform policy decisions.

Social processes
Social psychological research on poverty can be broadly split into studies
that consider thoughts, feelings and behaviours directed towards those in
poverty, and those which consider the thoughts, feelings and behaviours
of those in poverty themselves. When considering those in poverty as an
outgroup, we report numerous accounts indicating that the stereotypic
perception of those in poverty is characterised by extremely negative
evaluations (they are viewed as low on a dimension of personal warmth
and also on a competence dimension). This was found to correlate with
contemptuous emotional responses, harmful outgroup-targeted behaviours,
and attributions of personal responsibility for their state of poverty.
Policy change intended to benefit those in poverty is likely to meet
significant resistance if policy-makers and taxpayers do not consider those in
poverty worthy of aid. Therefore, the report makes the case for a remedial

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approach to general perceptions of poverty to form a key component of


any comprehensive policy-making initiative. One of the most successful
tools for improving group relations is intergroup contact. The report
reviews evidence showing that contact has the potential to reduce negative
stereotypes, intergroup anxiety and prejudice, and to promote positive
intergroup emotions such as empathy. Contact theory therefore represents
an excellent framework within which general perceptions of those in poverty
might be improved.
When considering those in poverty as an ingroup (rather than an
outgroup), a key concept to emerge from the social psychological literature
is self-efficacy. The term self-efficacy describes belief in ones own
competence and ability to succeed. Levels of self-efficacy are consistently
associated with several indicators of socioeconomic status (SES), and are
found to act as a mediating factor between the experience of stressful life
events and the onset of clinical depression. Furthermore, neighbourhood
levels of self-efficacy predict unemployment and welfare usage over and
above individual levels. We also present a selection of evidence for the selfstereotyping effect, whereby the existence of a particular stereotype (e.g.
the perceived low competence of those in poverty) can significantly affect
both self-perceptions and actual performance. This research demonstrates
both the potential value of promoting self-efficacy amongst those in
poverty, as well as the importance of disrupting negative stereotypes that
exist from both the ingroup and outgroup perspectives.

Mental health
The experience of poverty significantly increases ones risk of suffering from
several severe psychological disorders. The report reviews material relating
to three main disorders: schizophrenia, mood and anxiety disorders, and
alcohol and substance abuse.
The prevalence of schizophrenia shows a clear social class effect,
with those in social class V (unskilled) significantly more likely to suffer
from the condition than those in higher class categories. We discuss
evidence for the social drift hypothesis, which suggests that the onset of
schizophrenia symptoms may impair the ability to function in educational or
professional environments, and thus cause an individual to drift down the
socioeconomic ladder. Another factor in the schizophrenia class-gap may be
the greater access to mental healthcare of those from medium- or high-SES
backgrounds.
Although the class association with mood and anxiety disorders is less
pronounced than in schizophrenia, it remains relatively consistent, and
there is also evidence for a similar social drift effect. A key causal factor in
the onset of depressive or anxious symptoms appears to be the experience
of stressful life events, the prevalence of which is significantly elevated for
those experiencing poverty. Social support is often cited as a crucial factor in
disrupting the association between stressful events and depressive episodes.
However, a number of researchers suggest that social support may in fact
have a toxic effect for those in low-SES environments, due to the high levels
of stress experienced by all those involved.
Alcohol and substance use and abuse is inconsistently reported as being
elevated amongst low-SES individuals. There is some evidence to suggest
that the time-course of poverty might determine its relationship with alcohol
consumption. One study found that long-term unemployment increased
alcohol consumption, whilst short-term unemployment did not. These

Psychological perspectives on poverty

04

results (and indeed those of many of the studies discussed in this chapter)
are purely correlational (i.e. they do not allow the authors to conclude that
factor X causes effect Y, only that the two variables are associated in some
way). Nonetheless, several themes that have emerged from the discussion
of psychological disorders (in particular the role of maladaptive responses to
stress) recur in other chapters of the review, suggesting a certain degree of
consistency in the psychological profile of poverty.

Genes and environment


SES shows a relatively high degree of heritability. One potential explanation
for this is that other heritable psychological traits, such as IQ, influence
ones eventual position in the socioeconomic hierarchy. However, we report
evidence that the heritability of IQ actually varies depending upon ones
socioeconomic environment during childhood, potentially due to the limiting
effect that a low-SES environment places on the intellectual development of
a child, preventing them from fulfilling their genetic potential.
Low SES has also been associated with genetically based alterations in the
regulation of stress-response hormones. This may represent an adaptation
in those whose development takes place in a deprived environment.
Although this helps to helps deal with the stressful day-to-day experience
of poverty, it exacts a toll on the bodys chemical balance in the long term,
leading to many of the health issues associated with low SES (including heart
disease and several forms of cancer). The impact of childhood SES on adult
health outcomes is supported by studies showing its association with DNAmethylation and telomere attrition, by means of epigenetic processes (i.e.
alterations in the expression of genes which do not result from changes
in the genome itself) which produce a form of accelerated ageing. These
findings demonstrate that although some of the most damaging (and
potentially fatal) consequences of poverty do not emerge until adulthood,
their origins lie in the developmental environment; therefore, the genetic
literature serves to highlight the vital importance of early interventions in
breaking the cycle of poverty.

Brain and cognition


There is significant evidence for the damaging effects of poverty on the
cognitive development of young children, with concomitant alterations
in patterns of brain activity. These cognitive deficits appear across many
domains of cognitive evaluation, but the most severe impairments are
found for executive function and language development. These results have
been linked with the previously discussed literature on the stress of living
in poverty. Specifically, stress has been shown to impair the physiological
development of the same brain areas where activity is disrupted in low SES.
A recent development in the cognitive psychology literature, the socalled scarcity hypothesis, conceptualises scarcity as a specific psychological
state that can manifest in anyone (not just those experiencing poverty).
According to this hypothesis, scarcity of any resource leads to highly
preferential focus on the immediate task at hand, to the exclusion of
peripheral tasks or long-term goals. Experimental studies of this effect have
shown that people experiencing scarcity can in some cases show greater
aptitude at short-term resource management, but at the expense of their
long-term performance. The scarcity state hypothesis has the potential to

Executive summary

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significantly impact the approach of policy-makers, as it provides a means of


improving the ability of those experiencing poverty to manage their limited
resources, without resorting to purely financial assistance, by reducing the
pressure on other limited resources (e.g. via provision of free childcare or
public transport).

Research and policy


Much of the research discussed in this report was conducted outside the UK,
and in many cases only a handful of studies exist relating to a particular topic
or hypothesis. For this reason, we recommend that any poverty intervention
that seeks to apply aspects of psychological theory should incorporate an
empirical research component. This will provide not only an expansion of
the psychological literature on poverty, but also a means of ensuring the
applicability of the theory in question to the particular context of poverty
in the UK. Many of the studies discussed lend themselves naturally to an
intervention framework, and we provide examples from each of the four
subject areas of how their research might be applied in practice.
Finally, we discuss a major caveat to the incorporation of psychological
principles within poverty-reduction policy. Poverty is a fundamentally
economic issue, not a psychological one. Psychological approaches provide
effective means of supporting economic interventions and policy change,
but cannot alone be expected to solve the systemic issues at the heart of
poverty in the UK.

Psychological perspectives on poverty

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1INTRODUCTION
The purpose of this report is to provide an overview
of the contributions of psychological research
towards the understanding and reduction of poverty
in the UK.

The intention is not to conduct an exhaustive and technically focused


literature review. Instead, we outline the various ways in which the question
of poverty has been approached by psychologists, provide illustrative
examples of key studies, and discuss the potential practical applications (and
limitations) of such research for policy-making and intervention design.
The review begins with a brief overview of psychology as a scientific
discipline. It outlines some of the broad conceptual principles underlying
various sub-fields, and discusses the evaluative criteria that policy-makers
should consider when faced with potentially relevant psychological evidence.
The body of the review is structured around four main theoretical areas:
social processes, mental health, genes and environment, and brain and
cognition. These headings correspond roughly with subdivisions within
psychology, but there are a number of consistent themes (often specific
to the study of poverty) that provide cross-over between sections and
link numerous areas of research. The review concludes with a chapter
on the subject of research and policy-making. The focus is on providing
topic-specific recommendations regarding the application of the research
discussed previously, as well as general advice for incorporating psychological
principles into poverty-reduction policy.

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2 AN OVERVIEW OF
PSYCHOLOGICAL
RESEARCH AND ITS
EVALUATION
Psychology, as a scientific discipline, represents an
extremely broad church. The vast complexity of
human cognition and behaviour can be investigated
using myriad different theoretical approaches and
methodologies, and is reflected in the diversity of
research that falls under the banner of psychology.

