Thursday, December 13, 2012

Victims or Just Damn Lucky?

The nature versus nurture argument has been around since at least ancient Egyptian times. Both our genetic inheritance and what we experience shape the development of self, according to the deceptively thorough book by psychologist and science author, Robert Ornstein. I say deceptive, because Ornstein provides no recognition, much less discussion, that we humans can choose many of the experiences that determine what we become. Moreover, at the time of his book’s publishing, the scientific world did not know that even the nature side of the argument was historically flawed. Geneticists are now learning that our choices of experiences regulate how our genetic endowment is expressed.

Ornstein argues persuasively, but with little objective evidence, that for any key dimension of person-hood or behavior, everybody operates around an immutable set point. He fails to recognize that a person can change the set point. Though it is not easy, people can change their set point dramatically: witness the reformed addict, the religious convert, or the ner-do-well who becomes a tycoon.

Ornstein’s thinking blind spot is typical of the age we live in. People who struggle with life are regarded as victims, while people who achieve are just damn lucky. From this perspective, people shoulder no blame or guilt for being dysfunctional nor credit for being successful.

The bias against personal accountability is enshrined in the current notion among scientists and social scholars that even when people make choices, they do not choose freely. What we choose to do is driven by unconscious drives arising from biology or the programming imposed by life experience. People are biological robots. I argue against this view in my recent book, Atoms of Mind.

The biological robot bias is revealed in a recent research report in a premier science journal. The authors conducted economic game experiments to explain what causes people in conditions of scarcity to make poor decisions. The reality behind this study is that people in poverty generally do make bad choices that perpetuate their poverty. They play the lottery, borrow too much, are unwilling to pay for preventive health services or education,  or save for specific future needs, and may even fail to enroll in government assistance programs. The usual explanation is that such maladaptive behavior is caused by the circumstances of poverty, such as poor health, lack of education, and the like.

The authors, from the School of Business at the University of Chicago, tested the idea that it is scarcity itself that drives poor choices. Their experiments were based on giving varying spending “rich” or “poor” allowances for experimental subjects to allocate in common TV game-show formats such as Wheel of Fortune or video games.  The allowances were distributed as “paychecks” across multiple rounds of the games. Games were structured so that players could sometimes borrow against future earnings or save for future rounds. In one experiment, participants were allocated a certain number of guesses in word puzzles (84 for the poor; 280 for the rich), The poor engaged more deeply in the game and borrowed more. Subsequent cognitive tests showed they were more mentally fatigued despite spending less time in the game. Another experiment used a video game in which participants had a fixed number of shots from a slingshot (30 for poor, 150 for rich). The poor spent more time aiming each shot and borrowed more when the game allowed it (actually the rich never accumulated a debt).

The results were interpreted to show that scarcity produces a focusing effect. The poor pay more attention to the options and become more mentally exhausted. Scarcity clearly promoted borrowing, which proved to be counter-productive. The poor did not adjust their borrowing as they accumulated debt, but as their budgets shrunk, they gradually increased borrowing relative to their remaining budget. The poor were more likely to neglect the opportunities of future rounds and borrow away from them. The poor performed better when they could not borrow.

In sum, scarcity changed behavior for the worse. The poor were more intensely engaged in the games but the focus on some issues came at the expense of neglecting others, such as ignoring the real cost of borrowing.

Thus, the researchers implicitly concluded that the poor in the real world are victims of their state of scarcity. Scarcity drives the poor to make unwise choices that keep them trapped in poverty. The possibility that the poor have the power to change their behavior was never considered. The authors conclude that the poor cannot change their poor choices.

The solution advocated is wise government policy that manipulates the poor in ways that limit the opportunity to make bad choices. For example, policy should aim at reducing the number of decisions the poor have to make by simplifying their economic choices, enrolling them in savings programs by default, making it more difficult to borrow, advertising to get them to sign up for relief programs like Medicaid and food stamps, and the like. The nanny state needs not only to provide for the poor, but also to intercede so the poor are not allowed to make so many bad choices.

Of course, we have known of government solutions to poverty for a long time. There is Marxism, which says take from the rich to give to the poor and its near-relative, Socialism, which re-distribute wealth and make everybody equally poor by not allowing anybody to get rich from ownership of business. There is Fascism, in which dictators decide which companies can prosper and limit the number of rich to those who are lackeys of the government. There is U.S. “state-ism” which employs some measure of all the others, but in less draconian ways.

Regardless of which government “isms” exist, we seem to live in a world in which personal responsibility no longer matters. It isn’t expected, and we don’t get much of it as a result. If you are poor, it is not your fault, but the fault of your genes or bad luck or exploitation by the rich. Only government can save us from ourselves. But who saves us from government?

Who wants to be saved from government? Around the world, and now in the U.S., more people want more government, not less. Government can protect us from ourselves. We no longer shoulder the burden of being “masters of our fate, Captains of our destiny.” The corollary is that we may have less opportunity to benefit from being our own Captain.


Klemm, W. R. 2010. Atoms of Mind. New York: Springer Publishing.

Ornstein, Robert. 1995. The Roots of the Self. New York: Harper Collins.

Shah, A. K., Mullainathan, S., and Shafir, E. 2012. Some consequences of having too little. Science. 338: 682-685.

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