In Part Two of her Huffington Post series about how principles in Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How it Defines Our Lives, can be applied to help families in poverty, Children’s Law Center Executive Director Judith Sandalow discusses the “bandwidth tax.”
Have you ever sat in a meeting where a colleague put a plate of cookies in the middle of the table? If, like me, you watch your weight, you were probably proud that you resisted the temptation to eat one of the cookies.
But self-control costs more than you realize. Research shows you paid less attention during the meeting because some of your focus was on not eating cookies. In fact, dieters fare poorly on test after test compared to non-dieters.
A lack of nutrition doesn’t explain the difference. According to Eldar Shafir and Sendhil Mullainathan, co-authors of Scarcity: The New Science of Having Less and How It Defines Our Lives, there is a psychology of scarcity which operates whenever a person is managing with too few resources: busy people who have a scarcity of time, hungry people who have a scarcity of food or poor people who have a scarcity of money.
Shafir and Mullainathan show repeatedly that managing scarce resources uses up so much energy and emotion that there isn’t much brain power left for the normal, hard tasks of daily living. They call this the “bandwidth tax.”
The bandwidth tax for dieters may be small, but it is significant for people living in poverty. Research suggests the impact of the bandwidth tax for people living in poverty is equal to the impact of pulling an all-nighter before a test – a drop of more than 10 IQ points. Yet for people living in poverty, this isn’t a one-time situation. It is ongoing.
Unless programs that aim to lift people out of poverty acknowledge and address the bandwidth tax, they are likely to fail.
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