Transcending these numerous sub-disciplines are a number of broad


conceptual perspectives that underpin much of the research in modern
psychology. These perspectives often represent a mixture of theoretical
foundations and methodological practices that are applied to a wide range of
subjects and research questions. For example, the neuroimaging perspective
has gained a great deal of attention in recent years. Its theoretical
foundation derives from the philosophy of biological reductionism that all
behaviour may be explained through biological processes. This theoretical
position is combined with a particular set of methodological approaches,
involving the use of brain imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance
imaging (MRI) or electroencephalography (EEG) as the primary analytic tool
to investigate a wide range of behaviours and psychological phenomena (e.g.
vision, memory, emotions, social cognition, etc.). The neuroimaging approach
is most extensively employed in the fields of cognitive and behavioural
neuroscience, which seek to link psychological states or behaviour with
particular patterns of brain activity. However, the potential of neuroimaging
techniques to indicate the biological basis of behaviour and cognition has led
to their widespread adoption throughout many disciplines, including clinical,
developmental and social psychology.
This pattern of psychological perspectives percolating beyond their
primary disciplines is quite common. Another key example is the evolutionary
perspective, in which psychological phenomena are treated as evolved

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adaptations to natural pressures in our species historical environment. This


approach is found not only in the dedicated field of evolutionary psychology,
but in many other areas as well, and it is not uncommon to find psychologists
from almost every discipline proposing evolutionary explanations for their
findings. Similar to this level of near-universal applicability is the genetic
perspective. Advances in the resolution and availability of gene-sequencing
techniques have allowed the investigation of genetic markers for a wide
range of psychological traits, and this approach has seen particular success in
the study of psychological disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.
Other perspectives are more restricted in their use outside of a few
key areas, often due to the limitations of specialised methodologies. For
example, the concept of using animal subjects to model human cognition
is limited to those areas where the behaviour and physiology of the animal
in question is similar enough to the human analogue. Nevertheless, the
approach of inferring biological causality from the effects of selective brain
lesions (e.g. investigating the role of a particular brain area in memory
function by removing it from an experimental animal and observing the
results) has considerable relevance to the field of neuropsychology, which
is primarily concerned with investigating the capabilities of human patients
with pre-existing brain damage. This avoids the issue of biological similarity
inherent in animal research, but is typically limited by small sample sizes
and a lack of control over the precise location and size of the lesions in
question. Similarly, specialised approaches may be found in the focus of
developmental psychology on the emergence of behavioural and cognitive
processes throughout childhood, the emphasis of social psychology on the
psychological processes within groups of two or more individuals, and the
high degree of overlap between clinical psychology with medical science in
its investigation of psychological disorders.
Although this is by no means an exhaustive list of psychological disciplines
or perspectives, it does provide an indication of the breadth of psychological
approaches. It also facilitates a discussion of one of the key themes of
this review, that is, the notion of using an appropriate approach for the
subject in question. Though certain psychological perspectives, such as
the evolutionary or neuroimaging approach, are very broadly applicable
(according to their principles, each and every psychological phenomenon
has evolved under selective pressure, and almost all will have some sort
of neurological basis), they are not always appropriate or useful when
investigating certain research questions. For example, a clinical psychologist
seeking to improve drug treatments for depression by investigating the
role of a particular neurotransmitter is unlikely to benefit from attempting
to apply the evolutionary perspective. Almost certainly, however, there are
evolutionary explanations for depression, they contribute little or nothing to
our understanding of the neurochemistry of emotion regulation, and there
are certainly alternative approaches (e.g. neuroimaging, animal models) that
will yield more useful and relevant data.
Another example, provided by Coltheart (2006), is of a cognitive
psychologist studying how we predict the behaviour of those around us. The
psychological phenomenon in question can be explained by two plausible
but competing hypotheses: first, the simulation hypothesis, in which we
imagine how we ourselves would behave, and apply that to others; and
second, the theory hypothesis, in which we use our knowledge about the
other person to construct a theory about their mental state, and extrapolate
behaviour from there. If the psychologist wishes to determine which of
these hypotheses holds true they will, for example, benefit little from the
neuroimaging approach, since identifying the brain areas that are active

An overview of psychological research and its evaluation

09

during decision making will not provide any direct information about the
cognitive processes at play. It may be possible to infer certain processes
based on prior knowledge about the function of particular areas, but such
evidence would be correlational at best, and the researcher would be better
off devising some kind of behavioural task whose results would distinguish
between the competing hypotheses.
These examples illustrate two key principles when selecting appropriate,
suitable approaches, to a particular subject: appropriate outcomes and
appropriate level of analysis. In the first example, the outcomes of a
neuroimaging- or animal-based approach would be potentially useful to the
researcher, whilst the outcomes of an evolutionary approach would not. In
the second example, behavioural testing represents an appropriate level of
analysis, because its results are directly relevant to the question being asked,
unlike the neuroimaging approach. Furthermore, though these principles
have been introduced in the context of psychological research practices,
they are equally applicable to the use of scientific evidence in policy-making.
When reviewing the research on a particular topic, in this case poverty, it is
vital to consider whether the outcomes of each study are relevant and useful
to the policy decisions at hand, and whether the level of analysis employed is
appropriate for use in the sphere of social policy. To provide a hypothetical
example, a study that identifies some genetic factor as being more prevalent
in those suffering from financial hardship may be interesting to geneticists,
but is not directly useful for policy-makers seeking to reduce national
poverty. The results are unlikely to be practicable, and the level of analysis
is so far removed from the realm of social policy that the chain of causal
inference (from gene to proteins, to neurological structures, to cognitive
processes, to individual behaviour, to group tendencies) becomes untenable.
A central focus of this review is to assess the suitability of the research under
discussion in terms of the utility of outcomes and the level of analysis.

Psychological perspectives on poverty

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3SOCIAL PROCESSES
Social psychology explores how human behaviour
and cognition is affected by the presence of others.
By nesting individuals within the context of social
groups, social psychology distinguishes itself from
most other sub-disciplines that tend to treat their
human subjects as isolated units.

Social psychology is also distinct from the commonly associated field of


sociology, which generally emphasises macro-level processes, such as the
effects of societal structure, or the development of social institutions.
The primary unit of analysis for sociologists is the group or society itself,
whereas social psychologists focus on the individuals within the group.
However, there is a great deal of collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas
between sociologists and social psychologists, meaning that much of the
research to emerge from sociology contains some element of psychological
theory. Rather than attempting to cover all social research that contains
psychological elements, this chapter focuses on the areas in which the
psychological approach can provide unique insight into the perception and
maintenance of poverty.
A key concept in social psychology is that of the social group. A social
group is defined as two or more individuals who share a common social
identity, and can encompass anything from a simple dyad such as a romantic
partnership, to a group, comprising millions, that forms an entire race or
religion. Once a particular setting has been conceptualised in terms of the
groups involved, any number of social psychological principles can be applied
to explain the behaviour of their members. In the case of poverty, group
membership may be defined by a number of potentially useful metrics:
income, receipt of welfare, homelessness, etc. Although there are numerous
important methodological issues surrounding the question of poverty
measurement (with a plethora of associated research literature), this review
treats the various indices as roughly analogous, except where the choice of
metric significantly impacts upon our interpretation of the results.

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People in poverty as an outgroup


Social psychologists generally conceptualise group identity in terms of
the ingroup (i.e. the group to which the individual being studied belongs)
and the outgroup (any group to which the individual being studied does
not belong). Many social psychological concepts ingroup bias, outgroup
stereotypes, intergroup contact, etc. rely on an ingroup/outgroup
dichotomy. With regard to poverty, this dichotomy provides two possible
research perspectives. In the first, those experiencing poverty are designated
as the outgroup, allowing researchers to investigate how they are viewed
by the general population in terms of attitudes, emotions, stereotypes, etc.
Although this approach may seem relatively ancillary to the goal of policybased poverty reduction, one of the most important potential outcomes of
such research is an understanding of how negative attitudes and stereotypes
towards those in poverty may be reduced. If the process of making or
instigating policy decisions is being impeded by the presence of negative
outgroup attitudes amongst those involved (policy-makers or tax-payers,
the majority of whom, at least in the former instance, are not personally
experiencing poverty), social psychological research on the reduction of such
attitudes may be highly relevant in providing a facilitatory environment for
more economically focused policies that would require a certain amount of
positive regard for those in receipt of welfare, for example. The following
chapter reviews several areas of research that focus on the improvement of
outgroup attitudes, and the reduction of negative stereotypes.
Before attempting any systematic improvement of attitudes towards
people in poverty, the precise nature of those attitudes and stereotypes
must first be established. The so-called Stereotype Content Model (Fiske,
et al. 2002) provides a well-established and systematic dimensional framework
for categorising outgroup stereotypes, and also crucially incorporates
predictions about the kinds of emotional responses and behaviour a
particular stereotype will induce. The Stereotype Content Model (SCM)
argues that there are two primary dimensions of stereotype content:
competence and warmth. These dimensions are independent, such that a
particular target group may be perceived as high in one dimension without
necessarily also scoring highly on the other. For example, stereotypes
regarding groups, such as Asians, feminists and the rich, commonly show
low warmth but high competence, whilst those relating to homeless people
or welfare recipients tend to demonstrate both low warmth and low
competence. The placement of a particular outgroup on these dimensions is
argued to depend on their relation to the ingroup. In particular, competence
is predicted by group status, such that high status groups are seen as
more competent. Similarly, warmth is predicted by perceived intergroup
competition, with non-competitive outgroups regarded as warmer than
those providing competitive threat to the ingroup. People in poverty are
generally considered to be low status, but their consumption of economic
resources (through welfare provision, etc.) places them in a position of
competition with most ingroups, leading to stereotypes of low warmth.
Finally, the SCM also provides clear predictions as to the emotional and
behavioural responses resulting from a particular stereotype category.
High-warmth, high-competence target groups (e.g. ingroup members)
produce feelings of admiration; high-warmth, low-competence groups (e.g.
the elderly or the disabled) are responded to with pity; low-warmth, highcompetence groups (e.g. the rich) produce envy; and low-warmth, lowcompetence groups, such as people in poverty, elicit contempt. In terms of
motivation towards pro-social action, it is immediately apparent from this

