Think Positive, Climb out of Poverty? It’s Just Not So Easy!

quehoraselavolta_open license.jpg
Social mobility in Brazil: Positive thinking and ambitious aspirations can create lots of frictions“

A few weeks ago, Professor Seema Jayachandran from Northwestern University published an article in the New York Times in which she discussed the role of positive thinking and of believing in oneself for overcoming poverty. Jayachandran argues that there is “growing evidence that it can used as an anti-poverty strategy”, while also warning about placing too much emphasis on positive thinking alone. This post will dwell on the latter point, arguing that we should pay much more attention to limitations and broader contexts of positive thinking in development. I do not want to deny the role of self-worth and forward-looking aspirations for poverty reduction and quality of life more generally, but I will emphasize the importance of considering their role only as part of a broader policy mix.

Instilling Hope through Movies: How Can It Reduce Poverty and What Are the Risks?

Jayachandran reports three experiments seeking to increase the self-worth and forward-looking aspirations of poor people in some detail and mentions a number of other studies going in similar directions. One study, for example, was conducted with students in Uganda who watched the movie “Queen of Katwe”. In this inspirational movie, an underprivileged girl from Kampala becomes a chess prodigy, which then enables her to improve her living conditions and those of her family. The study finds that exposure to this movie could raise the students’ educational aspirations and motivation in national exams. Another experiment, conducted in Mexico, exposed indigenous women with access to microfinance to a so-called hope intervention. This intervention consisted in a movie as well, this time featuring a documentary about women from Mexican indigenous backgrounds who had used microfinance loans successfully. In the four subsequent weeks, they furthermore participated in a so-called hope curriculum, in which they set goals for themselves and envisioned how obtaining these goals would make their lives go better. This intervention raised the women’s aspirations and hopes for the future.

These seems like remarkable successes and should of course be welcomed. “That a brief exposure to an inspirational story transformed even a few people’s lives in a measurable way strikes me as remarkable”, Jayachandran writes. At the same time, she concedes that “hope isn’t a cure-all (…, a)nd instilling hope without skills or financial resources is unlikely to be enough to lift people out of poverty.” She also mentions that lifting people’s aspirations to such an extent that hopes and expectations become unrealistic can potentially be harmful. These points cannot be emphasized enough, as it seems that the reception of such studies is often overly optimistic and even naïve. For example, the World Development Report 2015 evaluates another experiment aimed at influencing presumably fatalistic aspirations of poor Ethiopians. Without mentioning potential downsides, the report states that “the study illustrates the ability of an intervention to change a mental model – one’s belief in what is possible in the future” (p. 4). The intervention consisted in a one-day treatment involving watching an inspirational movie as well. All the potential reasons not to expect too much and also to be cautious about the overall effects of such an intervention briefly mentioned by Jayachandran – such as links with structural and non-psychological barriers to overcoming poverty, or the risk of raising unrealistic aspirations all too often go unnoticed. As a consequence, there is a considerable risk of overestimating the positive effects of such interventions, and to overlook some potential downsides (as also discussed in one of my previous posts on this blog).

To me, the essence of this risk is this: if we emphasize the importance of individual beliefs and aspirations too much, we easily lose sight of other, structural determinants of poverty. Individuals are not poor just because they lack self-esteem or forward-looking aspirations. A lack of self-esteem or forward-looking aspirations may be one correlate and consequence of poverty, and may contribute to making the fight against poverty even harder. But they are rarely the only – and probably not the primary – cause of persisting poverty. As important as it is to think about their roles, thinking or suggesting that positive thinking alone can reduce poverty at a significant scale would be misguided: poverty is primarily a societal and structural problem, not an individual one. While a positive outlook on life or increased self-worth have intrinsic value, with regards to their potential effects on achievements and biographies, it is crucial to think about them in a broader context – for several reasons.

