Categories
Analysis Science

Poverty, psychology and pseudoscience

From the abstract of ‘Why Do People Stay Poor? Evidence on Poverty Traps from Rural Bangladesh’, November 24, 2020:

There are two broad views as to why people stay poor. One emphasizes differences in fundamentals, such as ability, talent or motivation. The other, poverty traps view, differences in opportunities stemming from differences in wealth. We exploit a large-scale, randomized asset transfer and panel data on 6000 households over an 11 year period to test between these two views. The data supports the poverty traps view — we identify a threshold level of initial assets above which households accumulate assets, take on better occupations and grow out of poverty. The reverse happens for those below the threshold.

In the resulting worldview this ‘condition’ imposes on people, it’s tempting to see justification for the existence of pseudoscientific enterprises like astrology. Actually, a faith-based binary like ‘requiring faith’ v. ‘not requiring faith’ may be more appropriate here than a science-based binary (‘scientific’ v. ‘unscientific’), if only to emphasise the presence of faith here over the absence of scientific reasoning. So that is, while I can’t ascertain a causal relationship between conditions like the poverty trap and opaque practices like astrology, there’s enough of a correlation here to understand astrology et al as the means by which people rationalise their shared predicament – a predicament that refuses to be allayed by their own efforts.

For example, astrology could provide social, mental and moral incentives for individuals to believe – without having to know – that they were denied any opportunities because ‘their time isn’t right’ and/or that they will continue to luck out, while social realities instead of the alignment of their stars will ensure this is true in some measure. Such faith could also subdue or redirect individuals’ anger or sense of wrongdoing at forces beyond their control, creating ground for social conditions that tolerate oppression more than it ought to be.

Another observation this paper brings to mind is from the work of Sendhil Mullainathan, among others. Researchers from various fields have reported differences in the way poor people make decisions, compared to those who aren’t poor – as if they were less intelligent. However, this perception arises from a sort of cognitive John-Henryism: that is, just as disadvantaged members of society – like Black people in the US – can incur a physical toll imposed by the need to fight for their rights, poor people incur a cognitive toll brought on by the limited availability of resources and the short-lived nature of good fortune.

This doesn’t mean poor people become or are less intelligent, or anything nonsensical like that. Instead, it means poor people’s priorities are different – for example the need for discounts on products, and to maximise absolute savings over percentage savings – in a way that those who aren’t poor may not find optimal for their needs, and that more tasks compete for their attention when they are short on the resources required to execute all of them. As Alice Walton wrote for the Chicago Booth Review in 2018,

In the Wheel of Fortune–style game, the researchers [including Mullainathan] measured how cognitively fatigued the players became. Logic would predict that rich players would be more fatigued, since they were allowed more turns to make more guesses. Instead, the researchers observed that poor players, having received fewer tries to guess at the answers, were more fatigued, having put more effort into each guess.

In an Angry Birds–style game in which people tried to shoot targets, rich players were given more chances to train a virtual slingshot on a target. Poor players, given fewer attempts, spent longer lining up their shots, and many scored more points per shot than rich players. For all the extra shots rich players had, they didn’t do as well, proportionally. “It seems that to understand the psychology of scarcity, we must also appreciate the psychology of abundance. If scarcity can engage us too much, abundance might engage us too little,” the researchers write.

This toll subsequently compromises future choices, and effectively installs another barrier, or trap, in front of people trying to go from being poor in one resource – money, in poverty’s case – to being rich. Walton offers a few examples of policymakers building on these findings to devise better schemes and improve uptake.

In India, where sugarcane farmers are paid annually after the harvest, farmers’ attention scores were the equivalent of 10 IQ points higher than just before the harvest, when farmers were relatively poor, according to data from the 2013 Science study

Offering subsidies or other incentives when people are more receptive to and have the spare capacity to consider them, such as after a harvest or a payday, may make a difference over the long run. One effort, in Tanzania, asked people to sign up for health insurance at cashpoint locations right after payday, and the timing led to a 20 percentage point increase in health-insurance use.