Psychological perspectives on poverty

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taxonomy that groups like people in poverty are unlikely to receive much
in the way of support from outgroupers if such stereotypes are allowed to
persist.
Further support for this position comes from an extension to the SCM
known as the BIAS map (behaviour from intergroup affect and stereotypes,
Cuddy, et al., 2007), which adds an additional layer of predictive power to
the model by attaching behavioural consequences to particular stereotypes.
Specifically, the BIAS map provides two bipolar scales, active versus passive
behaviour, and harm versus facilitation. These do not map directly onto
the dimensions of warmth and competence. Instead the valence of the
stereotypic appraisal (positive or negative) determines whether it will be
met with harm or facilitation, whilst the type of the appraisal (warmth or
competence) determines whether the behaviour will be active or passive.
High warmth produces active facilitation (e.g. physical or financial assistance,
etc.), low warmth produces active harm (e.g. physical or verbal abuse). In
turn, high competence produces passive facilitation (e.g. hiring outgroupers
to provide a service), and low competence produces passive harm (e.g.
social exclusion, limiting access to education or healthcare). Given the lowwarmth, low-competence stereotype of those in poverty, the SCM and
BIAS map predict extremely negative responses from members of other
groups, specifically feelings of contempt, as well as both active and passive
behaviours intended to inflict harm (for a comprehensive review of SCM and
BIAS research, see Cuddy, et al., 2008).
A key element of the general negative view of those in poverty is that
they are responsible for their own hardship. The psychological process
of explaining the behaviour of others is known in social psychology as a
causal attribution (Heider, 1958; Kelley, 1967), and the majority of the
research on causal attributions for poverty has found that it is perceived as
stemming from internal causes (i.e. personal failings such as low intelligence
or laziness), as opposed to external causes (e.g. systematic discrimination,
misfortune, etc.; Bullock, 1999; Clery, et al., 2013; Cozzarelli, et al., 2001).
This finding mirrors more generalised patterns of intergroup attributions,
specifically that negatively viewed behaviour amongst outgroupers is typically
attributed to internal factors, whilst positively viewed behaviour is explained
away through unstable or external factors such as luck or facilitation
circumstances (Hewstone, 1990). The internal attribution of controllability
(i.e. responsibility for ones own circumstances) has been linked to feelings
of anger towards people in poverty by Zucker and Weiner (1993), who also
measured context-specific outgroup behaviours in two survey studies on
the causes of poverty. They found that personal motivation to help those
in poverty was predicted by emotional responses, specifically feelings of
pity. Conversely, support for welfare provision was primarily predicted
by judgements of personal responsibility which, in turn, were strongly
associated with political conservatism (this link between political values
and poverty attributions has been replicated elsewhere: Cozzarelli, et al.,
2001). Taken in conjunction with the stereotype content literature, these
results indicate that the driving processes behind antipathy towards people
in poverty are negative emotional reactions, and perceptions of personal
responsibility. The following chapter discusses how social psychology may
provide a means of reducing the deleterious effects of these processes via
social contact between conflicting groups.
First proposed in 1954 by Gordon Allport, the contact hypothesis states
that under suitable conditions, contact between members of conflicting
groups has the potential to reduce prejudice and improve intergroup
relations. In the years since its inception, the contact hypothesis has

Social processes

These results indicate


that the driving
processes behind
antipathy towards
people in poverty are
negative emotional
reactions, and
perceptions of personal
responsibility.

13

seen extensive evidential support, with a 2006 meta-analysis of showing


significant negative effects of contact on prejudice (Pettigrew and Tropp,
2006) in 94 per cent of its 515 studies, with an overall correlation of -.21.
The ameliorative effect of contact has been demonstrated in numerous
different conflict settings, between groups of different ethnicities (e.g.
Bornman and Mynhardt, 1991), religious groups (e.g. Tausch, et al., 2007),
ages (Caspi, 1984), and sexual orientations (Herek and Capitanio, 1996), and
using a range of research methodologies beyond the survey-based designs
commonly employed by social psychologists (e.g. laboratory experiments,
Cook, 1978; field studies, Ohm, 1988; neuroimaging, Walker and Hewstone,
2008; for a review, see Pettigrew, 1998). Crucially, contact has been
shown to not only improve outgroup attitudes, but also to reduce negative
stereotypes (e.g. Johnston and Hewstone, 1992), and negative intergroup
emotions (see Mackie and Smith, 2002). Indeed, the improvement of
affective responses to outgroup members is now generally considered to
be one of the most important aspects of the contact process, particularly
when it comes to the prediction of intergroup behaviour (Pettigrew, 1998;
Tropp and Pettigrew, 2005). As a further point of interest, the stereotypic
dimension of warmth proposed by the SCM closely mirrors one of the most
commonly used measures of intergroup attitudes, the so-called feeling
thermometer (Converse, et al., 1980). The well-established effects of
contact on this attitude measure (see Lolliot, et al., in press) suggests that it
should provide an effective means of disrupting the link between the lowwarmth, low-competence stereotypes associated with people in poverty, and
their consequential active and passive harmful behaviour.
In his original formulation of the contact hypothesis, Allport suggested
that one of the most important intergroup emotions for the contact
process is empathy (Allport, 1954). Empathy, the emotional state, is closely
associated with the cognitive process of perspective-taking (Batson, et
al., 1997), and together these two factors have been found to be highly
effective in reducing prejudice (e.g. Finlay and Stephan, 2000; Galinsky and
Moskowitz, 2000; for a meta-analysis, see Pettigrew and Tropp, 2008).
Furthermore, a study by Vescio, et al. (2003) experimentally manipulated
perspective-taking amongst White participants viewing an interview
with an African American student. Participants who were encouraged to
take the interviewees perspective showed a significant improvement in
outgroup attitudes, compared with those who were instructed to maintain
an objective, detached standpoint. However, the authors went one step
further by investigating the factors that mediated the relationship between
perspective taking and intergroup attitudes. A mediator is a statistical
term for a process variable, something that explains how the relationship
between a predictor and an outcome variable (Baron and Kenny, 1986).
For example, anxiety is a well-established mediator of the relationship
between contact and intergroup attitudes, because contact reduces
anxiety which, in turn, improves attitudes (Stephan and Stephan, 1985).
In their study, Vescio and colleagues considered two possible mediators
of the link between perspective taking attitudes: empathy and situational
attributions (i.e. viewing the interviewees experiences as resulting from
situational factors, rather than internal, dispositional factors). Although
both empathy and situation attributions were found to have significantly
mediated the relationship between perspective-taking and attitudes, the
mediation effect of situational attributions was found to be significantly
larger than that of empathy. Therefore, this study suggests that, in addition
to the efficacy of contact in improving attitudes via negative emotion and
stereotype reduction, a crucial element of the contact process may be

Psychological perspectives on poverty

14

the promotion of situational (rather than internal) attributions through


increased perspective-taking. This is of particular importance to resolving
prejudice towards people in poverty, since it has already been established
that attributions of personal responsibility are a major factor in producing
the extremely negative emotions and behaviours predicted by the SCM
and BIAS models. Furthermore, as the focus of possible intervention
strategies, causal attributions have established potential. Power, et al.
(1996) report the results of two experiments in which exposure to
stereotypic examples of outgroup members elicited dispositional/internal
attributions, whilst counter-stereotypic targets produced more situational/
external attributions. Although in this case people in poverty were not
amongst the outgroups tested, this model could readily be applied to a
counter-stereotypic contact with low-SES individuals. Given the evidence
discussed above, intergroup contact should, at least in principle, provide
an effective means of engendering a political environment conducive to
poverty-reduction policies. Regrettably, there is a clear lack of contact
research specifically targeting people in poverty as a target outgroup. The
majority of research tends to treat SES as a secondary trait of other lowstatus outgroups, such as ethnic minority groups or immigrants. Although
many of the findings from such studies apply to attitudes towards poverty
itself, more directly applicable research should be a clear priority if contactbased interventions are to be attempted. A study from 2004 (Lee, et al.)
considered multiple types of contact with homeless people, who experience
similar dimensions of stereotyping according to the SCM. The study
involved a survey of 1,507 telephone interviews carried out in the US in
1990, and found that all forms of (positive) exposure to the population of
homeless people improved attitudes in the sample population. Although
this study has several significant shortcomings, in particular the fact that it
was carried out nearly 25 years ago in a different country, its results are at
least consistent with our prediction that contact should provide an effective
means of improving attitudes towards people in poverty.

People in poverty as an ingroup


At the beginning of this discussion, we pointed out that there are two ways
of conceptualising those in poverty using an ingroup/outgroup schema. Thus
far we have only considered research relating to people in poverty as an
outgroup, but there also several significant findings from social psychology
that consider how intergroup and interpersonal dynamics may affect the
thoughts, feelings and behaviours of those who are themselves experiencing
poverty. In particular, this chapter reviews research into the concept of selfefficacy, which may go some way to explaining the self-perpetuating nature
of poverty.
Self-efficacy, as described in Banduras (1986) social cognitive theory,
represents the beliefs held by an individual regarding the extent of their
own capabilities, and their sense of control over their environment. Selfefficacy has been frequently associated with socio-economic indicators such
as income (Gurin, et al., 1978), education (Adams, 1992), and vocational
outcome expectations (Ali, et al., 2005), and although the size of the
correlation between SES and self-efficacy is not particularly large, it is fairly
consistent (Gurin, et al., 1978; Mirowsky and Ross, 1983; Wheaton, 1980;
Gecas and Seff, 1989). A number of studies have also demonstrated the
specific consequences of negative socio-economic conditions, with selfefficacy being severely reduced following job loss (Pearlin, et al., 1981; Gecas

