Cut your brain some slack

Much has been said about the poor in Singapore in the past few weeks.

Among other things, the Government has decided against drawing a line between the destitute and others who barely get by. Late last month, Caritas, which is the social arm of the Catholic Church, launched a movement to help the poor called Singaporeans Against Poverty.

Meanwhile, the Lien Centre for Social Innovation is publishing a paper this month recommending that poverty be officially defined and measured.

Now, a just-released book by poverty scholars Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir will deepen that woe of want because they suggest that being poor blunts the brain and weakens will power.

Mullainathan is a behavioural economist, or one who studies how people make decisions. He is also among the few thinkers today who are trying to overturn the traditional assumption in economics that people behave rationally when they handle money.

Shafir, his collaborator of many years, is professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton University, and advises the Obama administration on how to help the needy in America manage their money better.

The two define scarcity as not having enough of what you need - be it money, time or friends.

Scarcity is pernicious, they say, because their tests have shown that when a person lacks what he or she needs most, the person winds up focusing so much on that lack that he or she becomes tunnel-minded.

That "tunnelling", as they call it, causes the brain to lose its "bandwidth", or capacity to capture and consider everything around you.

So it is that those who are hungry can pick out words such as "cake" in a word search puzzle faster than those who are full. Or why sugarcane farmers score 25 per cent better on an aptitude test after they are paid for their crop than before their harvest.

The authors divide their tautly told narrative into three sections:

First, they set out what they mean by scarcity, and identify the scarcity traps in everyday life.

Then, they roll out the results of their rigorous research into just how insidious the notion of lack is on the brain, and how much that affects everyone.

Third, they suggest ways in which policies and products can be better designed to help those trapped by the scarcity mindset snap out of it.

For example, many Type 2 diabetics are notorious for not taking their pills regularly because they fear the side effects, such as diarrhoea and muscle cramps. Their scarcity mindset numbs them to the horrors of untreated diabetes, including strokes, blindness and limb amputation.

So, Mullainathan has suggested in a separate article, pill bottles for diabetics should be made to glow in the dark. This gentle alert will likely nudge recalcitrants into complying with doctor's orders.

The pressures from having borrowed money, not the lack of cash itself, is what erodes bandwidth, the authors stress. That is best illustrated by the idea of a deadline, which forces anyone under it to complete the task within a certain time - or fail to do so, as Mullainathan admits he has done many times.

The thing is, the task will be completed anyhow and so it is not as if the person with the task is stupid or incompetent. All he or she has done is fallen a step back.

So, the authors try to prove, the poor are not gormless, lazy or unreliable, but just so stuck on getting through the day that their minds block out other thoughts.

"The problem is not the person, but the context of scarcity," they stress.

Now, here's their good news: If someone could help them "be a step ahead" in their lives - by, say, giving them a bit more time - they can escape the scarcity trap.

In that spirit, the authors suggest ways in which anyone can prevent the brain's tunnelling tendencies from kicking in:

- Stop multi-tasking. You cannot treat your brain as if it were a small suitcase into which you throw as much as you can, and then sit on it to make it close.

Rather, you should schedule your appointments by working out how each relates to another, just as you would arrange pictures on a wall. This is because the brain finds it hard to switch from one task to another, however simple that task may be;

- Stop borrowing. Either find the capital for what you need, or live within your means. The authors were convinced that scarcity was a big problem after Shafir tested his students with the question-and- answer popularity game Family Feud.

The object of the game is for participants to answer questions, and for onlookers to vote which answer they like best.

Shafir divided his students into two teams and gave the first team more time, and the second less.

He found the time-poor team so fixated on getting all the time it could to come up with a good answer that it ended up with a huge time debt. The other team was not time-squeezed and so thought through the answers better - and won; and

- Stop focusing on the weight you have to lose. Instead, turn your attention to non-calorific interests and bring your mind back to them whenever your thoughts stray back to food.

Above all, the authors point out, just giving someone much more of what he or she lacks - through, say, incentives - is not the way to escape scarcity.

Instead, they say, one should fight a bad mindset with a better one, which they call "slack" or procrastination mingled with hope.

As they say: "Staying out of the scarcity trap requires enough slack to deal with the shocks the world brings and the trouble we impose on ourselves."

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