The stressful condition


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I came across this piece by Mullainathan and Datta in the Annual Report of the William Kellogg Foundation (HT Marginal Revolution), which is a behavioral economist’s take on the reasons why some parents are less likely than others to undertake actions beneficial to their children. The whole piece is worth your read, but here are some excerpts to set things up:

“The science doesn’t just agree on what not to do. Sadly it agrees on something else: low-income parents are much more likely to do these things. We know children born to low-income families do poorly on average. And one culprit seems to be the behavior of low-income parents.

While there is agreement on the behavior, there is little agreement on why. Why are low-income parents not giving their children as much attention, help and encouragement as they need? Different ends of the political spectrum point in different directions. The left tends to see a lack of parenting skills. They look for solutions that emphasize improving these skills. The right tends to see more personal failures. They look for solutions that emphasize getting parents to take more responsibility.

As behavioral economists, we believe something else is going on.”

Mullainathan and Datta go on to talk about the importance of psychic resources: low income parents have not only lower financial resources, but they also suffer a tax on the mental space – attention, self-control, patience, etc. – required for good parenting. My dear friend, colleague, and co-blogger Jed Friedman blogged about an experiment, in which “…participants were asked to remember a number – the number was randomly selected to either be a short two digit number or a seven digit number – and then to walk down a hallway to another room for an interview. As a seeming afterthought, they were told there is a snack cart in the hallway and to help themselves to one of the snacks. The snack choice was either fruit salad or chocolate cake.  The subjects asked to remember the two-digit number selected the fruit salad in equal proportions to the chocolate cake. The subjects tasked with remembering the longer seven digit number overwhelmingly chose the chocolate cake.”

You get the point that when we’re stressed, it’s harder to make better decisions: this morning, after spending two whole hours on the phone with the World Bank’s IT folks from home (unsuccessfully) trying to fix a remote access bug on my laptop (instead of posting this piece in a timely manner), I ate leftover cold pizza for breakfast instead of my usual fare of yoghurt and granola. And, that aggravation is nothing compared with what poor folks go through every single day and night…

Continuing with the piece, the part that really resonated with me, however, was the following:

“When cash is tight, that feeling you have when that deadline was looming, becomes a constant mental state. Well-off people have the luxury of freedom of mind. Their psychic resources are reserved for “difficult,” “important” things that have a big impact on their well- being in the long run. But those with less income are not as fortunate. They have the same (limited) capacity for self-control and attention – but are forced to expend a large fraction of it on dealing with the ups and downs of everyday life. Simply managing the basics of life uses psychic resources. This leaves less psychic resources for the important things in life. Part of the mind is constantly fretting about putting food on the table. Put in this light, is it any surprise that low-income parents look like worse parents?

This has dramatic implications for policy. For instance, many standard policies that aim to improve outcomes for children from low-income families impose additional conditions – take your child to an additional program, monitor his progress, attend regular meetings – that amount to a further tax on already limited available mental bandwidth. Behavioral science thus suggests that such policies by themselves are unlikely to be as successful as one might hope.”

This resonated with me (and some of my collaborators on our Malawi study who also read the piece) immediately. Why? Because, we actually have quantitative evidence that the conditions imposed in Conditional Cash Transfer programs (CCTs) may be psychologically taxing. In this working paper, we show that while CCTs and UCTs (unconditional cash transfers) both reduced psychological distress among school-age girls compared to a control group that received nothing in Malawi, the reduction was much smaller in the CCT group: the condition was stressful to the person to whose behavior the transfers were linked. In contrast, cash with no strings attached reduced psychological distress by almost 40%! (As an aside, unconditional cash transfers also substantially delayed marriage and pregnancy among adolescent girls in this study, a current topic of debate in the US econ blogosphere on the effect of income shocks on marriage among young women – see Matt Yglesias on this in here)

And, right through to the end, the authors kept speaking to me:

“Instead, a very good parenting program may not look like one at all. Deal with the economic instability that taxes psychic resources. For example, stabilize incomes, provide low-income credit alternatives to deal with the ups and downs of life, or ensure stable housing. These may not be “parenting” programs in the conventional sense of the term. But by freeing up psychic resources they allow people to be the parents they want to be. They allow more traditional parental skills programs to be more successful.

So, what does it take to be a good parent? Freedom of mind. And that is a luxury low-income parents often cannot afford.”

This idea that an intervention to tackle a specific problem may look nothing like a program that is normally designed to tackle that problem is something we’ve been trying to communicate for a while, and I hope that Sendil and Saugato will be more successful. One thing that our experiment comparing CCTs and UCTs in Malawi did is to show that a program that had no explicit aim to reduce risky sexual behavior and prevent STIs, improve mental health, prevent teen pregnancy and marriage, could be effective in doing all of those things (I hope to post the findings on STIs next week). What was that program? $10/month with no strings attached. Colleagues in the HIV prevention field were initially stunned that a program that deliberately avoided talking about sex could have that much effect on sexual behavior.

It may sound crass (especially if you’re not an economist) but sometimes people just need a little more money to improve a whole lot of important things in their lives. As my colleagues who recently wrote the World Development Report on “Gender Equality and Development,” there are some things growth can fix, while with many other problems growth will help very little. In the meantime, it would help if policymakers and researchers were not always looking for the key under the lamppost.


Berk Özler

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

Join the Conversation

February 09, 2012

As a lay person (i.e., non-economist), this post fascinates me for all the intuitive and counterintuitive reasoning you highlight.

Seems to me you're also getting at what I believe to be a fundamental truth of society: poverty exists, in large part, because we do not share.