Social processes

15

and Seff, 1989), uncertain employment status (Sennett and Cobb, 1972),
and as a consequence of chronic economic hardship (Popkin, 1990).
As for the consequences of self-efficacy, although it is difficult to infer
causality from data that is largely correlational, there appear to be significant
associates with both physical and mental health. In terms of physical health,
self-efficacy is important due to its effects on outcome expectancies (i.e.
our expectations regarding the likelihood of success when we attempt a
task). Self-efficacy has been identified as a crucial factor in a wide range of
health-improvement behaviours, including dieting, exercise, sexual health
and smoking (Bandura, 1997; Maddux, et al., 1995). However, self-efficacy
has also been found to have a more direct effect on our physical state,
affecting immune system responses and stress-response systems (OLeary
and Brown, 1995). As for mental health, low self-efficacy is strongly
associated with depression (Bandura, 1997; Maddux and Meier, 1995). A
study by Maciejewski, et al., (2000) found that for those with a history of
depression, self-efficacy significantly mediates the relationship between
negative life experiences and the emergence of depressive symptoms. Selfefficacy is also regarded as highly important in recovery from substance
abuse or eating disorders (Bandura, 1997; DiClemente, et al., 1995). As will
be discussed later, mental health is a particularly damaging and consistent
corollary of poverty, and the identification of self-efficacy as a key process
in that relationship may provide a potentially useful angle of approach for
intervention or policy design.
Self-efficacy is generally considered to be individually determined,
and particular focus is placed upon the developmental environment,
with parental support and responsiveness identified as crucial factors
in improving childhood self-efficacy (Gecas, 1971; Rollins and Thomas,
1979). Furthermore, parental self-efficacy has been found to significantly
impact parenting quality, and it has been argued that inculcating a sense of
competence and faith in ones own abilities should be a central component
of parenting interventions, alongside more traditional approaches focused
on improving knowledge and skills (for a review, see Coleman and Karraker,
1997). Beyond the familial environment, however, there is evidence to
suggest that ones broader social context can significantly impact selfefficacy, over and above individual factors. Boardman and Robert (2000)
report data from a national survey in the US, in which it was found that
neighbourhood levels of unemployment and uptake of welfare provision
negatively predicted residents levels of self-efficacy, even when controlling
for the effects of personal SES. They provide two possible explanations
for this effect. First, low SES neighbourhoods are likely to experience
constraints upon the intake and output of resources (e.g. employment
opportunities, social and leisure facilities, educational resources), limiting the
range of efficacy-encouraging experiences (referred to by Boardman and
Robert as mastery experiences). Second, the higher the neighbourhood
SES, the more potential residents have to engage in vicarious mastery
experiences (e.g. upon seeing the success of others in some domain,
residents will be inclined to think that they can achieve similar success).
Taken in conjunction, these explanations paint a pessimistic picture for
those in poverty-stricken neighbourhoods; the limited resources mean that
opportunities to experience success or mastery are rare, and the continual
exposure to others who are similarly lacking in mastery experiences
produces a self-defeating cycle of ever-decreasing self-efficacy. Although
the historical and cultural context of the survey must be taken into
account when interpreting its results (and the nature of poverty and its
consequences may differ between the US and the UK, given differences

Psychological perspectives on poverty

16

in welfare provision, for example), in this case the study is intended as


a demonstration of the potential influence of neighbourhood SES on
individual-level psychological outcomes. The notion of treating poverty as
a multi-level (i.e. both at an individual and a neighbourhood level) process
has received little attention in the psychological literature, and this study at
the very least suggests the potential value of replicating this kind of analysis
in the UK. Assuming that the results discussed here are replicable across
different social settings, poverty-reduction policies should take into account
the effects of residential context, and that the disruption of the cycle of
self-efficacy degradation may be a crucial step in the rejuvenation of poor
neighbourhoods.
Finally, there is an interesting link between self-efficacy and stereotypes.
We generally think of stereotypes as judgements conferred upon outgroup
members. However, Allport (1954) argued that the presence of stereotypes
in our social environment will inevitably also alter our self-perceptions, a
process known in social psychology as self-stereotyping. The extent to which
stereotypical views of the ingroup are incorporated into our self-image has
been shown to depend largely upon the accessibility or salience of our group
identity (Hogg and Turner, 1987; James, 1993; Levy, 1996). For example,
one is more likely to define oneself according to stereotypically British traits
in an environment where national identity is highly salient (e.g. during the
Olympic Games). There is also evidence that our self-stereotyping is flexible,
since each individual belongs to any number of social groups, each of which
has the potential to experience different or even contradictory stereotypes.
Sinclair, et al. (2006) found that altering the salient dimension of group
categorisation could selectively activate self-stereotypes. For example,
they found that Asian American women who were asked to provide their
ethnicity on a questionnaire reported higher ratings of mathematical selfefficacy than those who were asked to provide their gender (consistent with
stereotypes that Asians are good at maths, whilst women are not). This effect
is also known as stereotype threat the threat of conforming to negative
stereotypes attached to ones own group.
Consistent with the evidence that self-efficacy predicts performance,
this self-stereotyping effect has been replicated with actual performance as
the dependent measure. A study by Shih, et al. (1999) gave Asian American
women a mathematics test on which they were required to declare their
gender or their ethnicity (or neither, in the control group). Participants
whose ethnicity was made salient performed better than those for whom
no group identity was requested who, in turn, performed better than those
who were asked to state their gender. Extrapolating from these results, if
the content of stereotypes regarding those in poverty emphasises their lack
of efficacy (e.g. through lack of intelligence or laziness), it is entirely possible
that self-stereotyping will further undermine their self-image, and actual
ability to effectively improve their own situation.
Interestingly, intergroup contact may also have a role to play in
alleviating the effects of stereotype threat. Abrams, et al. (2008) report
a study in which it was found that positive contact with a young person
eliminated the detrimental stereotype threat effect for elderly participants
performance on a maths test. Crisp and Turner (2011) expand upon this
idea in a review of the psychological benefits of diversity, in which they
conclude that stereotype-challenging experiences have the potential to
improve cognitive flexibility, creativity and self-confidence. The idea that
contact with efficacious outgroup members, or counter-stereotypic ingroup
members (Power, et al., 1996) might counter the damaging effects of selfstereotyping could provide a useful basis upon which to build an intervention

Social processes

If the content of
stereotypes regarding
those in poverty
emphasises their lack
of efficacy (e.g. through
lack of intelligence or
laziness), it is entirely
possible that selfstereotyping will further
undermine their selfimage, and actual ability
to effectively improve
their own situation.

17

strategy aimed at improving self-efficacy amongst low-SES individuals


presuming of course that the effects from the stereotype threat and contact
literature are replicable with people in poverty as the target social group.
As a final note, with particular relevance to the public and political
discourse surrounding poverty, there is some evidence that the specific
language used when labelling those in poverty can have a significant
impact on the stereotypes elicited, particularly with regard to responsibility
attributions. Henry, et al. (2004) report that stereotypic judgements
of personal responsibility are more prevalent when the target group
are labelled as welfare recipients, as opposed to people in poverty.
Furthermore, a study by Bullock (1999) compared stereotypic attributes and
causal attributions for poverty between middle-class and welfare-receiving
participants. Bullock found that although the participants on welfare were
less likely to endorse internal, dispositional attributions for poverty, they
were actually more likely to negatively stereotype other welfare recipients as
dishonest and lazy. The labelling of the stereotype trait items only included
reference to welfare (never using the label poor). Further research is
required to determine whether altering the language involved could help
disrupt self-stereotypes. It must be noted, also, that the negative stereotypes
seen in the Bullock study may not be true self-stereotypes, but rather
judgements of other welfare recipients.

Psychological perspectives on poverty

18

4MENTAL HEALTH
The link between poverty and mental health
has been demonstrated in numerous empirical
studies and across a wide range of social contexts,
with empirical research dating back as far as the
late 1950s (Hollingshead and Redlich, 1958)
demonstrating that psychiatric disorders can
manifest as both causes and consequences of
poverty.

Such studies include those carried out in: South Africa (Barbarin and
Khomo, 1997); Australia (Bor, et al., 1997); US (Langner and Michael,
1963); and UK (Weich and Lewis, 1998). In addition, data from the National
Institute of Mental Health (Bourdon, et al., 1994) indicates that those
in the lowest socioeconomic category are between two and five times
more likely to be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder than those in the
highest category. Another survey from the Office of Population Censuses
and Surveys revealed that unemployment significantly increased the risk
of various psychiatric disorders, including phobias, functional psychosis,
drug dependence, depressive episodes, generalised anxiety disorder and
obsessive compulsive disorder (Meltzer, et al., 1995). Despite this overall
prevalence effect, the complexity and variability of psychiatric illness is such
that it is important to consider each disorder or sub-category of disorders
individually, since the risk factors associated with poverty for schizophrenia,
for example, are potentially very different from those for anxiety or
depression. Therefore, this chapter considers in detail the risk factors and
explanations for the three main areas in which the effects of poverty have
been studied: schizophrenia, mood and anxiety disorders, and substance or
alcohol addiction (Murali and Oyebode, 2004).

Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a mental disorder characterised by dysfunctional cognitive
and emotional responses, with common symptoms, including delusions (e.g.
of persecution or grandeur), hallucinations (e.g. auditory voices), social

19

withdrawal, poor judgement and a lack of emotion. The prevalence of


schizophrenia is highly class-biased, with the lowest social class V (unskilled)
showing a 17 per cent incidence rate in one survey, compared with three
to four per cent for all other class categories (Argyle, 1994). As with all
other categories of psychiatric disorder, unemployment status significantly
increased the risk of schizophrenia. However, as with most sociological
explanations for the incidence of psychiatric disorders, the direction of
causality for the link between SES and schizophrenia is difficult to determine.
The association does not appear to be developmentally dependent, with no
effect of social class at birth on the risk of schizophrenia (Mulvany, et al.,
2001), and no difference in social class distribution between the fathers of
schizophrenics and the general population (Goldberg and Morrison, 1963).
Alternative theories focus on the idea of social selection, specifically the
social drift hypothesis (Hurst, 1995), which argues that the early symptoms
associated with the onset of schizophrenia impair sufferers ability to maintain
or improve their SES through employment or education. In their 1963
survey Goldberg and Morrison noted that the schizophrenia-linked drop
in status was usually directly preceded by the onset of acute (diagnostic)
symptoms. However, this pattern may be further complicated by the fact
that those who come from middle- or upper-class backgrounds tend to
have better access to psychiatric services and information. A study by Brown,
et al. (2000) found that the age of first contact with psychiatric services
was significantly older amongst those with a lower background social class,
and that the prevalence of acute diagnostic symptoms, such as delusions
or hallucinations were significantly higher in this group, suggesting a more
advanced progression of the illness. Though the causality of the relationship
between schizophrenia and poverty remains unclear, the existing evidence
does at least suggest that socioeconomically targeted mental health
interventions could be beneficial, both in terms of actual healthcare services
and information provision.

