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Taking context seriously

Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington with a socio-ecological perspective on decision-making in contexts of poverty.

08 June 2021

In transforming the way we live and relate to each other, the Covid-19 pandemic has also radically altered the context in which we make decisions. When making trade-offs and planning for the future, people must now consider financial scarcity from lost employment, unpredictability in everything from income to childcare, and barriers to social support in the immediate context and social solidarity more broadly. While currently placing constraints on the decisions of all of us, such precarious conditions have long constituted the everyday experience of an entire segment of our population: those living in or near poverty.

Until recently, the role of the wider material and social context in shaping the decisions of low income groups had been thoroughly neglected. Classic sociological work had focused instead on a purported set of values and norms that were said to characterise a ‘culture of poverty’ in a way that prevented low income groups from improving their conditions. Psychological interventions had focused on the development of mindsets and character traits that were hoped to facilitate decisions that privilege long-term goals such as education and social mobility. 

These perspectives do little to challenge stereotypes of ‘idleness’ and ‘carelessness’ applied to government benefits recipients, advanced by reality shows such as Benefits Street, tabloid newspapers with anti-welfare agendas, and politicians looking to justify austerity. 

An opportunity to move the focus away from the individual came with experimental studies of decision-making in poverty over the last decade. Middle income participants exposed to aspects of the experience of poverty made the apparently short-sighted or suboptimal decisions associated with low income groups, showing that the same psychological response to adversity can be elicited in any of us (for a summary, see Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013; Sheehy-Skeffington, 2020). 

Drawing on behavioural ecology and social psychology, my own research (see Sheehy-Skeffington, 2019, 2020) considers such decision patterns less as suboptimal than as adaptive to the context of socio-economic strain. By examining decision-making in the context of material and social adversity, this work has as much to say about decisions needed at the policy level as it does about decisions needed at the individual level.

Adapting to material adversity

Discourse about decision-making among low income groups often focuses on individual behaviours that are harmful for long-term outcomes, including spending money on unhealthy habits like smoking, taking out high-interest loans, or failing to invest in education (see e.g., Bertrand et al., 2004; Pampel et al., 2010; Sheehy-Skeffington & Rea, 2017). The result is a picture of apparent deficits in self-regulation and cognitive functioning, some of which have been discussed in terms of long-term psychological damage inflicted by early childhood experiences of adversity (see Hackman & Farah, 2009). A socio-ecological approach, on the other hand, positions behaviour as a response to the constraints and cues of the environment someone lives in. This reveals how behaviour that may seem irrational to a middle-class researcher or policymaker can in fact demonstrate a level of adaptiveness and resilience we can all learn from.

The most salient characteristic of life in poverty is resource scarcity – not having enough money to meet one’s basic needs. Early experimental work on this topic has shown just how pervasive the psychological impact of scarcity is. Behavioural economists have demonstrated that experiencing scarcity disrupts cognitive functioning, leading to decisions that harm individual’s long-term interests, and even makes individuals appear less intelligent than they are (Mani et al., 2013; Shah et al., 2012). 

More recent work in this tradition has highlighted the more subtle ways scarcity shapes cognition, such as directing attention towards money-related concepts (Shah et al., 2018), and inoculating against framing effects that can distort perceptions of value (Shah et al., 2015). Similarly, research in my lab indicates that scarcity in food may impair cognitive performance on tasks unrelated to food, but not on tasks involving food stimuli (Sheehy-Skeffington et al., 2021). Rather than only harming decision-making through stress and cognitive load, scarcity appears to modulate cognitive functioning, adaptively focusing the mind on ways to obtain the scarce resource. 

Seeing behaviour as adaptive makes even more sense in the domain of self-regulation. In contexts of plenty, ‘successful’ self-regulation demands the privileging of long-term over short-term goals. But if you live from one paycheque to the next, it may not be rational to hold off on meeting a current need for the sake of a future goal which you may never be in a position to realise. If you don’t know whether you will be able send your child to university, why should you deprive them of treats for the sake of saving for a college fund? If you have little influence over how long you will live, why should you deprive yourself of a stress-relieving cigarette for the sake of avoiding health damage 20 years in the future?

