Why Positive Thinking Won’t Get You Out of Poverty

Yves here. Wowsers, I didn’t understand why an article like this needed to be written….until I saw that the New York Times is selling a new poverty treatment. Instead of “Let them eat training,” the latest clever solution is “Let them eat hope.”

By Dr. Farwa Sial, a Senior Teaching Fellow in the Department of Economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies (@farwasial) and Dr. Carolina Alves, a Joan Robinson Research Fellow in Heterodox Economics (Girton College) Cambridge (@cacrisalves). Originally published at openDemocracy

n 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.’

The push for rebranding refugees as ‘entrepreneurs’ follows the same logic. In the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and TEDx hosted an event to showcase the personal narratives of refugees. The resulting talk was designed to highlight the role of positive thinking in overcoming adversity, with the harsh realities of being a refugee and resorting to extreme survival skills portrayed through the lens of individual motivation. The implicit assumption was that positive attitudes could determine better opportunities in life.

This trend relies on RCTs as the key methodological tool to prove its case, a technique born out of an increasing focus in economics on the behaviour of individuals and the use of computing power to process enormous amounts of data in econometric analyses. RCTs are supposed to provide “evidence-based” answers that form a scientific basis for policy-making. In reality however, they have some serious limitations.

An RCT is an evaluation technique that draws from experimental design in order to measure the impact of a development project. As the name suggests, the process is based on a selection of a ‘random’ or unspecified distribution of people or communities who are subjected to a trial or an experiment. The proponents of this method suggest that it is possible to measure the impact of an intervention and attribute a causal relationship between the intervention and its outcomes when compared to a ‘control group’ who are not included—a worrying feature in and of itself because people in that group may be denied the essentials of a decent life if they are only provided to those who participate in the trials.

According to Esther Duflo, the top five journals in economics published 21 articles on development in 2000, none of which represented this methodology; by 2015 there were 32 such articles, of which 10 were RCTs. Researchers Sophie Webber and Carolyn Prouse go so far as to say that RCTs have become the new ‘gold standard’ in  development economics, so it comes as no surprise that poverty has started to be studied in the context of this new framework.

Poverty alleviation, however, is a hugely complex subject that touches on the strengthening of institutions, the health of governance, the structure and dynamics of markets, the workings of social classes, macroeconomic policies, distribution, international integration and many other issues, none of which can be replicated from one context to another. That means that analyses of poverty have to be based on a critical examination of processes and actors that cannot be ‘controlled’ against—thus violating the principle of RCTs.

Recent developments in economics have failed to account for these fundamental determinants of poverty. Instead, the success of RCTs can be narrowed down to essentially statistical arguments that seek to identify ‘what works’ and ‘which interventions’ should therefore be employed to improve the lives of the poor. In such processes, the focus tends towards the individual or the household and (initially at least) to the design of small changes that are supposed to enable them to exit poverty, although eventually the ‘scaling up’ of interventions might also occur. Akin to the ‘nudge’ approach that has been popularised by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, the idea is that people’s choices can be shaped to allow them to escape from poverty and dispossession.

As a consequence, this approach individualises the ‘problem’ of poverty whilst failing to acknowledge, contextualize, highlight or analyse the structures, institutions and actors that actually make and keep some people poor. For example, the idea that role models can be effective in changing people’s behaviour, emotions and self-concepts isn’t new; what’s new is the belief that these aspirations can lift people out of poverty without broader changes in politics, social structures and institutions. Returning to the brothels of Kolkata, advocating for the removal of psychological barriers may not be effective if the working conditions of sex workers and the structures on which their material deprivation stands continue to go unchallenged.

To be fair, The York Times piece introduces some important caveats to such strategies:

“Hope isn’t a cure-all and in none of these examples can we be certain that it actually explains the gains in people’s income or education…instilling hope without skills or financial resources is unlikely to be enough to lift people out of poverty.”

Nevertheless, if the caveats are so strong as to question the validity of the experiments then they are not caveats at all, but fundamental inputs on which any successful methodology must be based. Economics distracts itself by reforming symptoms and ignoring the conditions which cause the malaise in the first place. As the development economist Sanjay G. Reddy has written:

“The larger questions once asked within the discipline regarding the effect of alternative economic institutions and policies (such as those concerning property arrangements, trade, agricultural, industrial and fiscal policy, and the role of social protection mechanisms), for instance, and the impact of political dynamics and processes of social change, have been pushed to the background in favour of such questions as whether bed-nets dipped in insecticide should be distributed free of charge or not, or whether two schoolteachers in the classroom are much better than one.”