Mood and anxiety disorders


Mood disorders are a classification of psychiatric conditions, including
depression and bipolar disorder, in which disruption of mood is the primary
symptom. Anxiety disorders are a related group of conditions, including
generalised anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobia,
which are characterised by excessive and dysfunctional feelings of anxiety.
Anxiety and mood disorders share some symptoms and often co-occur,
and several explanatory models apply to both diagnostic categories. Though
the increased prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders in those with low
SES is less drastic than in schizophrenia, for example, it remains consistent
across numerous studies (Bruce, et al., 1991; Meltzer, et al., 1995; Murphy,
et al., 1991; Patel, et al., 2002). There is also some evidence for a drift effect
similar to that seen in schizophrenia, with Murphy, et al. (1991) reporting a
trend effect for the onset of depression to be followed by a downward shift
in SES, and Jarvis (1971) also notes this downwards mobility, particularly in
bipolar and major depressive patients.
When considering potential explanations for these effects, a crucial
factor appears to be stress. Stress is an established trigger for the onset
of depressive symptoms (Makosky, 1982), and living in poverty has been
shown to increase exposure to a number of extreme stressors, including
crime and violence (Belle et al., 1981) or uncontrollable life events (Brown,
et al., 1975), and in the case of poor women the imprisonment of husbands

Psychological perspectives on poverty

20

(Brown, et al., 1975) or the death of children (Childrens Defense Fund,


1979; for a review of poverty and depression in women, see Belle, 1990;
Belle Doucet, 2003). Chronic, long-term stressors appear to be more
damaging to mental health than acute, sudden events (Mathiesen, et al.,
1999; Pearlin and Johnson, 1977). Many social interventions strategies for
depression focus on improving target individuals resources for dealing with
stressful events and circumstances. In particular, the so-called buffering
approach (Cohen and Wills, 1985) emphasises the importance of social
support in protecting against the detrimental effects of stress on mental
health. Numerous studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between
mental health status and social support (e.g. Billings and Moos, 1982;
Henderson, et al., 1981; Turner, 1981; Williams, et al., 1981). One argument
for the efficacy of social support is that it reduces the feeling of being
overwhelmed and threatened that results from stressful situations. Cohen
and Wills (1985) point out that although isolated stressful situations are
generally manageable by most people, the co-occurrence of multiple acute
and chronic stressors can rapidly diminish ones ability to effectively deal with
any of them. It is argued that the presence of social support may reduce the
initial stress appraisal of difficult situations, increase the perceived availability
of coping resources, and/or aid in the inhibition of maladaptive responses
(Cohen and Wills, 1985).
This data would suggest that a reasonable response to the issue of stress
as a mediator of the poverty/depression relationship might be targeted
interventions designed to improve the social support networks available
within poor neighbourhoods. However, social support should not be viewed
as a panacea, since there are several examples of scenarios where it can have
a toxic influence on levels of depression in those experiencing poverty. Belle
(1990) points out that the prevalence of stressful situations within poor
neighbourhoods (crime, violence, etc.) means that most of the members of
a given social network are likely to be highly stressed, potentially leading to
stress contagion (Wilkins, 1974). In support of this hypothesis, Caughy, et
al. (2003) report results of a stress and mental health survey distributed to a
socioeconomically diverse range of neighbourhoods in the US. The authors
found that although social capital (i.e. availability of social support resources
and connectedness with social networks) decreased incidents of depression
and problem behaviour in children from wealthy neighbourhoods, this effect
was reversed in those from impoverished areas. Children of parents who
were highly socially connected within their poor neighbourhoods were more
likely to display anxiety, depression and behaviour problems than those
whose parents were relatively socially isolated. If social support is to be
effectively employed as an intervention tool for the reduction of povertylinked mood and anxiety disorders, it is therefore vital to ensure that the
qualitative nature of that social support is such that it does not exacerbate
the problem. Unfortunately, given the limitations of the current study, it is
difficult to determine why the discrepancy in the benefits of social support
might occur. The authors themselves note several limitations of their study,
in particular the cross-sectional nature of the data and the lack of potentially
explanatory process variables measured in the questionnaire. For example,
Caughy and colleagues suggest that in higher-SES neighbourhoods, lack of
social support may be related to maternal depression which, in turn, could
predict child health problems. By contrast, in low-SES neighbourhoods, an
absence of social support could indicate better developed coping skills on
the part of the parents, thus providing a better developmental environment.
However, as the authors point out, this is just one of any number of
potential explanations that cannot be verified or falsified given their current

Mental health

21

data. Once again, further targeted research is required to determine why


social support may be less effective at combating depression in low-SES
households.
Finally, much of the research on poverty and depression is based upon
survey studies, largely due to the practical and ethical issues involved in
implementing experimental manipulations of SES at a meaningful level.
This inevitably leads to difficulties with inferring causality from purely
correlational results (a problem that affects much of the research into the
social factors involved in mental illness). However, examples of experimental
work do exist, and they generally seem to support the models derived from
the correlational data. In one example, researchers Leventhal and BrooksGunn (2003) measured psychiatric and SES in 550 New York families, 40
per cent of which had moved from high-poverty public housing to nearpoor or non-poor private housing three years previously. Parents in the
relocated families reported a significant decrease in depressive and distress/
anxiety symptoms, compared with no change in the non-relocated control
group. Children in the relocated families also showed a significant reduction
in anxious/depressed symptoms, with the strongest effects amongst boys
who also showed a significant decrease in dependent behaviour (e.g. needing
to be near adults, frequent crying, etc.). Although this kind of approach is
likely be impractical for any kind of widespread intervention or policy change,
it does provide a crucial indication of the direction of causality, suggesting
that removing the environmental context of poverty can significantly reduce
the prevalence of anxiety and depression (even without altering the actual
SES of those involved).

Alcohol and substance abuse


Poverty is strongly associated with increased incidence of problematic
drug and alcohol use and mortality (Harrison and Gardiner, 1999; Makela,
1999). Though the correlational data in support of this relationship is well
established (Khan, et al., 2002; Singer, et al., 1992), relatively little research
has been conducted on the psychological processes that might underlie
this relationship. In particular, we lack a clear framework in both research
and public discourse for disentangling the notion of poverty as a cause,
or as a consequence of addiction. Many of the psychological effects of
poverty discussed thus far might very well contribute to the development
of addiction (e.g. disruption of self-efficacy and self-esteem, prevalence
of certain psychiatric disorders). Some lay theories emphasise the stressreduction and escapist elements of alcohol and other drugs, which certainly
seems consistent with models of poverty and psychiatric dysfunction that
identify stress and its consequential maladaptive coping strategies as the
key explanatory factors in several cases (see above). However, even the
correlational data is by no means conclusive, with a number of studies
suggesting that consumption of alcohol is actually lower amongst poorer
populations (Clark and Midanik, 1982; Hilton, 1991), whilst others show
no relationship between SES and alcohol consumption (Rehm and Gmel,
1999). This may be explained in part by individual differences in risk of
alcohol addiction, which is highly dependent on expectations and individual
experiences of alcohol as a stress-reduction agent (Carson and Butcher,
1992; Brown, et al., 1980).
In an attempt to unpack these somewhat contradictory results, Khan,
et al. (2002) used structural equation modelling to investigate the network
of relationships between various factors relating to poverty and alcohol

Psychological perspectives on poverty

22

consumption, based on data from the 1989/91 Winnipeg Health and


Drinking Survey. They found that increased levels of poverty were associated
with increased general and problematic alcohol use, as was long-term
unemployment. Short-term unemployment, however, was associated with
lower alcohol consumption. This would seem consistent with the maladaptive
stress-management hypothesis, since the category of short-term
unemployment suggests that the stressful situation is successfully resolved,
relatively quickly. It is only once the stressor becomes chronic, in the case of
long-term unemployment or high levels of poverty, that maladaptive coping
strategies such as alcohol consumption emerge. However, the authors
themselves point out that this data provides little in the way of causal
explanations, since it includes neither longitudinal monitoring of participants
nor measures of potential mediating processes. As with all the psychiatric
disorders discussed to date, further research is required to conclusively
determine the causal processes linking alcohol and substance abuse to
poverty.
Finally, the emphasis on causal processes encapsulated by the
psychological approach may be of some use in the debate over the
importance of addiction in poverty. Although levels of addiction are
consistently higher amongst those experiencing poverty (Murali and
Oyebode, 2004), the actual numbers of addicts within the low-SES
population are still relatively small. A recent review by the JRF (Harkness,
et al., 2012) found that amongst those receiving benefits in the UK,
approximately 7% were problem drug users, and 4% were alcohol dependent
(compared with 1% and 3.8%, respectively, in the general population). It is
likely that the prevalence of substance addiction will be at least somewhat
related to the underlying psychological processes of poverty, which cause
any number of other detrimental outcomes. For example, disruption of
self-efficacy has already been shown to help perpetuate the cycle of
poverty, but is also known to contribute to the onset and maintenance of
addiction (Kadden and Litt, 2011). By focusing on process variables such as
self-efficacy as a means of poverty reduction, the psychological approach
provides a means of treating the symptoms of poverty across the at-risk
population, rather than emphasising (or indeed de-emphasising) the few for
whom those symptoms manifest as drug addiction or alcohol dependence.

Mental health

Although levels
of addiction are
consistently higher
amongst those
experiencing poverty,
the actual numbers of
addicts within the lowSES population are still
relatively small.

23

5 GENES AND
ENVIRONMENT
In their response to the 1994 special issue on
poverty in Child Development (Huston, et al., 1994),
authors Rowe and Rodgers (1997) point out a
number of theoretical and methodological flaws. In
particular, they criticise the publications papers for
underestimating the potential role of genetic factors
in their causal models of poverty.

