Why We Shouldn’t Push a Positive Mindset on Those in Poverty


From Psyche: “How do you improve your life? Many of us assume that flourishing in the face of adversity requires a certain kind of mindset. Believing in your power, staying focused on future goals, being proactive, and leveraging social relationships are four outlooks that can help, many of us suspect, in overcoming life’s obstacles. Driven by the belief that people can change their lives by thinking differently, public organisations in the UK and the US have made a deliberate effort over the past decade to develop such a mindset among people experiencing the most persistent forms of adversity in advanced democracies: those who live on little or no income. Yet such efforts have been largely unsuccessful at reducing poverty and unemployment, and have been derided both by the people they were designed to help and by those advocating on their behalf. What has gone wrong here?

. . . Despite decades of explanations and interventions, these efforts have fallen short in one important way: what I call the assumption of free-floating mindsets. This assumption is not only held by researchers but also policymakers and charity workers engaged in well-meaning efforts to tackle poverty in rich countries specifically by focusing on the psychology of those who are low in socioeconomic status. It runs like this: everyone has the power to decide how to perceive and respond to the unavoidable constraints and challenges they face. How did such a belief become commonplace? The assumption arises from evidence that some perceptions and responses are more helpful than others, and these have earned specific names in psychology: believing in one’s own power reflects what researchers call an internal ‘locus of control’; sticking to long-term plans engages ‘self-regulation’; being positively proactive in moving toward one’s goals is called ‘approach orientation’; and leveraging relationships involves the development of ‘general social trust’ and ‘agreeableness’. Research teaches us that these are associated with better psychological functioning, higher incomes, and longer lives. When combined, these orientations appear to converge into a mindset that can lead to human flourishing.

There’s one problem: mindsets are not free-floating. They are neither optional strategies that everyone can freely adopt nor value-neutral ways of enhancing wellbeing. Instead, they are embedded in life conditions that have material, social and ideological dimensions, and this is just as true for those of us living in poverty as it is for the rest of us living in financial comfort.

. . . Evidence shows that being placed in a situation of low relative earnings decreases happiness, and feeling low in power decreases approach orientation (the tendency of proactively aligning with your goals). A person in this situation is not mindlessly pessimistic and blind to opportunities to fulfil their aspirations; they’re regulating emotions and conserving their energies so that they don’t face continual disappointment or overlook very real threats. In Hand to Mouth (2014), a powerful chronicle of surviving on a low-wage job in the US, Linda Tirado writes: ‘We don’t plan long term because if we do we’ll just get our hearts broken. It’s best not to hope. You just take what you can get as you spot it.’

. . . Financial and social precarity keep a person solidly focused on dealing with threats of the here and now, such that ‘keeping an open mind’ and ‘thinking big’ become dangerous abstractions. What those who are socioeconomically marginalised need is not mindset coaching, but action that addresses the material deprivation, financial precarity and social devaluation inflicted on them. Such action gets overlooked when these mindsets are discussed as if they are accessible and beneficial to all – free-floating – as opposed to tailored toward a privileged few.”

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  1. Excellent article, thanks for the author (and MIA for reprinting).

    Just another way in which psychology is implicitly classist, also it’s interesting how the “free mindset” mirrors so-called “free markets” (which in Western countries are often government-protected oligopolies, but we’re required to believe otherwise).

    It reminds me of the famous quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt (who was in the 1% of the 1% of her day) about not letting other people make you feel bad about yourself–easy for her to say.

    Will psychology ever get out of the lab and become self-aware?

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  2. The reliance on Critical Theory to explicate the obvious problems connected with “mindset” approaches to economic change ruins the basic premise, which is that these approaches don’t work well.

    Ditto the mentioning of various concepts borrowed from Evolutionary Psychology.

    This discussion fails (in my book) for the same reasons that so many others fail: Because they don’t recognize that people are immortal spiritual beings and they have not paid any attention to findings based in that fact.

    When one does the above, one finds what, for me, is a better terminology and theoretical framework for thinking about and talking about this problem.

    Enforced poverty – which is what many people today are really experiencing – is simply too discouraging for most people. A few make it through such conditions, then look back and tell the others, “if I could do it, you can.” But that isn’t really true. There are good reasons why only a few manage to make it out of those desperate situations “by their own bootstraps.”

    And one of those reasons is that they are simply spiritually stronger individuals. Spiritual strength is not that common here on Earth. And to develop that strength if you weren’t born with it is not easy, even if you know how.

    To the spiritually strong, “mindset” makes sense. To most people it’s just more psycho-babble.

    But Critical Theory (analyzing all human relationships for their hidden power dynamics) and Evolutionary Psychology (the study of human psychology as if it were the product of animal evolution on Earth) are not going to further this discussion much beyond the faultfinding that is expressed in this article.

    There ARE many hidden power dynamics in human relationships. But they have developed over millions of years and stem from the fact that we are immortal spiritual beings whose memories have been crippled, not from the fact that this-life “oppressors” prefer to keep themselves hidden.

    And there ARE elements of animal psychology that impinge on human behavior. But it’s not because humans are animals, it’s because human bodies are animals.

    I applaud those who realize most current approaches aren’t working. But I also insist that they become more intellectually flexible. Much of this newer data comes from the 1950s, and it has only been mushrooming since that time. If you really want to solve more human problems, you need to find out what others who had similar goals found out when they looked.

    Academia – and that definitely includes psychology – was pretty well captured by what has become the corporate-political machine (“military-industrial complex”) by the middle of the last century. Very little real innovation (in the humanities) has been produced by academia since that time. It is time for those who want real change to ask like-minded people outside academia what they know that academia is ignoring.

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