Poverty and Cognitive Development, Part 1

In addition to being a cognitive scientist and a mom, I have this sort of side hobby of being concerned about poverty. Mostly by virtue of being married to a guy who really cares about the poor and being part of a religious subculture that cares about the urban poor. Left to my own devices, I’d probably be much more of a money-grubbing/stingy/cheating/lying jerk.

We currently live in a working class neighborhood in Los Angeles where the median yearly household income was $30,579 (2008 dollars; low for LA) and only 5.5% of residents had earned a 4 year degree by age 25 (2000). Part of the purpose of living here is that spatial proximity helps us care more about people living in urban poverty (see Musen and Greene, in prep, summarized here on pg. 24-25). So even though my training in cognitive science never really ever emphasized the role of socioeconomic status (SES) in cognitive development, I’ve been interested in that side topic for a while. So the next few posts are going to focus on that intersection.

So in this inaugural poverty post, I wanted to talk about the ability to delay gratification and SES. This topic conveniently segues from my previous post on cogsci-toddler’s waiting abilities. My former student left a comment that the waiting reminded him of the infamous marshmallow study (where preschool aged children are challenged to forgo a single marshmallow now for two marshmallows later). This early ability to delay gratification is highly predictive of future success in a variety of domains… indeed more predictive than even IQ scores! And although the jury is still out on whether such self control causes future success or is merely correlated with future success, from a parent’s perspective, training abilities such as waiting, self control, delay of gratification, etc might still be a worthwhile endeavor.

waiting at a restaurant
Cogsci-toddler “waiting” at a restaurant.

Now to introduce the SES stuff: Previous research has consistently shown a gap in academic performance persistently connected to SES. For some reason, low SES kids tend to do worse on tests of IQ, academic achievement, functional literacy, etc. Recent research has looked into more specific cognitive functions to try and explain these broader cognitive differences and have suggested that there are two cognitive domains more related to SES than others: (1) Cognitive Control and (2) Language. But the interesting question is WHY? Why are there these persistent differences? In this particular post, we’ll tackle cognitive control.

In general, low SES kids are more likely to choose immediate gratification than middle-class kids (e.g., Walls & Smith, 1970) and are worse at cognitive control tasks (Noble, Tottenham, & Casey, 2005). Even adults, when primed to think about financial problems, are worse at making decisions (Mani et al., 2013)!

A recent study experimentally examines one hypothesis regarding why low SES kids might be worse at cognitive control: perhaps living in a less stable environment leads to a RATIONAL decision to take what you can get now rather than waiting for an uncertain future. Children in this University of Rochester study were first exposed to an experimenter who kept or broke a promise. Then they were giving the marshmallow test. It turns out that a brief interaction with a trustworthy experimenter led to a 4-fold increase in the delay of gratification compared to experiencing an unreliable one!

Consider the cumulative effects of living in a less stable environment… to be clear, I’m not suggesting that low SES parents are necessarily lying to their kids or breaking promises intentionally; but in general, low SES kids might experience less reliability in their lives because of many factors related simply to a lack of financial resources (e.g., more moving, more variability in caretakers, more life changes, living in a more violent neighborhood, etc).

Celeste Kidd, the lead author on this study, recalls a personal anecdote on the University of Rochester press release:

At the time she was volunteering at a homeless shelter for families in Santa Ana, California. “There were lots of kids staying there with their families. Everyone shared one big area, so keeping personal possessions safe was difficult,” she says. “When one child got a toy or treat, there was a real risk of a bigger, faster kid taking it away. I read about these studies and I thought, ‘All of these kids would eat the marshmallow right away.'”

In this sense, having instability essentially trains kids to wisely prefer immediate gratification.

bringing order to his life
Mo bringing some order to his life.

Now most of the folks who read this blog are not the type of parents to inflict instability and distrust in their children’s lives. So a takeaway like–“don’t be an unreliable parent”–isn’t all that helpful. But in the same vein, that’s not particularly helpful to a low SES parent either. It’s not like anyone is actively trying to be an untrustworthy parent.

So what is the takeaway? What does this mean for parents personally and for public policy more broadly? That, we’ll address in the next blog post!

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One thought on “Poverty and Cognitive Development, Part 1

  1. Krystal Chen says:

    Looking forward to your next post!

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