Rowe and Rodgers draw a distinction between the macro- (socioeconomic


variables) and micro-level (personality and other individual difference
variables) antecedents of poverty, and argue that if genetic factors can be
shown to influence those micro-level predictors, they must necessarily be
included in causal models of poverty since they are responsible for a certain
portion of its variance. Rowe and Rodgers cite the example of IQ, which
has a reasonably high level of heritability (Neisser et al., 1996), and has
also been related to occupational status (McCall, 1977) and social mobility
(Waller, 1971). It is therefore arguable that a full causal model of poverty
should include the genetic precursors for IQ as predictors, with their effect
on poverty being mediated by IQ. Further supporting their case, Rowe and
Rogers point to a review by Plomin and Bergeman (1991) which collated
the results of the small number of genetic studies to have measured
socioeconomic indicators, concluding that the heritability of SES fell within
the range of 4050 per cent (i.e. 4050 per cent of the variation in SES
may be accounted for by inherited/genetic factors).
Rowe and Rodgers choice of example is somewhat undermined by the
existence of a study by Turkheimer et al. (2003), in which it was found that
childhood SES moderates the effect of genes on IQ. The authors carried
out a twin-comparison study, a standard methodology within behaviour
genetics whereby a particular psychological trait (or phenotype) is measured
in populations of both monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (non-identical)
twins in order to assess the extent to which it is affected by shared genes as
opposed to environmental factors. In so doing Turkheimer, et al. found that
amongst high SES children, 72 per cent of the variance in IQ was accounted

24

for by heritable genetic factors, whilst 15 per cent was accounted for by
environmental factors. However, amongst low-SES children, only 10 per
cent of the variance in IQ was accounted for by genetic factors, whilst 58
per cent of its variance was accounted for by environmental factors. This
represents an example of a so-called gene-environment interaction , a
key concept in behaviour genetics in which the effect of genotype on a
particular phenotype varies, dependent upon the individuals environment. In
this case, the effect of an individuals genes upon their IQ is greatly reduced
when they are raised in an economically deprived environment.
It must be noted that the twin-study methodology employed by
Turkheimer, et al. is at best an inferential technique because it does not
directly measure the expression of genes themselves. The authors note
that, although the most intuitive interpretation of their results involves the
quality of developmental environment differing between low- and highSES children, it is entirely possible that their phenotype measure of SES is
actually itself partially genetically determined (indeed, this is precisely what
Rowe and Rodgers would argue). This adds further complexity to the model,
and although the potential statistical confounds involved are dealt with by
Turkheimer, et al. in their discussion, it serves to further illustrate the point
that when investigating the genetic origins of a complex psychological and
sociological phenotype like poverty, the patterns of causation are almost
never straightforward.
In recent years, advances in gene-sequencing techniques have allowed
more direct measurement of the genetic and epigenetic (alterations in
gene activity not caused by changes in the genotype itself) correlates
of various traits and conditions. A small number of studies have utilised
such techniques to investigate poverty in particular, those focusing on
epigenetic patterns associated with low SES. The majority of these studies
focus on determining the epigenetic origin of the significant increased rates
of cardiovascular disease, infection vulnerability, and susceptibility to certain
cancers associated with childhood (but not adult) SES (Cohen, et al., 2004;
Galobardes, et al., 2004; Galobardes, et al., 2006).
Miller, et al. (2009) investigated one possible explanation for this effect
the notion that material and social deprivation in early childhood might
produce a stress-related pattern of outputs from the autonomic nervous
system that would alter the expression of various genetic elements involved
in immune system function. They performed a genome-wide transcription
survey on 103 adults from either high- or low-SES backgrounds, and
found significantly altered regulation of various genes (up-regulation of
genes related to the transcription process by which adrenergic signals are
passed to white blood cells, and down-regulation of genes involved with
the secretion of cortisol as an anti-inflammatory agent in the immune
system), as well as increased levels of day-to-day cortisol secretion and a
number of other immunological compounds. These altered patterns of gene
expression persisted when controlling for current SES, stress and lifestyle
factors, lending support to the hypothesis that the quality of early childhood
environment has a significant influence on fundamental biological function in
later life.
Miller, et al. (2009) propose that the limited economic and social
resources available to a child raised in poverty might influence gene
expression in such a way as to produce what they call a defensive
phenotype, adapted to produce heightened adrenocortical and
immunological responses to the numerous threats they will experience
in their relatively harsh developmental environment (a pattern already
observed in animal studies Gluckman, et al., 2008; Levine, 2005; Newport,

Genes and environment

The effect of an
individuals genes
upon their IQ is
greatly reduced when
they are raised in an
economically deprived
environment.

25

et al., 2002). They argue that although this exaggerated pattern of threatadaption would provide short-term protection, its continued expression
would eventually exact a severe toll on the bodys chemical balance, leading
to the patterns of increased health risks and advanced ageing associated with
low, childhood SES (McEwen, 1998; Miller, et al., 2008).
Other studies have found corroborating evidence for this early
deprivation hypothesis in relation to other epigenetic mechanisms. Borghol,
et al. (2012) investigated the process of DNA methylation, a biochemical
process that has been associated with the silencing of gene activity
(Razin, 1998). Methylation is a natural process, which occurs as part of
the development of mammals, and may be used as an accurate biological
measure of age (Horvath, 2013), but maladaptive (either excessive or
insufficient) methylation has been identified as a key process in cancer
(Jaenisch and Bird, 2003). There is also mounting evidence to suggest that
methylation (or more specifically the epigenetic systems responsible for its
regulation) is sensitive to early environmental stimuli, including maternal
smoking during pregnancy (Terry, et al., 2008), parental famine (Heijmans,
et al., 2008) or depression (Oberlander, et al., 2008), and childhood abuse
(McGowan, et al., 2009).
Given the pattern of health defects associated with low SES, Borghol,
et al. (2012) conducted genome-wide methylation analysis on 40 adults
to investigate the potential role of DNA methylation as an epigenetic
consequence of childhood SES. They found that a significant portion of the
variance in adult methylation levels within their sample population could be
attributed to childhood SES. These childhood SES-linked variations were
largely distinct from a second, smaller group of gene loci whose variance was
associated with adult SES. Borghol, et al. point out that their results cannot
draw a direct link between SES-associated DNA-methylation and disease
susceptibility, nor can they identify the exact stage in development at which
the critical alterations occurred (prenatal, postnatal, etc.). However, their
results are consistent with the data of Miller, et al. (2009) and have been
replicated and extended in a subsequent study by McGuinness, et al. (2012).
In this study significant differences were found in global DNA methylation
between participants with high and low economic deprivation (17 per cent
reduction for those in the high-deprivation group), a 24 per cent reduction
for manual workers, compared with non-manual workers, and an increase of
just under 2.5 per cent in methylation, associated with each additional year
of education (n = 239). Crucially, they also identified significant associations
between levels of DNA methylation and biomarkers for cardiovascular
disease and proteins associated with inflammation. Taken together, these
results support the broader hypothesis of the significant and lasting impact
of early SES on epigenetic systems that contribute directly to adult health
(Miller, et al., 2009)
Thus far, the accelerated ageing effect of poverty has largely been
represented in terms of increased susceptibility to various age-related
diseases (cancers, cardiovascular disease, etc.). However, a study by Shiels,
et al. (2011) attempted to measure the ageing effects of poverty more
directly by investigating the process of telomere attrition. Telomeres are
sections of repeating DNA sequences that cap the ends of chromosomes to
prevent their deterioration or binding with other chromosomes. Telomeres
naturally become shorter over the course of our lifetime through the
process of chromosome replication. As telomeres shorten, this inhibits
the number of chromosome replications that can occur (thus limiting the
potential for the malignant cell replication found in cancer), but this may also
lead to reduced immune function (Eisenberg, 2011), and telomere attrition

Psychological perspectives on poverty

26

has also been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease


(Cawthon, et al., 2003; Brouilette, et al., 2007).
Shiels, et al. hypothesised that the differences in life-expectancy
associated with variations in SES might be linked to telomere attrition,
and investigated this using 382 blood samples from the psychological,
social, and biological determinants of ill health (pSoBid) cohort (Deans,
et al., 2009), which included participants from both the high- and lowSES extremes of the Greater Glasgow Health Board area. They found no
significant differences in telomere length between groups from affluent
versus deprived areas, but there were significant associations between agerelated telomere attrition and household income, housing tenure, and diet
quality. Telomere length was found to decline more rapidly in those with an
average household income of less than 25,000, tenants (as opposed to
home-owners), and those in the lowest 50 per cent of diet quality scores.
Although these results seem broadly consistent with the previous studies of
gene regulation and DNA methylation, it must be noted that the evidence
for the association between SES and telomere attrition is somewhat mixed.
Some studies have failed to find a significant association (Harris, et al., 2006;
Adams, et al., 2007), whilst others have found small effects for specific
measures of SES (such as unemployment status; Batty, et al., 2009).
In reviewing the evidence for possible genetic associations with poverty,
we necessarily return to the two key questions posed in the introduction: are
the outcomes of this research useful, and is the level of analysis appropriate
for policy-makers? Considering first the set of studies dealing with the
notion of heritable genetic factors that might predispose one towards a life
of poverty, the potential outcomes of such research are extremely limited
in their contribution to intervention or policy design. Certainly data such as
that of Turkheimer, et al. (2003) provides a clear and relevant demonstration
of the principle of gene-environment interactions, whereby genetic variation
in a given population will lead different people to respond differently to
a particular environment (e.g. those with high IQ being more adversely
affected by the limited resources afforded them in a low-SES environment).
However, the knowledge that a certain amount of the variance in SES may
be attributable to genetically determined biological, rather than societal or
structural economic, factors is of little use to policy-makers, unless those
biological factors provide some new insight into the psychological or social
processes involved. For example, the recent work detailing the effect of
childhood and prenatal SES on epigenetic processes and, by extension,
adult health, provides a further addition to the already significant list of
adverse consequences of poverty. In particular, the work of Miller and others
highlights the fact that the toxic influence of poverty begins long before the
individual in question acquires any semblance of personal agency. With this
in mind, it is more important than ever that poverty-reduction policies focus
on ameliorating the environmental deprivation associated with growing up
in a low-SES household. Such an endeavour would benefit from further
genetic research, following the model of the epigenetic studies detailed here,
focused directly on identifying the critical stages of development where the
effects of poverty first exact their toll on the bodys biological equilibrium.

