Poor Decisions – How Poverty and Marginalization Reduces our Potential for Autonomy

In some of my previous posts I’ve discussed the notion that adversity impairs autonomy.  I’ve recently come across some evidence that reinforces this notion.

There is an idea in psychology called ego depletion.  The basic concept is that willpower is a finite resource.  This maps on to my reflections of autonomy fairly well, though I may expand the idea because I tend to think any mental exertion or effort to impose order within our lives draws upon this a single pool.

A few days ago I saw a presentation by Cass Sunstein, the author of Nudge.  The main concept of the presentation (modeled after the book) is that government can efficiently influence people through careful default setting.  I won’t go further into this concept, but if you read the wiki it will explain further.  The important idea for my purposes is that in many ways it is good if our choice making is minimized.  To draw upon the idea of ego depletion, the more we can conserve willpower the better.  Sunstein threw out an interesting thought near the end of the presentation by noting that poor people need to make more choices then wealthy people do.  Wealth, in many significant ways, reduces the need for decision making.  A wealthy person just doesn’t need to budget as carefully.

This article, Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty, basically talks about what I’ve covered so far.  People with less money burn through scarce mental resources faster.  Having read all this, though, I was still left with a question.  I’d previously claimed that marginalization reduced autonomy, but I wanted to see if I could find any experimental evidence to support the idea.  It didn’t take me too long to find this article: Stigma as Ego Depletion.  The experimental findings of this research project are essentially that people who are exposed to stigma subsequently preform more poorly on willpower tests.

There is an old Nietzsche quote ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  I do not suggest that we throw out every nuance of the quote, since there is some evidence that exposure to small traumas over time may make us more resilient.  In general, though, adversity has a propensity to undermine our autonomy.

Let me know what you think,


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