Tag Archives: health behavior

Looking at the relationship between scarcity, unhealthy behavior

About Joe Rojas-Burke

Joe Rojas-Burke is AHCJ’s core topic leader on the social determinants of health, working to help journalists broaden the frame of health coverage to include factors such as education, income, neighborhood and social network. Send questions or suggestions to joe@healthjournalism.org or @rojasburke.

People with low socioeconomic status are more likely to act in ways that harm their health compared with those higher on the ladder of income and social stature.

On average, they smoke more, they exercise less and their diet is less wholesome. As a group, they are even less likely to use seatbelts. Researchers have struggled for years to understand why this is so. It involves more than the inability to pay for goods and services that promote health. Cigarettes are expensive, after all. Walking and many other forms of exercise don’t require money, and neither does clicking a seatbelt.

Photo by Roman Pavlyuk via Flickr

One explanation that’s drawing a lot of media attention, perhaps to the point of going overboard, is the idea that poverty overloads the capacity of the brain to make sound decisions. This is the hypothesis advanced in “Scarcity,” an important, fascinating – and expertly publicized – book by behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan and cognitive psychologist Eldar Shafir that has been the basis for dozens of news reports since it was published in August. Continue reading