Introducing cognitive aids can help address the limited capacity for attention that may constrain people in poverty. In one study, it helped to show farmers research regarding the most productive ways to plant their crops. When poor, stressed, and in a scarcity mind-set, farmers had a harder time taking in the information. “This result has nothing to do with the intelligence of the farmers,” writes Bryan’s team. “A fact is only obvious if the observer has the spare attentional capacity to notice it.”

I wonder if the converse could also be true: that when homeopaths, phytotherapists, many Ayurveda practitioners and other quack healers offer dubious ways out of difficult healthcare situations, people who are short on attentional space could be likelier to buy into them in order to free up space for other tasks. If so, governments and activists may also need to consider fighting superstition and pseudoscience in healthcare by ensuring more legitimate outcomes – like visiting the local clinic or being able to procure a given drug – require as little cognitive bandwidth as possible.

Categories
Culture

Review: ‘Parasite’ (2019)

In 2011, the Dalit rights scholar and activist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd (then only Kancha Ilaiah) addressed a room of 150 or so students of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai. In the first 20 minutes of his speech, he spoke about how there would be a lower-caste revolution one day when upper-caste people – including most students in the room – would be summoned out of their houses into the streets, where they would be separated of all their wealth and their homes, have their jobs taken away and generally rendered entirely powerless in a new social order.

The whole room was visibly shaken. I, and perhaps many others as well, quietly groped for any excuse for a defence, to reassure ourselves that perhaps everyone else would be rendered powerless but surely not me, not my family. Obviously I haven’t managed to find this exculpatory reason.

Some days after that lecture, rumours emerged around campus that one of the other lecturers had given Ilaiah the idea to get us to sit up and pay attention, presumably instead of treating with political thought as an exercise in the abstract. Irrespective of its truth value, I tend to think Ilaiah was right: even if his imagined social order isn’t imminent, it has often seemed like the most plausible social endgame and certainly the only one it makes sense to work towards. It was also what was playing through my mind as I watched Parasite, the Korean hit film about class aspirations, especially the second half.

The advent of right-wing nationalism in India and its unabashed criminalisation of Muslim and Dalit identities (most visible in the spate of lynch-mob deaths) may have amplified the plight of minority groups in the country and the need to stand up for them, as well as rendered their demand for better social conditions and rights more pronounced. But at the same time, one thing is clear: as the Hindutva juggernaut bears on and continues to disempower non-Hindu, non-upper-class citizens, members of the minority communities are finding themselves increasingly at the mercy of the powers that be to ensure they continue leading peaceful, dignified lives.

Without the favour and benevolence of those who already wield power in our increasingly Hinduised India, without collective social action such as is happening in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh but at much larger scale, and with the capitalist nexus between state, industry and the media, it’s silly to assume the ‘revolution’ in whatever form is only a matter of time. In its caricature of – but not necessarily fictionalised – need and its consequences, Parasite brings the more discomfiting side of this truth home: it’s easy to keep the poor and marginalised down and forgotten by keeping them fighting each other for food and survival.

SPOILERS AHEAD

No other scenes in the film highlight this better than two: when Kim Ki-woo (a.k.a. Kevin) stops on the stairs leading down to his semi-basement home to notice, as if for the first time, the amount of water washing through the streets under the downpour; and his father Kim Ki-taek’s reaction to seeing Nathan Park close his nose in disgust as the latter tries to retrieve his car keys from under the skewered body of Geun-sae.

The fragility of poverty is often under-appreciated as a threat to one’s wellbeing as well as to one’s ability to capitalise on chances. Being wealthier, especially in third-world nations, often simply means being able to suffer multiple accidents without loss of income or opportunity. A daily-wage earner falling prey to something as mundane as the common cold means losing a day or two’s worth of money as well as making do with even less – minus medicines if necessary – for the rest of the month. As Parasite demonstrates, living in a ‘imperfect’ house means losing all your important possessions to a single night’s rain.