Adaptive self-regulation is calibrated to the perceived impact of our behaviour on our life outcomes. We will only be oriented toward delaying gratification if it will make a difference. Decades of public health research shows that those with a lower socioeconomic status have a lower sense of control over their life outcomes. This diminished agency or lowered ‘response efficacy’ is an important explanatory factor in the socioeconomic gradient in health. Response efficacy is different to self-efficacy, which is our appraisal of whether we can carry out our desired actions. Although self-efficacy can be improved through training and knowledge, response efficacy is best enhanced by making concrete improvements to the power that people have over their life conditions and prospects.

Another salient characteristic of life in poverty is instability of income and living conditions. Decisions consequently play out in unpredictable environments. Behavioural ecologists have highlighted the different ways unpredictability can manifest and how it determines the adaptiveness of behaviour in context (see Frankenhuis et al., 2019). For those in precarious work, income is unstable from one week to the next – the current availability of resources is not predictive of future availability of resources. In these circumstances it doesn’t make sense to focus limited cognitive resources on inhibitory control which would help in resisting immediate temptations, in this case for no apparent future benefit. Instead, it makes adaptive sense to hone cognitive flexibility, which readies responses to shifting demands and reward schedules.

A stream of research on the ‘hidden talents’ of those growing up in adversity focuses on this kind of adaptive prioritisation in the development of cognitive skills. People from low income backgrounds perform better than those from high income backgrounds in certain cognitive tasks (see Frankenhuis et al., 2020). To the extent that such cognitive modulation toward meeting the needs of the ‘here and now’ does lead to decisions that harm long-term well-being, the appropriate place to intervene is in changing the precarious financial conditions that lead to the salience of instability, as opposed to changing the mindset of those immersed in such conditions.

From material to social adversity

Behavioural ecological perspectives have made substantial progress in repositioning the gaze of poverty research away from the person and towards the situation to which they are responding. However, in drawing on models of foraging and reproductive behaviour from other animal species, such perspectives are less well equipped to articulate the complex social aspects of human ecology, which are again severely affected by the experience of poverty. 

Sense of agency is not only personal, but also relational. The absence of (primary) control at the individual level can be compensated for by investing (secondary) control in trustworthy others. In our daily decisions we consider the other people we may or may not be able to rely on as well as money and shelter. Reliable social partners are a critical requirement for the emergence of cooperation and its benefits at both the collective and individual level. If we can depend on others in our environment – whether for an informal loan, help with minding children, or emotional support – we are likely to feel more able to effect change in our life conditions. Conversely, if we receive cues that real or potential social partners are absent, unreliable, or even hostile, the social context offers merely another source of adversity. This may be just as disempowering as material adversity.

There are at least three ways in which circumstances of poverty may involve adversity of the social kind. First, being poor entails the salience not only of absolute scarcity, but of relative scarcity, and the related awareness of low subjective social status. One of the most prominent approaches to the study of social class allocates a central role to the diminished sense of control that comes from perceptions of low societal rank, and a consequent shift in orientation toward seeking positive social relations (Kraus et al., 2013). Feeling low in a social hierarchy also disrupts cognitive functioning, triggering a focus on threats in the environment and the neglect of goal-relevant actions, especially if those goals are positioned in the future (for a review, see Galinsky et al., 2015). 

These patterns make sense when viewed as responses to signals concerning how valued we are by the surrounding social context. Signs that someone is at the bottom of a societal hierarchy (especially where that hierarchy is steep, as in highly unequal countries) imply that they are not socially valued. This impression is enhanced by social representations that stigmatise the poor and those in receipt of government benefits, and by frequent negative interactions with representatives of societal institutions when accessing benefits. Being socially devalued can mean being unlikely to receive help from others. The salience of low relative standing may thus trigger shifts in cognition and self-regulation that mirror the impact of other disempowering aspects of poverty. My lab is currently looking at this in experimental studies, gathering evidence for when, and in what way, perceptions of low subjective SES lead to the adaptive prioritisation of cognitive resources and related patterns of economic decision-making.

