Empowering People through Behavioral Science
Purpose & Wealth

Food for the Soul

By Oren Shapira, Alex Shaw


Poverty and extreme inequality are arguably two of the biggest challenges societies are facing today. When we think about poverty, some of the first associations that pop up in our minds involve material difficulties: having trouble buying food, paying for your children's education, paying bills, and even securing a roof over your head. However, some of the gloomiest consequences of poverty actually involve psychological adversities. Studies show that poor people have to deal with stigmas from society, often being labeled as incompetent and lazy. Such stigmas, combined with worries about their financial situation, drain their cognitive resources and compromise their performance on ability tests, as we have previously discussed here. Out of fear of confirming these stigmas, poor individuals also frequently forgo financial benefits they deserve. Thus, poverty can trap the poor in a vicious circle, where their poverty prevents them both from demonstrating their abilities and from getting the aid that could help them escape their situation. How can behavioral science help break this cycle, giving more people a chance to fulfill their purpose?

affirmation positive psychology self-esteem poverty cognitive improvement stereotype threat stigma behavioral science

Image: © 2012 Franco Folini

In a recent set of studies, Professors Crystal Hall, Jiayang Zhao, and Eldar Shafir found that a simple self-affirmation intervention improved lower income people’s  cognitive performance and increased their willingness to consider benefits enrollment. These researchers left the comfort of their labs and conducted the studies with clients at an urban New Jersey soup kitchen. In one study, participants were randomly assigned to verbally describe a personal experience that made them feel successful and proud (the self-affirmed condition) or just describe their daily meal routine (the control condition). Then all participants completed two tasks that measured their cognitive performance. As predicted, results showed that participants who first affirmed their positive identity performed better on both tasks compared to participants in the control condition.

In a second study, the researchers unobtrusively measured the participants' willingness to consider participating in benefits programs. Participants first completed the self-affirmation intervention or the control task used in the previous study. As they left the soup kitchen, participants passed in front of tables offering fliers about two tax benefits programs targeting the working poor – the kind of programs many of the participants were eligible for but seldom enrolled in. Findings showed that participants who first affirmed themselves were more than three times more likely to stop at the stand and take a flier (45%) compared to participants in the control condition (15%). Presumably, with their identity affirmed, participants who underwent the intervention were less threatened by the stigma of “being a burden on society,” and so were willing to consider new steps to improve their condition.

This is not the first time a study has shown that self-affirmation can help narrow social gaps – previous studies have found that similar interventions increase African-American and Latino-American school students' achievements and women's math scores. But even if you don't consider yourself a member of any marginalized group, you may still benefit from self-affirmation every now and then. Many of us will find ourselves in a situation where we need to work against a stereotype (about our country of origin, sexual orientation, weight, or even professional background). Just being occupied with such a threat can drain your mental resources, making you perform the exact mistakes that will confirm the feared stereotype (a phenomenon termed stereotype threat). By recalling your strengths and reconnecting with your personal values and purpose, you can regain your ability to present the world with an authentic version of yourself, proving that you are more than a flat reflection of some social conceptions.


Oren Shapira is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.
Alex Shaw is a Research Professional (post-doctoral fellow) in the NPP Network, based at the Center for Decision Research at Chicago Booth.

Associated Project Theme: Purpose & Wealth

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