Genes and environment

27

6 BRAIN AND
COGNITION
It has become abundantly apparent throughout this
discussion that poverty has a severely detrimental
effect on the psychological function of those
exposed to it.

This chapter reviews the evidence for the precise nature of such detriment
in terms of individual cognitive (and neurobiological) function. This discussion
is split into two sections: the first dealing with a number of studies linking
thematically with the behaviour genetics research outlined in the previous
chapter, by investigating the damaging effects of childhood poverty on
cognitive development; the second details a recent development in the
cognitive psychology of poverty, in which resource scarcity has been
conceptualised as a specific psychological state, with measurable and
generalisable effects, even for those not categorised as experiencing
poverty.

Poverty and neurocognitive development


There is a clear and persistent disparity between children from low-SES and
medium- or higher-SES backgrounds on a wide range of cognitive function
indices. A study by Hurt, et al. (1998), low-SES children at age six showed
an average IQ of 81, well below the normal range of 90+, and these findings
have been replicated (Gottfried, et al., 2003) and extended to show the
significant negative impact of low SES on general academic achievement
(Bradley and Corwyn, 2002) and literacy (Baydar, et al., 1993). In an attempt
to unpack these effects, and provide a more functional picture of povertyrelated developmental trajectories (IQ and school achievement being fairly
nebulous concepts in psychological terms), Noble, et al. (2005) compared 30
low-SES and 30 middle-SES children from an American kindergarten on five
specific neurocognitive systems. Each of these systems was identified as a
known aspect of cognitive function associated with a particular brain region
as follows: executive function (management of cognitive responses to allow
flexibility in the face of changing information or context) associated with the

28

prefrontal cortex; language function (semantic, phonological and syntactic


processing) located around the Sylvian fissure between the left temporal
and frontal lobes; single-exposure memory function dependent upon the
hippocampus and other medial temporal structures; spatial cognition (the
ability to represent the spatial relationships between perceived objects)
primarily associated with the posterior parietal cortex; and visual processing
(pattern recognition, visual imagery, etc.) from the occipitotemporal cortex.
When Noble and colleagues compared their kindergarten participants
on a battery of standardised measures designed to assess these five
psychological functions, they found significant reductions in ability for
the low-SES group in all five areas. However, by far the largest and most
consistent effects were found in measures of left periSylvian language
function and prefrontal executive function. The authors suggest that these
differences are likely to have the highest social significance due to their
large effect sizes (compared with the other smaller, but still statistically
significant, effects from other cognitive modalities). Noble, et al. also identify
a possible causal pathway in their results. They report that executive function
itself is also significantly associated with language ability, but that the effect
of SES on executive function is abolished when controlling for language
ability. This indicates that the effect of SES on executive function might be
mediated by language ability, in that low childhood SES decreases language
ability. In turn, this negatively impacts on the development of executive
function. As a means of testing this hypothesis, the authors recommend an
experimental study in which participants receive intervention programmes
targeted at improving either executive function or language ability. They
point out that not only would such a study help unravel the causal sequence
involved in the effects of SES on psychological function, but it would also
provide a directly applicable model for actual educational interventions
by identifying the most effective targets for remedial attention. This
point relates to our earlier comments regarding the utility of results, and
appropriate level of analysis. It is immediately apparent that the results of this
kind of cognitive psychological study are more directly useful, and fall within
an appropriate level of analysis for those involved in educational intervention
and policy.
The findings of Noble, et al. (2005) were extended in 2006 by Farah,
et al., who extended the taxonomy of neurocognitive systems to include
three subdivisions of executive function, along with the four other faculties
assessed in the previous study. Executive function was subdivided into
working memory (the ability to hold information in ones mind for a short
duration) in the lateral prefrontal cortex; cognitive control (response
management and decision-making) in the anterior cingulate cortex; and
reward processing in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Farah, et al. found
SES-related reductions in working memory and cognitive control, but not
reward processing. Once again, a large disparity was found between low- and
high-SES children in periSylvian language function, replicating the findings
of Noble, et al. (2005). The authors also point out that the periSylvian
language network includes areas of the left prefrontal cortex, which might
go some way to explaining the co-occurrence of disparities in language and
aspects of executive function. They also note that the discrepant memory
function in low-SES children is consistent with the notion of stress as a key
environmental variable in the SES-cognition relationship. As mentioned
previously in this review, low-SES families are exposed to high levels of
stress (e.g. Dohrenwend, 1973). In animal models, stress has been shown
to affect the function of the hippocampal memory system negatively, at
both a physiological and a behavioural level (McEwen, 2000). Noble et al.

Brain and cognition

29

point to studies showing increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol in


children from low-SES backgrounds (e.g. Lupien, et al., 2001) which, given
the damaging effect of cortisol on hippocampal function, for example in
Cushings disease (Starkman, et al., 1992) and Alzheimers disease (Davis,
et al., 1986), could provide a biological explanation for the causal sequence
linking poverty and impaired memory.

Scarcity as a psychological state


Several behaviours associated with poverty seem short-sighted or actively
self-defeating to outside observers. Rates of lottery participation (Haisley, et
al., 2008) and borrowing, particularly short-term, high-interest loans (Bair,
2005) are higher, whilst savings (Shurtleff, 2009), use of preventative health
care (Katz, et al., 1995), and adherence to courses of medication (DiMatteo,
et al., 2000) are lower in low-SES individuals. Based upon the evidence
reviewed thus far, explanations for these behaviours tend to focus upon
environmental pressures (e.g. stress, limited resources), individual factors (e.g.
poor executive function, low IQ) or some interaction of the two. However,
recent work by Shah and colleagues (Shah, et al., 2012; see also Mani, et
al., 2013) has presented an alternative perspective, that resource scarcity
itself engenders a specific psychological state that leads not only to the
patterns of behaviour seen in people who are in chronic poverty, but also to
generalisable tendencies in the population as a whole.
The scarcity hypothesis consists of two key assertions. First, when
resources are limited, people tend to focus intensely upon resolving the
immediate problem. Examples include the increased focus on food- and
drink-related stimuli amongst those who are hungry or thirsty (Radel and
Clment-Guillotin, 2012; Aarts, et al., 2001), and the fact that time pressure
leads to greater focus on the immediate task at hand (Karau and Kelly, 1992).
The lack of resources available to resolve problems (e.g. rent payments, work
deadlines) means that more cognitive resources need to be allocated in
order to overcome them (unlike when resources are plentiful, in which case
less attention is required). In the case of poverty, this scarcity state would
predict increased focus on immediate poverty reduction, at the expense of
other concerns. This neglect for peripheral considerations forms the second
assertion of the scarcity hypothesis the increased focus on immediate
resource-replenishment leads to a tunnel-vision effect, which may be
responsible for several detrimental aspects of poverty-related behaviour (e.g.
inability to follow medical prescriptions, poor time management, etc.).
Along with numerous real-world illustrations, Shah and colleagues present
a number of experimental demonstrations of the effects of the scarcity state
on behaviour. In one example (Shah, et al., 2012), 60 participants were given
a series of word puzzles in which they were allocated a number of guesses to
find the correct answer. After completing the word puzzle task, participants
were then tested for cognitive fatigue using a standard cognitive control task.
It was found that participants who were given a large number of guesses to
complete the word puzzles (low-resource scarcity) showed significantly less
cognitive fatigue than those whose number of guesses was severely limited
(high scarcity), despite the fact that those in the low-scarcity condition took
significantly longer to complete the task.
Shah, et al. also conducted more detailed experiments to consider the
effects of scarcity on both task-engagement and borrowing behaviour. In
two studies (the first using a computer game in which participants had a
certain number of shots with which to clear several targets on a screen,

Psychological perspectives on poverty

Resource scarcity itself


engenders a specific
psychological state that
leads not only to the
patterns of behaviour
seen in people who are
in chronic poverty, but
also to generalisable
tendencies in the
population as a whole.

30

and the second involving a timed trivia game), participants were allocated to
either high- or low-scarcity conditions (based on number of available shots
in study 1, and time limit in study 2), and were sometimes also permitted
to borrow resources in any given round to improve their chances of
success (borrowing additional shots at 100 per cent interest in study 1, and
seconds of time in study 2, with some participants allowed zero-interest
loans, some offered 100 per cent interest, and some no loans at all). In
study 1, resource-deprived participants spent more time aiming their shots,
demonstrating greater engagement with the task than the rich participants.
This increased engagement was beneficial, with poor participants making
significantly more effective use of their resources (earning more points per
shot). However, poor participants also borrowed significantly more than
the rich, and borrowing significantly reduced their performance (borrowing
options had no effect on the performance of rich participants), and the level
of their borrowing was also significantly associated with the time they spent
aiming (i.e. greater engagement in the task predicted greater borrowing
amongst people in poverty).
These results were replicated in the second study, in which rich
participants once again performed equally well, regardless of the availability
of loans, whilst participants in poverty borrowed more and performed
worse when loans were available (with the worst performance given by
participants in poverty with access to high-interest loans). These studies
provide supportive evidence for the idea that resource scarcity produces a
state of limited attentional focus which, although potentially beneficial to
the immediate task at hand, has the potential to detrimentally affect overall
performance through the neglect of peripheral or future requirements.
Furthermore, the proximity of the experimental designs to actual real-world
scenarios (in terms of loan availability and uptake) lends them particular
relevance for policy-makers interested in reducing the cyclical nature of
poverty. The evidence for the scarcity mindset would suggest that limiting
the access to short-term, high-interest loans, for example, and presenting
those on low-income with less destructive alternatives to alleviate their
short-term resource scarcity, might prove a crucial step in beginning to
break the cycle of poverty.
It should be noted, also, that Mani and colleagues have found evidence
for the scarcity hypothesis outside of the laboratory. A study by Mani, et al.
(2013) conducted two experiments, the first taking place in an American
shopping mall. Researchers approached shoppers to complete short
questionnaires followed by two computer-based measures of cognitive
function. The questionnaire included measures of SES, as well as a financial
thought-induction task whereby the participant was presented with a series
of scenarios describing financial problems (e.g. describing a situation in
which the participants car requires expensive maintenance) and asked how
they would resolve them. These scenarios could either be costly or cheap,
allowing the researchers to experimentally manipulate situational resource
scarcity. Mani, et al. found that receiving the resource-intensive, financial
thought-induction significantly reduced cognitive performance in low-SES
participants, but not high-SES participants. The authors interpret these
results as showing how induction of the scarcity-state is dependent upon
the resources available to the individual in question. High-SES participants
are better able to deal with expensive scenarios, and therefore do not
experience attentional tunnelling when presented with them. By contrast
low-SES participants, despite the entirely hypothetical nature of the task,
nevertheless show significant reductions in general cognitive capacity when
presented with situations that would stretch their limited financial resources.

