Poverty and uncertainty
This piece that’s being widely shared and read, in particular this section:
I make a lot of poor financial decisions. None of them matter, in the long term. I will never not be poor, so what does it matter if I don’t pay a thing and a half this week instead of just one thing? It’s not like the sacrifice will result in improved circumstances; the thing holding me back isn’t that I blow five bucks at Wendy’s. It’s that now that I have proven that I am a Poor Person that is all that I am or ever will be. It is not worth it to me to live a bleak life devoid of small pleasures so that one day I can make a single large purchase. I will never have large pleasures to hold on to. There’s a certain pull to live what bits of life you can while there’s money in your pocket, because no matter how responsible you are you will be broke in three days anyway. When you never have enough money it ceases to have meaning. I imagine having a lot of it is the same thing.
Poverty is bleak and cuts off your long-term brain. It’s why you see people with four different babydaddies instead of one. You grab a bit of connection wherever you can to survive. You have no idea how strong the pull to feel worthwhile is. It’s more basic than food. You go to these people who make you feel lovely for an hour that one time, and that’s all you get. You’re probably not compatible with them for anything long-term, but right this minute they can make you feel powerful and valuable. It does not matter what will happen in a month. Whatever happens in a month is probably going to be just about as indifferent as whatever happened today or last week. None of it matters. We don’t plan long-term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.
When we think of self-control, we don’t normally see it in these terms — a reasoned decision to wait or not. In fact, the ability to delay gratification has traditionally been seen in large part as an issue of willpower: Do you have what it takes to wait it out, to choose a later — and, presumably, better — reward over an immediate, though not quite as good one? Can you forgo a brownie in service of the larger reward of losing weight, give up ready cash in favor of a later investment payoff? The immediate option is hot; you can taste it, smell it, feel it. The long-term choice is far cooler; it’s hard to picture it with quite as much color or power.
But what if the reality is a little different? What if the ability to delay gratification is actually more like the commuter faced with a crowded train platform than like a dieter faced with a freshly baked treat? A failure of self-control, suggest the University of Pennsylvania neuroscientists Joseph W. Kable and Joseph T. McGuire, may not be a failure so much as a reasoned response to the uncertainty of time: If we’re not quite sure when the train will get there, why invest precious time in continuing to wait?
Mr. Kable, who has been working on the psychology and neuroscience of decision making for more than a decade, argues that the truth is that in real life, as opposed to the lab, we aren’t nearly as sure we’ll get our promised reward, or if we do, of when it will come.
“The timing of real-world events is not always so predictable,” he and Mr. McGuire write. “Decision makers routinely wait for buses, job offers, weight loss and other outcomes characterized by significant temporal uncertainty.”
Maybe the psychology of poverty, which can seem so self-defeating and irrational, is actually the most rational response to a world of chaos and unpredictable outcomes.
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