Dr Rachel Crockett, Lecturer in Psychology, Faculty of Natural Sciences
We tend to think about poverty as a lack of the material resources that money can buy. As a psychologist, I see poverty as a lack of non-material resources which stems from the absence of the financial resources which make it easier to manage adverse circumstances effectively. These include social resources such as education and social and community networks but also include less obvious, psychological resources.
Psychological resources include the cognitive processes, that allow us to self-regulate and manage ourselves in response to a changing environment as well as our personal beliefs and attitudes about ourselves and our situations. While our genetic inheritance certainly makes a contribute to the personal psychological resource we enjoy, lack of material resource has an impact on our ability to develop and strengthen these resources.
For example, planning relatively simple actions requires financial resource. Imagine a woman who cannot afford to get pregnant and wants advice about effective contraception from her doctor. She is insecurely employed and loses pay if she takes time off work. She works irregular hours for the minimum wage. Her hours are based on the needs of her employer who only gives her a rota a few days in advance. She could get a routine appointment with her doctor if she makes the appointment three weeks before hand, but she does not know what her hours will be that far in advance. The lack of control she has over her work makes a feel anxious about the possible impact of a request for time off on her supervisor’s attitude to her.
Compare this situation with that of a woman who is in stable employment with a steady salary covering more than her basic needs. She can make the appointment to see her doctor on a working day and feels sufficient control over her work to request time off to visit the doctor. But if she does not want to make this request, she also has the alternative of using her financial resource to book a taxi to and from the doctor’s during her lunch break.
One effect of the lack of material resources to facilitate planning is that poverty is associated with a focus on the immediate outcomes of behavioural choices. This is problematic as the outcomes of many behaviours that promote well-being are in the future .
Lack of material resource also impacts the ability of individuals to develop beliefs about themselves that support positive behaviours. Self-efficacy is the belief that one has the necessary personal resources to successfully undertake a behaviour and is consistently related to engagement in behaviours to promote well-being.
The American psychologist Albert Bandura argues that there are two ways in which we develop self-efficacy. First, mastery experiences or successfully engaging in a behaviour. Following a mastery experience an individual develops confidence in their ability to undertake the behaviour in the future and generalise the behaviour to other situations. However, mastery experiences require material resource, whether gym membership or access to educational resource, to support opportunities to develop and practise the behaviour.
Second, self-efficacy is developed through vicarious learning or seeing others engage successfully in the target behaviour. For children growing up in impoverished families and communities, the opportunities for them to see adult role models being successful may be limited. It is thus hardly surprising that research finds and association of poverty with low self-efficacy.
Perhaps one of the most pernicious outcomes of poverty is the opening it gives those who have material resource to blame those in poverty for their circumstances. From the perspective of those with resources, it is perhaps difficult to understand how apparently simple behaviours can be so difficult. However, if we wish to challenge poverty we need to develop effective policy interventions that recognise how material poverty impoverishes at the most fundamental psychological level.
Dr Rachel Crockett is a Lecturer in Psychology, in the University’s Faculty of Natural Sciences. The blog follows from a presentation delivered to the Stirling Community Planning Partnership to mark Challenge Poverty Week.