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Personal Growth

How Does Poverty Affect Willpower?

Poverty means making more trade-offs and resisting more temptations due to limited resources—depleting the very willpower people might have used to lift themselves out of it.

What’s the Latest Development?

With the intention of measuring people’s self-control, Princeton economist Dan Spears ran an experiment in which a discount on buying soap was offered. He found that the poorest shoppers, not surprisingly, deliberated hardest over the decision. “‘Choosing first,’ Spears wrote, ‘was depleting only for the poorer participants.’ Poverty, it seems, is indeed bound up with willpower, and the leftwing temptation to see things only in terms of impersonal social forces is mistaken. But it’s not that failures of will cause poverty. It’s that poverty causes failures of will.'”

What’s the Big Idea?

Recent studies which suggest that willpower is not an infinite resource shed light onto the consequences of decision making. Exerting control over one area of one’s life often comes at the expense of control over another area. “Nobody except the most out-of-touch billionaire needs telling that having less money means making painful sacrifices. But combining this with the depletable willpower theory suggests a bitter twist: that making those sacrifices makes you less capable of doing the things—saving money, say, or giving up a pricey smoking habit—that could lay the foundations of a life with fewer sacrifices.”


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