Some people also believe the poor are poor because they make bad decisions, but a groundbreaking study published in August 2013 reported that ‘poverty impedes cognitive function’, introducing stresses related to the unpredictability of rewards. As Ki-taek says to his son Ki-woo when they wake up the following morning in a gym crowded with hundreds of other people rendered homeless by the rain, “The only plan that works is no plan at all”: to take things as they come, to live in the short-term. To quote Derek Thompson writing in The Atlantic,

As Andrew Golis points out, this might suggest something even deeper than the idea that poverty’s stress interferes with our ability to make good decisions. The inescapability of poverty weighs so heavily on the author that s/he abandons long-term planning entirely, because the short-term needs are so great and the long-term gains so implausible. … What if the psychology of poverty, which can appear so irrational to those not in poverty, is actually “the most rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes,” he wrote.

Where in this mess is the time, energy and freedom to rise in protest?

Recognising how little can derail one’s daily-life has to my mind been the surest argument in favour of quotas in education and government for members of minority groups and marginalised communities: when inhabiting an existential condition in which things could swiftly go irrevocably wrong, reservation ensures fewer things need to go right to ensure individual betterment and preserve chances for course correction.

As if also an example of seemingly alien psychologies, the other scene that captures the gross imbalance of power between the haves and the have-nots is when Ki-taek notices Nathan Park, his boss and patriarch of the wealthy Park family, repulsed by the sight of Geun-sae’s blood smearing his keys. Ki-taek is enraged by Park’s reaction; and in that flash of a moment, you discover Parasite‘s story has been sneering at its pejorative title all along, and seems to animate Ki-taek to pick up a knife and stab Park through the heart.

Neither Park nor his family is likely to understand how an ostensibly natural gesture (to hold one’s nostrils) could have led to murder but Parasite lives entirely for that moment: the élite’s seemingly inadvertent creation of insectile creatures (that director Bong Joon-ho makes impossible to miss with his depiction of Geun-sae crawling through the subterranean tunnel like a cockroach) that scuttle deferentially out of sight once their work is done, and the élite’s own parasitism – to bank on the poor to do their dishes, cook their food, organise their parties, clean their trash and, of course, wash the blood off their hands.

Once Ki-taek realises his mistake, he runs out into the street only to see a panicked crowd running away from the scene of the massacre. He is not sure what to do until he turns to see the garage: “I knew what I had to do then,” he thinks to himself, and locks himself in the secret bunker under the house where Geun-sae had been living for many years. What he thought he had to do was stay out of sight – a rational decision whose logic many of us may not understand until we inhabit his exoskeleton, until we look out on life through little cracks in the wall with no knowledge of how and when the acche din will come.

Where – again – in this mess is the time, energy and freedom to rise in protest?

SPOILERS END

I watched Parasite with a friend, and when we walked out of the movie hall at the end she asked me what I thought of the film. It struck me then that I was feeling guilty. The best I can describe it is class/caste guilt, as if I desired to be stabbed through the heart without fully understanding the inherent immorality of the act but knowing at the same time that nothing else could ameliorate what I was feeling, without properly knowing – insofar as such things can be known – if my ‘caste death’, as laughable as the idea is, would have any effect at all.

I was also feeling guilty because my friend’s question seemed to invite me to comment on a film that had, over the course of 140 minutes, effortlessly transcended its boundaries as a film and melded with a similarly painful, saddening reality. What was there for me to say?


Miscellaneous: Tamil cinema producer P.L. Thenappan is not happy that Bong Joon-ho’s script copied from the 1999 film Minsara Kanna, which Thenappan financed. If you’re not Tamilian as well as are unhappy that Parasite‘s story was plagiarised, I suggest you consult with a Tamilian who has watched the film first. Minsara Kanna is Kollywood’s usual tripe nonsense; even the alleged similarity between a part of the two stories is barely nominal.