The Importance of Situating Hope and Aspirations in the Broader Context

First, the potential of only lifting aspirations is rather low when people live in poverty. Consider that different people have different opportunity sets (the paper version of this argument is here). The objective opportunity set consists of objectively available opportunities and is limited by hard barriers to their chances, e.g. the lack of economic and financial resources or exclusion due to discrimination. A life in poverty means that people have considerably limited opportunity sets, and this is usually not something they can change by positive thinking, let alone in the short run. Positive thinking is relevant only when we talk about subjective opportunity sets. A subjective opportunity set includes all those opportunities from the objective set that a person effectively considers for herself. If the subjective opportunity set is only a limited subset of the objective one, there exist some opportunities this person does not consider for herself (this has been characterized as an aspiration trap). This could occur, for example, due to a lack of self-esteem, optimism, anticipated discrimination or a bunch of other psychological and cognitive factors. It could be the case, for example, that a student from a poor background has the potential and abilities to enter university, but does not see herself in this unknown environment because of a lack of role models or of social prejudice. If a behavioral intervention challenges these views, this may result in an expanded subjective opportunity set. The interventions and their effects described by Jayachandran are likely of this nature. However, hope and aspirations cannot – at least not immediately – help expand objective opportunity sets. To increase these, a mix with other social and economic policies is required. And these would have to tackle not only material aspects, but also the mindsets of society at large, e.g. in order to fight discriminatory practices.

Second, emphasizing the beneficial effects of hope and aspirations alone can shape political discourses in detrimental ways. If the poor are apparently responsible for being poor because they are unmotivated, depressed, fatalistic or hopeless, material poverty does not seem to be at the core of the issue, and thus social and economic policies aimed at reducing poverty do not seem to be a necessary priority. Giving some people a chance to blame the poor for being poor would be very unfortunate and misguided. To be sure, this is not what Jayachandran does: in her words, psychological interventions areunlikely to be enough to lift people out of poverty. Yet I think that this message could be much bolder in order to not give certain interest groups a chance to interpret the policy implications of the above-mentioned studies in misguided ways. This issue is an illustration, by the way, of problems that arise when policy design is apparently a logical consequence of evidence, as pointed out by Jean Drèze last week: policy design requires serious reflections about understanding, values and objectives, and announcing that positive thinking can reduce poverty and presenting corresponding evidence without reflection about broader contexts and implications can lead to policy-making that is unlikely to benefit the poor.

Third, talking about values and objectives of policy, we should think a bit about the specific aims of such behavioural interventions. One aspect is the time horizon: how long can the inspirational effect of watching a movie last? After poor students managed to enter public university, there will certainly be many more hindrances and challenges in their way, linked to their backgrounds. Unfortunately, little is known so far about the medium- and long-term consequences of such interventions. In the spirit of these papers, we should pay more attention to potentially detrimental effects of raising aspirations that only motivate in the short-term but lead to frustration afterwards. For example, in the case of the so-called Chilean dream, there was a period in the 2000s when Chilean families were quite optimistic about educational returns and invested a lot into the education of their children. When it turned out that the returns were different than expected, this resulted in considerable frustration. Rather than focusing on lifting up aspirations at one specific moment (even though it is understandable that researchers look out for easy-to-measure short-term effects), aiming at supporting underprivileged people in developing political agency could have more beneficial medium- and long-term benefits. For example, this paper by Ina Conradie and Ingrid Robeyns analyses a development program in a Cape Town township, where women gathered over a period of time to reflect upon their aspirations and life goals and to support each other in reaching these. Reflections and joint discussions upon possibilities, capacities, and limitations helped the women to articulate aspirations that could improve their well-being, and to reconsider the boundaries of their opportunities. The goal of this program was not so much to raise the women’s aspirations per se, but to incite reflection upon these and to develop individual and collective agency with regards also to rather medium- and long-term aspirations and actions. In a sense, such an approach is less immediate and more political than simply raising hopes for the future.

Svenja Flechtner is Assistant Professor at the University of Siegen, Germany. @SvenjaFl.

2 thoughts on “Think Positive, Climb out of Poverty? It’s Just Not So Easy!

  1. To eliminate poverty–its easy when you know how! trouble is that few do and most don’t want to know!

    The cause of poverty is lack of equality of opportunity to the natural resources, particularly the land.Not all land has equal value but the right to having equal shares in the variegated opportunities that it offers is paramount. When the land is very productive and central to a city it has high value, but when it is owned by only a few people compared to its productive power, it is no wonder that they will benefit greatly and out of all proportion to the areas involved.

    The way that a government can cause and encourage richer people to better share their land rights is to tax land values. The most potentially productive land owners will consequently pay the most and find themselves needing to make proper use of their sites. Poorer people who have some less central land will also feel the need to use it well and the dirt-poor farmers on the outside will probably be able to sell their produce without having to be taxed at all.

    The principles of all this were explained by Henry George 130 years ago in his classic book “Progress and Poverty” which sold 3 million copies and is still in print. It is long past the time when the government should allow wealthy land owners the rights to the most productive sites whilst poor farmers cannot manage even to scrape by an existence.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s