March 31st, 2014

Commentary | February 3rd, 2014
Cheap boots and wet feet
Class prejudices in academia and the logic of poverty
Written by | Visual by Alice Shen

Academia is intensely middle-class. The cost of tuition alone helps ensure this, but so too does the time commitment. Sinking six to ten years into getting a Bachelor’s and PhD (and outside of certain select fields, you do need a PhD) is more than most people who need to pay bills and support families can afford. Even if you do come from a poor or working-class background, you will slowly become acclimatized to the attitudes and opinions of your peers.

This socioeconomic climate of academia has an unavoidable effect on the way academics form their ideas. Consider temporal discounting, a phenomenon studied under cognitive psychology and other disciplines, often used as a measure of impulsivity. In a typical temporal discounting experiment, the researcher will offer the participant the choice between something of a small amount of value now (money, chocolate, et cetera), or else something of higher value sometime in the future. By systematically varying the amounts of value and time, you can construct a curve predicting an individual’s choices. This is used to test hypotheses concerning addiction, emotional regulation, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, obesity, reward behaviour, and related issues; similar concepts are present in other fields, including economics.

Of course, the logic of these experiments appear to make sense; by delaying your reward, you increase your value. It’s the simple math of delayed gratification, and if someone has a high curve at short time intervals, they are simply impulsive, and lacking some degree of cognitive control.

This socioeconomic climate of academia has an unavoidable effect on the way academics form their ideas.

And yet, if you grow up poor, taking less now rather than more later makes sense. Not because you’re impulsive, but because you must take less money now, because your rent costs half as much as (or more than) your monthly wages. Plus, who knows if the money on offer will still be there six months from now? Money now is much more certain than money later.

But you’ll hardly ever hear a cognitive psychologist or social neuroscientist tell you about the socioeconomic history of their participants, even with the rare study that examines the effects of “resource scarcity” and “mortality.” Instead, you hear that a population of poor people have high impulsivity, which explains the high rate of alcoholism among that population (though, of course, it’s rather easier to manage your alcoholism if you have money). Or that obesity among the poor is related to impulsive behaviour, rather than trying to get the most calories for the least cost.

Cue middle-class academic liberals clucking their tongues, wondering how they can get funding for classes for welfare recipients so that they can learn how to delay gratification. This is no random example. Such courses have been especially popular in colonial nations – particularly in North America, Australia, and South Africa for their Indigenous and poor populations. Approaches that treat impulsivity as an undesirable cause, or even effect, of poverty, then attempt to use behavioural remedies rather than economic ones. Books such as Teaching With Poverty in Mind, or programs such as “Money Smarts 4 Kids” give strategies for reducing impulsive behaviours in children, and misunderstand both the nature and the origins of the behaviours they describe.

Middle-class academics treat such behaviours – which have their own logic for someone who is poor – as personality or character flaws, rather than adaptive traits.

The seemingly short-term, impulsive thinking attributed to the poor is absolutely frustrating to many of my peers in academia. Consider the sort of middle-class investment that works by saving money now to buy something of higher quality in the future. This is the logic of the middle and upper classes. The logic of poverty, on the other hand, can be clearly described by author Terry Pratchett as the “Vimes Theory of Boots.” His character, Samuel Vimes, muses that he can only afford cheap boots, which fall apart in a few months, requiring him to purchase a new pair. He will easily spend more on several pairs of cheap boots than a wealthier person does on a single pair of high-quality boots, all without ever having the ability to afford to save up for quality boots. Not only does he spend more over the long-term than a wealthier individual, but he’ll have wet feet the whole time as well.

Middle-class academics treat such behaviours – which have their own logic for someone who is poor – as personality or character flaws, rather than adaptive traits. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer with The Atlantic, described how this played out for him as he grew up in a rough Baltimore neighbourhood in the 1980s, and later transitioned to the New York professional writing scene. The behaviours that in the former environment had been adaptive for him, such as threatening someone who refused to back off of an argument, in the new environment put him at risk of losing his job, or even facing legal action.

The underlying assumption is that the ways we, as academics, conceive of ideas, and the ways the people in our studies respond, are somehow universal.

This idea that certain traits are adaptive in some circumstances, and maladaptive in others, is a simple enough concept for ecologists dealing with animals, but seems to escape many academics who deal with humans. The underlying assumption is that the ways we, as academics, conceive of ideas, and the ways the people in our studies respond, are somehow universal.

As Dr. Joseph Henrich, economics and psychology professor at the University of British Colombia has suggested, the individuals who have participated in seminal social science studies, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment, are largely unrepresentative of the world’s population. His group labels the typical psych subject as Western Educated Industrialized Rich and Democratic, or ‘WEIRD.’ While his label itself carries some assumptions, the point should be reflected on by anyone who works in relevant fields. As academics working with humans in any kind of behavioural science, it must be understood that both our studied populations, and we ourselves are heavily unrepresentative of the bulk of humanity.


Benjamin Elgie is a PhD candidate in Neuroscience and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Daily Publications Society. He can be reached at benjamin.elgie@mail.mcgill.ca.

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