Why positive thinking won’t get you out of poverty

attitude-be-positive-draw-262532.jpgBy Farwa Sial and Carolina Alves

In a recent article in the New York Times, the development economist Seema Jayachandran discusses three studies that used Randomised Controlled Trials (or RCTs) to understand the benefits of enhancing the self-worth of poor people. Despite wide differences in context, all the cases explore the viability of ‘modest interventions’ to ‘instill hope’ in marginalised communities, concluding that ‘remarkable improvements’ in the quest for poverty reduction are possible.

One of the studies from Uganda, for example, argues that “a role model can have significant effects on students’ educational attainment,” so the suggestion for policy-makers might be “to place more emphasis on motivation and inspiration through example.” Another case study of sex workers in Kolkata Brothels argues that “psychological barriers impede such disadvantaged groups from breaking the vicious circle and achieving better outcomes in life,” so small but effective changes that address these psychological constraints can alleviate the effects of poverty and social exclusion.

The underlying theme of these studies is that individuals can surmount the structural challenges of poverty through their own efforts using tools like ‘effective role models,’ the generation of ‘more hope,’ and the ‘improvement of their mental health.’ Positive psychology of this kind and an emphasis on behavior change to meet the goals of individuals have been around at least since the 1950s, first in the popular literature of self-help books and now in academia, where they form part of an increasingly fashionable trend to ‘do poverty reduction differently.’Read More »

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

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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.

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Poor Behavior, Good Behavioral Policies? Double Standards for the North and South

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Behavioral approaches to development economics and policy have gained momentum in recent years. A growing number of papers studying behavior of people in poor countries have been published in top journals, accompanied by the rise of randomized controlled trials (RCTs). In 2015, the World Development Report was dedicated to behavioral and cognitive research and policy. Papers studying how to nudge farmers to use fertilizers or increase savings have become classics in the field. Lots of hope has been placed into social experiments and behavioral policies to fight global poverty.

Behavioral policies are of course not reserved for policy-making in poor countries. In fact, nudges became famous with a US-American savings plan. Many behavioral instruments have been discussed and tested in and for rich countries. But there has been an important difference as compared to the debates in development economics: when debating behavioral policies in rich countries, scholars have also devoted lots of time to consider normative and ethical concerns. For example, following Thaler and Sunstein’s exposition of Libertarian Paternalism (see also here), a debate unfolded on whether nudges could be anti-libertarian (here, here, here, or here). Implications of the use of nudges as a new form of government policy have been analyzed, for example, from a Foucauldian perspective, or with a focus on institutional change. Books have been written about ethical concerns. The debate has reached a great level of differentiation, e.g. when authors argue that so-called social nudges (these are nudges that seek to stimulate voluntary cooperation in social dilemma situations) may be justified for different reasons than those targeting individual welfare. Overall, the debate has become really sophisticated, and the autonomy, welfare, and dignity of citizens in rich countries as well as consequences of the use of behavioral policies for these countries’ modes of government have received lots of careful scrutiny (recently again here).Read More »