We have said many things about poverty and the poor. Sometimes the message comes across as though the poor are unimaginative, unambitious and lack drive to change their circumstance. In the book Upstream, Dan heath brings in a perspective many of us cannot see. We have been looking at poverty from a backward view.

Shafir Mullainathan says that we got the causation backwards, in fact, its poverty that leads to short sighted financial decisions.

Scarcity “makes us less insightful, less forward-thinking, and less controlled. The effects are large. Being poor reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going a one full night without sleep. it’s not that the poor have less band width as individuals, rather it’s that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth.”

Cognitive ability, sometimes referred to as general intelligence, is essential for human adaptation and survival. It includes the capacity to “reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly, and learn from experience” (Plomin, 1999).

Therefore, when one’s cognitive capacity is lowered, they cannot function optimally in the areas of reason, planning, solving problems, thinking abstractly, comprehending complex ideas, learning quickly, and learning from experience. As the list says, this leave one incapacitated in so many areas that are not visible to naked eye.

Such people result in tunnelling, which is when people are juggling a lot of problems, they give up trying to solve them all. They adopt tunnel vision. There’s no long-term planning, there is no strategic prioritization of issues.

People who are tunnelling cannot engage in systems thinking. They can’t prevent problems; they just react. Tunnelling isn’t just something that happens to poor people, it can also be caused by a scarcity of time. Scarcity and tunnelling leads you to put off important but urgent things.

Next time you are quick to judge the poor, remember of how well you function with inadequate sleep and be more gracious to the poor.