Categories
Science

Curious Bends – the misery index, twin births, ethnic inequality and more

1. India’s heat wave has been made worse by its humidity

“But at least these places had a “dry heat,” and overnight temperatures have been falling into the 80s. Along the coast, temperatures were slightly lower, but much higher humidity levels created a punishing heat index that persisted throughout the night. In Mumbai, for example, the heat index bottomed out just below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and only for a few hours overnight Wednesday. In severe heat waves, oppressively hot overnight temperatures are extremely deadly, because there’s just no chance for overheated bodies to cool off. That means the “misery index”—a creation of Web developer Cameron Beccario that factors in both heat and humidity—is off the charts nearly nationwide.” (4 min read, slate.com)

2. We’re producing enough electricity—but doing a bad job of distributing it

“There are no takers for all the generation capacity that is in place. There is demand but they don’t have the money to pay for the power due to the health of the [state distribution companies],” a senior government official told ET, adding that discoms across all states had incurred accumulated losses of Rs 2.51 lakh crore in 2012-13. In 2014-15, 22,566 MW of capacity was commissioned, which officials and experts said were stuck in the pipeline for years till they were put on the fast-track by the UPA in its fag end through the Cabinet Committee on Investments.” (4 min read, economictimes.com)

3. The strange and mysterious science of twin births

“Twins have fascinated both scientists and Bollywood directors alike. Why are there are some places with a statistically higher incidence of twin births? Much higher! Is it the water, the air, or could it be the yam? Padmaparna Ghosh and Samanth Subramanian investigate the mysteries behind twin births, getting behind the science, the statistics and some plain old superstition to uncover the theories and the conspiracies.” (12 min listen, audiomatic.in)

4. The connection between Cristiano Ronaldo and a remote dengue fever outbreak

“Break Dengue, a site funded by drug companies, NGOs, and other health groups, posits an unlikely potential factor in Madeira’s outbreak: global football star Cristiano Ronaldo. The epidemic’s origins trace back to a charter flight of tourists from Venezuela, according to Ana Clara Silva, an epidemiologist at Madeira’s health institute, who spoke at a recent infectious disease conference in London. Break Dengue’s Gary Finnegan noted that the tourists were quite possibly making a pilgrimage to the Portuguese soccer mega-star’s birthplace, as Ronaldo is a major tourist draw for Madeira.” (3 min read, qz.com)

5. In an ethnically divided country, the poor feel their poverty more keenly

“The authors show that as a country’s ethnic inequality falls, average GDP per person rises. A one-standard-deviation decline in a country’s ethnic Gini index—the equivalent of moving from the level of Nigeria to that of Namibia—is associated with a 28% increase in GDP per person. It seems likely that ethnic inequality leads to low levels of development, not the other way around. After all, in other tests the authors find that ethnic inequality mostly reflects unequal geographical endowments, such as more fertile land and distance to the coast. What explains these results? When there is inequality along ethnic lines, the paper suggests, those grouped at the bottom feel their poverty more keenly. The rich are easier to identify, and thus an easier target. All told, ethnically imbalanced societies may be more prone to conflict, which is hardly good for growth.” (2 min read, economist.com)

Chart of the Week

“In 2000, United Nations member countries agreed to ambitious development targets that they hoped to reach by 2015. These are the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). Among them was to reduce the number of people suffering from undernourishment—enough to cut the global hunger rate in half. Now 2015 is here, and it turns out the world is actually doing a pretty good job on that measure. The UN has released its annual report on hunger, which it defines as chronic undernourishment—the inability to acquire enough food for at least one year. Here’s what it found: since 1990 31 more countries have met the UN goal of cutting hunger in half or bringing it under 5% of their populations.” (2 min read, qz.com)

hunger_31