Target psychological processes that may perpetuate poverty

With widening inequality in income and skills, calls have been made to ensure a more level playing field ("Do more to level playing field as disruption opens skills gap"; last Saturday).

However, to narrow this opportunity gap, it is also crucial to target the psychological processes that may hinder efforts to improve one's living circumstances.

Research has shown that when faced with resource deprivation, people tend to perceive a reduced sense of control, and are more likely to believe that external forces have a greater influence on their lives.

As a result, such individuals tend to make more risk-averse choices and favour immediate rewards at the expense of delayed, higher-value outcomes. In addition, elevated stress levels arising from their disadvantaged circumstances may impede their decision-making.

These findings suggest that the less privileged face more barriers in planning for their future, and may make bad decisions that reinforce their disadvantaged position.

For instance, poor individuals may be less willing to embark on training schemes to upgrade their skills, or to save for their children's education. This is not to say that the poor are responsible for their own plight. On the contrary, the disadvantaged circumstances that one happens to be born into could trigger psychological processes, which, in turn, make it harder to break out of poverty.

This is why it is important to target the psychological processes that may perpetuate socio-economic inequality. For instance, more targeted programmes may be needed to help the poor gain a greater sense of control. We also need to embark on more research to gain a better understanding of the psychological consequences of poverty, so that we can better address the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Meritocracy entails equal opportunities for all. However, to ensure a level playing field, we may need to not only create more opportunities for the underprivileged, but also help them seize and leverage these opportunities.

Ong Xiang Ling (Miss)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 03, 2016, with the headline 'Target psychological processes that may perpetuate poverty'. Subscribe