Berk Ozler
February 10, 2012

Dear Manu,

Thanks very much for this wonderful comment -- it's hard to disagree with what you say above. A few thoughts:

Income may not play a huge role, but what we do for that income might. Many people are holding down multiple part-time jobs these days in the wake of the recession to make the same amount of money (or less) as before. If time spent by parents with the kids is a problem, then this is less than ideal. Comments on the WKF piece I talked about mentioned prioritizing basic needs over spending time with the kids, which, I think, is likely a common sense response by many parents when money is tight.

If the time spent with children by parents can be substituted, even if not perfectly, by better childcare, that would provide another solution. Child care options in the US are terrible for poor people, and evaluations in developing countries are showing some promise, I think. You and other colleagues at the Bank know much better.

Third, why don't you think about writing a follow-up posts with some thoughts on this, particularly regarding the developing country context?

Finally, my inbox this morning was full of emails from readers, some proposing research collaboration in other countries on similar topics, other wanting to start a conversation on the issue, others just sending encouragement, while still others identifying with the piece. I thank you all for all the lovely correspondence, but also urge all of you to do what Emanuela did and post comments here as well. The promise of a blog is maximized to the extent that its readers are engaged publicly as well...


Berk Ozler
February 10, 2012

Hi Tim,

Thanks for the comments -- thoughtful as usual. A few responses.

On savings commitments, I agree but a lot of times such commitments could also be protecting the funds from family and friends as well. So, unless you have more specific research to cite, I am not sure how much temptation is reduced vs. the the reduction of resources being co-opted by others.

On CCTs and psychological distress, as I discussed in the post, the overall CCT effect (compared to a control group who received nothing) was beneficial. But, it was a much smaller benefit than that received by those who received unconditional cash. It was the stress among the adolescents to whose behavior the cash was linked (rather than the parents in your story), but nonetheless I have to disagree with your statement that "But I am by no means sure that we know how any particular program affects the issue." We have a good estimate for it for at least one particular program in a particular context at a particular time.


Emanuela Galasso
February 10, 2012

Berk you put your finger on a key question. A consolidated body of work in the child development literature has long established that stress and low SES environments are correlated with poorer health and child development outcomes. However, the same literature also shows that high quality early caregiving in disadvantaged environments has a protective effect on child development outcomes, promiting better stress regulation and executive function.
I am not convinced that cash transfers alone will be a magic bullet. We need more interdisciplinary work to get at the heart of what determines good parenting.
Today the NYT features an article on achievement gaps summarizes Heckman's recent work…

"James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, argues that parenting matters as much as, if not more than, income in forming a child’s cognitive ability and personality, particularly in the years before children start school.
“Early life conditions and how children are stimulated play a very important role,” he said. “The danger is we will revert back to the mindset of the war on poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it’s a mistake.”

Timothy Ogden
February 10, 2012

When I read the piece earlier this week, my immediate question was what conditions add stress and which relieve them.

For instance, one of the possible explanations for the popularity of commitment savings products is they reduce choice, stress and decision fatigue. Temptation is reduced and psychic resources are freed to focus on other things.

It is not clear to me that CCTs necessarily have a negative rather than a positive impact on psychic resources. Obviously, a complicated condition that requires lots of attention to comply with would be a negative. But a simple condition, like attend school, may lessen psychic load by removing choices. A parent no longer has to consider the daily tradeoffs between income from child labor and long-term value of schooling.

Meanwhile, UCTs may increase psychic stress--for instance in terms of protecting the income from one's present or future selves, or from other household or community members.

So I agree that ego depletion (in the psychologist's terms) and decision fatigue (in the economist's terms) and willpower (in the theologian's terms) need to be part of the conversation. But I am by no means sure that we know how any particular program affects the issue.

February 10, 2012

Interesting piece that appeals to me because I personally identify with it. My psychic resources have been operating at a maxim from a young age when my parents lost the ability to provide for my siblings and I our basic needs. While this was a misfortune that limited the time I could spend with my parents and the opportunities I could access, it also built within me resilience, independence and a fighting mindset.

Coming from a developing nation with a limited financial resource base, deciding to go it on my own, attaining an advanced degree after studying in the UK and thereafter doing two different internships in international agencies in Geneva, I have always realized my limitations when with colleagues within my peer groups. My mind works in overdrive in order to stay up to speed with current affairs, acculturize to new environments, ponder about my next precarious job, provide for my basic needs, ensure I always have legal residence status and experience all these alone in the name of becoming successful one day. While I find my peers can aim for success on a less full mental plate having pretty solid backgrounds and good SES.

The challenge of depleted psychic resources is real to me yet I am not under 18 years of age. At the same time a hardness has developed to know that I cannot quit until it gets done, it does not matter how, so long as it gets done.

I think an interesting discussion would be to look at multi-dimensional projects that incorporate prevention and management in their design. Obviously with prevention as the key goal, majority of the resources would be allocated to getting the structural and institutional projects in place to ensure that all children can have access to basic needs. Management where the focus would be developing the protective factors that result from being part of a low SES e.g. resilience, coping, perseverance, informal sector/small business innovation, community projects. I am sure there are other dimensions too.

April 05, 2012

When you're in uncomfortable position and have got no cash to get out from that point, you would need to take the business loans. Because it should help you unquestionably. I get financial loan every single year and feel myself OK just because of this.

Anisa Khadem Nwachuku
May 10, 2012

Thanks for this thoughtful piece, Berk. In my doctoral research on CCTs, I had focused on the psychological impact of coercion implicit in CCTs, and I really appreciate the additional psychological nuance you suggest here. I further argued that the materialistic nature of linking cash to health or education (among other things) reduces the intrinsic value individuals place on those pursuits, so I am not surprised (though thrilled) that the positive impact on health behaviors came from UCTs. Just wish I had known about your work when I was writing my dissertation!