Second, being poor invariably means feeling excluded from the rest of society. Not only does financial strain mean being less able to participate in widely shared aspects of an acceptable life, such as socialising or recreational pursuits; it also means feeling less welcome in a society which increasingly associates personal worth with economic worth. Decades of studies have demonstrated the impact of social exclusion on well-being, sociality, and risk-taking (see Hartgerink et al., 2015). Conversely, research in the ‘social cure’ tradition shows how a sense of belonging to a social group enhances physical and mental health, in part through increasing one’s sense of power and control over the environment (see Jetten et al., 2017). My PhD student Julia Buzan is leading my lab’s investigation of social exclusion as a salient aspect of poverty, and the mechanism through which this might shape control appraisals, cognition and self-regulation. 

The third and final route through which poverty may engender social adversity is through creating an environment of deprivation in which almost everyone is, as Daniel Nettle (2015) puts it, ‘living on the edge’. There are competing narratives for the impact of community-level poverty on social solidarity. Some emphasise the ways in which necessity leads people living in poor environments to band together to help each other out. Others focus on how deprivation can lead to desperation and rivalry – people may feel forced to use aggressive, antisocial means to obtain the resources they perceive they need to survive. Although evidence from the psychology of social class and some sociological ethnography might support the former account, other sociological and criminological data support the latter. Living in an environment in which solidarity is frayed by the pressures of scarcity, through foreclosing secondary as well as primary routes to control, robs poor people of yet another source of the response efficacy that is needed to make future-focused decisions rational in the first place.

It is well established that social support buffers the impact of poverty on well-being. More recent work has shown that the perceived trustworthiness of the community can shift an individual’s mental calculus such that decisions oriented toward the future become rational (Jachimowicz et al., 2017). Consistent with this, we are currently testing our prediction that poverty may trigger not a general antisocial mindset, but the constriction of one’s trust and related prosocial energies toward only the closest familial and social circles (see Sheehy-Skeffington, 2020). The challenge will be to see how this work can feed into interventions aimed not only at enhancing the interconnectedness and perceived trustworthiness of neighbours in deprived contexts, but also at ensuring low income communities have enough resources in the first place to enable people to sustain the cooperative dynamic needed for any collective to thrive. 

Shifting perspective

Seeing behaviour as an adaptive response to socio-ecological cues shows the complex ways that poverty may shape decision-making processes. Policy and public discourse on apparently self-defeating behaviours such as smoking and ‘rash’ spending should shift its perspective away from a middle-class worldview and lived experience, in which investment in the future usually pays off and people and institutions are mostly benign. In the context of scarcity, instability, low status, exclusion, and breakdown in social cohesion, behaviours that focus on grasping immediate rewards at the cost of future gains can make adaptive sense. 

These decision-making patterns may have come to characterise the behaviour of increasing segments of the UK population enduring an unprecedented year of material and social adversity. The unpredictability of the lifestyle changes triggered by the pandemic, the scarcity of vaccines, and barriers to social connectedness, have robbed us of our usual sources of agency and control over our lives. We have learned that societal interventions, whether in the form of an increase and expansion of Universal Credit to reduce financial scarcity, an extended furlough scheme to reduce financial instability, or grassroots mutual aid groups to enhance social support, can mitigate against the worst of these socio-ecological changes. Indeed, research from my lab led by PhD student Iván Cano-Gomez uses cross-national data to demonstrate that when governments provide a strong social safety net (in the form of welfare benefits and universal healthcare), the association between income and perceived control is diminished (Cano-Gomez & Sheehy-Skeffington, 2021). 

My hope is that we can harness insights from the socio-ecological psychology of poverty, and our own unprecedented experience as a society, to develop policies that ensure precarious, disempowering conditions are no longer a context for decision-making at any place along the socioeconomic spectrum.

- Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington, Assistant Professor of Social Psychology, LSE
[email protected]


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