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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
Op-eds

Ad verecundiam

That Swedish group announced today that Esther Duflo, Abhijit Banerjee and Michael Kremer are the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for economics. Within minutes, my Twitter feed was awash with congratulations as well as links to criticisms Duflo and Banerjee had voiced in the past against the economic policies of the Narendra Modi government. If nothing else, I can think of three motives on the part of those who shared these links: to draw traffic to certain news sites (i.e. the links had been shared by accounts belonging to news publishers), because the posters were deferring to the laureates’ reestablished authority to make a point, or to call attention to the fact that a woman had won a Nobel Prize. The first two are opportunistic and dicey at best. Setting aside for a moment the presumably small (if any) overlap between the group of people who shared the links to articles about Duflo’s and Banerjee’s work and the group of people who think the Nobel Prizes should be “cancelled” (to borrow Ed Yong’s word), using the Nobel Prizes to denote authority is to further cement the prizes’ undeserved place in the public consciousness of scholastic merit. Of course, lots of people are looking for the slightest opportunity to tell the Modi government it got something wrong – and both Banerjee and Duflo have admitted they couldn’t understand demonetisation, for starters – but using the Nobel Prizes to say “I told you so!” is not a free lunch. I don’t know what the alternatives could be; it’s certainly infeasible to think anyone could persuade mainstream Indian newsrooms to stop covering the announcement of the Nobel Prizes if only because it’s an excellent opportunity to talk/write about something in science and have your audience listen/read. We could try harder, but until we don’t, it also makes sense to criticise the Nobel Prizes while popularising them – and this is what’s missing in the social-media conversations shout-outs that seek to challenge one form of authority with another.