Brain and cognition

31

In their second study, Mani, et al. took their basic experimental design and
implemented it in a non-Western cultural context. They examined patterns
of cognitive function in Indian farmers over the course of the harvest cycle,
during which the participants resource scarcity fluctuated dramatically. They
found that cognitive performance was high directly after the harvest, when
the farmers had just received the vast majority of their yearly income in a
single lump payment, and were therefore resource-rich. This was compared
with significantly lower cognitive performance directly before the harvest,
at which point the participants had almost universally overspent during the
preceding year and were therefore in a state of relative poverty.
The cross-cultural applicability and external validity of the scarcity
hypothesis is critical, because it supports the idea that scarcity is a
psychological state that can affect anyone, rather than a selective affliction
of those with low socioeconomic status. Doubtless, environmental and
individual difference factors play a role in the perpetuation of poverty
(as the majority of evidence we have reviewed demonstrates). However,
state poverty (i.e. temporary resource scarcity occurring in one particular
instance; distinct from trait poverty the more common idea of scarcity as
a general and persistent condition of an individuals day-to-day existence)
should now be considered as an integral component of explanatory models.
Furthermore, the inclusion of the scarcity state in our understanding of
poverty is of particular use to policy-makers and intervention designers.
For example, according to explanations of poverty which posit stress as a
key causal factor, short-term loans could be seen as a potentially effective
means of reducing acute stress to permit better decision-making. However,
the scarcity approach shows that this kind of solution is unlikely to help in
the long term, and suggests, for example, that interventions should instead
focus on reducing resource scarcity in other non-financial aspects of the
low-SES environment (e.g. day care or travel assistance) to reduce the
cognitive load from these additional pressures. In the terminology of scarcity
research, such endeavours would help to free up cognitive bandwidth,
allowing for more effective decision-making in other areas.
Mani and colleagues have proposed a number of further areas in which
an appreciation of the scarcity mindset could be highly relevant to policymaking (Mani, et al., 2013). Given the relatively large effect sizes of scarcity
manipulations (reported as comparable to losing a full nights sleep), the
authors argue that policy-makers should take care to avoid imposing
cognitive taxes on people in poverty, which may compound the cognitive
load they already experience as a result of their financial status. Lengthy
forms to fill out, stressful interviews to prepare for, or incentives with
complicated requirements are all cited as examples of counter-productive
policies that are likely to see limited uptake and effectiveness amongst those
experiencing poverty. Consequently, Mani and colleagues cite examples
of initiatives that could help reduce cognitive scarcity, without necessarily
involving direct financial relief. Examples include smart defaults (Smith, et
al., 2009), assistance when filling out forms (Bettinger, et al., 2009), and
reminders or prompts to make use of assistance programs (Milkman, et
al., 2011). The authors also point out that a primary focus of anti-poverty
initiatives should be providing financial stability, since it is this (rather than
financial status per se) that provides the cognitive resources necessary to
deal effectively with the difficulties associated with low SES.

Psychological perspectives on poverty

32

7CONCLUSIONS:
RESEARCH AND
POLICY
When it comes to the use of empirical data, the
demands of politicians and researchers differ
at a fundamental level, and can even be seen as
oppositional.

For example, whilst a large percentage of the scientific process is concerned


with identifying and quantifying uncertainty, politicians generally benefit
from maintaining unambiguous and unwavering positions. Similarly, policymakers are likely to be primarily concerned with the concrete outcomes of
a given piece of research, whilst the researchers themselves may be more
interested in its relation to other work in the field, and its ability to support
or discount conflicting hypotheses. However, despite these differing goals,
both sides have a responsibility to bridge the divide, particularly when
the research in question has the potential to improve our ability to deal
with a complex and entrenched social issue such as poverty. The purpose
of this chapter is to provide recommendations for the use of research
specifically relating to poverty (for a more general review detailing the
challenges of, and recommendations for, evidence-based policy-making,
see Bogenschneider and Corbett, 2010). We will begin with general
recommendations for the use of the psychological research presented in
this review, followed by specific examples of how some of studies we have
discussed could be incorporated into policy or intervention design. Finally,
we will highlight some of the limitations of psychological research in the
resolution of poverty.
Within psychology as a whole, the study of poverty is a relatively
small field, and relevant research is distributed across a wide range of
disciplines. Consequently, for any given theory or hypothesis regarding the
psychological processes of poverty, there are usually only a small number
of studies upon which to base any kind of policy decision. For the purposes
of this review in particular, there is also the issue that the vast majority of
the studies under discussion were conducted outside the UK. Although
psychological theory is generally intended to be culturally invariant (unless

33

it specifically deals with cultural differences), the Western (and more


specifically North American) origins of the majority of psychological research
mean that care must be taken when generalising the results to other cultural
or economic contexts. With this in mind, we would therefore recommend
that policy-makers intending to utilise some aspect of psychological theory
should seriously consider including some element of empirical testing into
their plans. This can be a relatively straightforward process. For example, if
attempting to implement a plan to reduce the negative effects of poverty
on specific aspects of neurocognitive development (see previous discussion
of Noble, et al., 2005), researchers in the field have already proposed a
framework for a randomised control trial approach to test the efficacy of
targeted cognitive interventions. Including such a study as the first phase
of a broader policy plan not only allows for confirmation of the established
hypotheses in the specific social context, but also allows for fine-tuning of
the intervention design to ensure its maximum effectiveness prior to its
wider implementation.
In conducting this review, it has become apparent that there are
numerous areas in which the results of psychological research could be
utilised in policy-making. From the work on social processes, intergroup
contact provides a highly effective means of reducing prejudice and
negative stereotypes towards those in poverty, which may be impeding
the progress of poverty-reduction schemes. Contact-based interventions
have been used successfully in numerous intergroup contexts, and social
initiatives, such as the recently launched Social Integration Commission
(www.socialintegrationcommission.org.uk) are already exploring the role
of contact between various social groups in the UK, including those of
different socioeconomic backgrounds. The social psychological approach
also demonstrates the importance of promoting self-efficacy amongst
those in poverty, which ties in closely to both self-stereotyping theory, and
several findings from the field of psychological disorders. The psychological
disorders literature also emphasises the reduction of stress, and the
maintenance of social support networks in limiting the deleterious effects
of poverty on mental health. Taken together, the research on self-efficacy,
stress and social support provides support for incorporating psychological
well-being initiatives into other poverty-prevention/reduction schemes.
Such an approach would also benefit from some implementation of the
scarcity hypothesis, dealing as it does with the cognitive biases that result
from poverty, and exacerbate its effects.
Finally, a consistent theme of the research we have discussed is the
idea that poverty begins long before adulthood. Offsetting the early
environmental deprivation associated with poverty is a critical step in
disrupting the intergenerational cycle of poverty. A general focus on
children from low-SES backgrounds as an at-risk group should be a
major consideration of poverty-prevention policy. The concept of early
intervention can, and should, extend across all domains discussed in this
review. The flexibility and adaptability of the developing brain means
that young people are not only most at-risk from the damaging effects
of poverty, but also have the greatest potential to able to escape the
generational cycle they produce. Whether promoting self-efficacy and
counter-stereotypic contact, guarding against the risks of psychological
illness, reducing the biological toll of poverty-induced stress, or intervening
to improve cognitive development and educational attainment, the earlier
action is taken, the greater the chance of success.
Poverty is not, and should not be considered to be, a primarily
psychological issue. It is an economic issue, with psychological consequences.

Psychological perspectives on poverty

Offsetting the early


environmental
deprivation associated
with poverty is a critical
step in disrupting the
intergenerational cycle
of poverty.

34

In concluding this chapter , we would caution that psychological research will


not provide a cure for systemic poverty. Any intervention or policy decision
targeted solely at the psychological aspects of poverty will be treating the
symptoms, not the cause. However, the cyclical nature of the poverty trap
means that once the cycle has begun, those psychological symptoms work
to maintain and exacerbate the economic and social hardships associated
with low SES. The pervasive and pernicious psychological consequences of
poverty discussed in this review suggest that solely economic interventions
(at least, the kind likely to be practical in the current financial and political
climate) are unlikely to succeed without support from psychologically
focused initiatives. Such initiatives would strengthen the effectiveness of
economically focused interventions in a number of ways, through:
improving the political environment to facilitate policy change
identifying areas where the cognitive capabilities of those affected by
poverty may be impaired or disrupted
recognising particular at-risk groups and providing ways of counteract
their disadvantage.

This report has shown that psychology would be a powerful and effective
tool in helping to reduce poverty by counteracting many of its selfperpetuating processes. It should, therefore, form a key component of any
serious poverty-reduction strategy.

Conclusions: research and policy

35

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Psychological perspectives on poverty

44

About the authors


Ben Fell is a post-graduate researcher at the Oxford Centre for the Study
of Intergroup Conflict. His research focuses on the effects of intergroup
contact, in particular the impact of negative experiences with outgroup
members.
Professor Miles Hewstone is Professor of Social Psychology at the
University of Oxford, and Fellow of New College. He has been published
widely in the field of experimental social psychology, focusing on prejudice
and stereotyping, intergroup contact, the reduction of intergroup conflict,
sectarianism in Northern Ireland, and segregation and integration. He is a
Fellow of the British Academy.

45

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