Hence, in a recent open letter published in the Guardian, fifteen leading economists argued that relying on RCTs to guide aid spending will lead to short-term, superficial and misplaced policies. Asking relevant questions is the first step towards understanding problems. And understanding why widespread hunger and poverty persist in an era of unprecedented opulence, rapid technological transformation and democratic governance is the most important problem of the day. Inequality is not born in a vacuum; it is a fundamental aspect of the distribution of income and wealth. Unless we understand how extreme wealth accumulation is connected to extreme inequality the question of poverty will go unaddressed.

More than 800 million people live in extreme poverty today. To say that they do not have the adequate hope, aspiration and tenacity to fight for their rights is to deny their agency. The structural odds against them inhibit their ability to leave the vicious cycles of poverty. Without additional resources and much more concerted action on the underlying causes, no amount of positive thinking will enable the great mass of individuals to climb out of poverty. We cannot afford to rely on methods that suggest that poor people are simply failing to make the ‘right choices.’

This doesn’t mean that we should disregard RCTs or any other ways of empowering communities, but it does mean that we should build on an understanding of poverty alleviation which is concerned with attacking the malaise of unequal distribution as opposed to remediating its symptoms. That means confronting structures and actors that have not only failed to address poverty but may also have reinforced the nature of uneven development across the globe.

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    1. Geo

      Best final scene in movie history.

      As for the sentiment, totally agree. This crap is basically the Prosperity Gospel or “The Secret” turned into a TED Talks exercise in self-important delusion and just another way for the rich to feel special and accomplished for their birth lottery winnings.

  1. kk

    All you need to get out of poverty is an iron will (and health, money, social support, education, opportunity and connections, oh, a country with fair laws, contracts, and resources). If Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos had been born in Kolkata they would be lucky if they ended up working in a phuchka kiosk. To have been born in the industrialised West is to have won first prize in the lottery of life.

    1. Rajesh

      Not sure why this is true. Most expensive house in the world is in India at 2 billion dollars. India as a whole has 100 billionaires? Some people simply transcend nations, races, etc.

      1. Scott

        What caste are those 100 billionaires from? If anything, India is a more perfect example of a society where most of the poor face structural impediments to achieving even modest prosperity.

    2. False Solace

      Under our system the lower 50% own 0% of the wealth and the rich capture all income increases. As long as this remains true, the most we can expect of “changing attitudes” is to alter the type of poverty, not its existence or severity. Talk about lowering one’s goals.

      1. Active Listener

        But it’s positive poverty. Positiverty!

        “If you worry too much about morals, you’re gonna be poor. Just suck it up, worry about yourself, and maybe you’ll scratch your way out of poverty.” Isn’t that the real lesson they are teaching, despite their gobbledygook and platitudes? People know the system is insanely rigged and absurdly unequal, and people who try to play by the rules wind up with gutted pensions and gofundme campaigns to pay for their health care expenses. If you’re not focusing on the systemic problems, you’re enabling them to continue.

  2. pretzelattack

    it’s like a law of attraction for jobs. and after, the economists can study the effects of the shattering of the hopes and dreams they helped instill, based on new mountains of data.

  3. Michael Fiorillo

    A TED talk about the Power of Positive Thinking, in a refugee camp?

    Wow, is it even possible for these people to parody themselves more completely? It’s something out of a satirical comedy sketch, or would be if the neoliberal creative class wasn’t so insufferably self-righteous and delusional.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      I don’t think so, but you never know. We bemoan the lack of social mobility, and the absence of creative destruction so to speak among the elites means they will all be Andy Cuomos in time. The U.S. is a country of over 300 million where Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush were both deemed as the establishment front runners and then proceeded to lose to Donald Trump, a tabloid figure. If all the elites could come up with is HRC and Jeb! (son of the mother of Presidents! Please clap!), we have to recognize the rot is extraordinarily entrenched.

      Founding myths probably play into this. Horatio Algiers style myths are part of their identity, and most are so shallow they don’t know much else. Whether its American Exceptionalism, bizarre views about one’s own religion (I don’t mean like cafeteria catholics because I usually find that is thought out; church people will say just crazy stuff if you ever listen) or more of a personal (I’m hard working unlike the lazy slobs), these are hard identities to break. Dad always said, “thinking is hard. People don’t usually do it.” Getting people to assess the cause and solution to problems is difficult. I suppose its no different than praying for souls in the face of a deity claimed to be omnipotent and omniscient. Are they trying to trick the Christian Zeus? My sense is they know there are problems, and they are desperate to find an excuse that doesn’t lead back to them and absolve themselves in a fashion, hence the TED Talks whichs strike me as sermons for the un-churched with the aim of keeping the collection plates full on a weekly basis.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      They’ll spend all this time and effort to produce a talk, but how many of them would simply hand a refugee $20 so they can eat for a few days?

      The latter would probably be a lot more effective but of course it isn’t about alleviating poverty, it’s about making the rich feel like it isn’t their fault that others are poor in the first place.

  4. Disturbed Voter

    Positive thinking won’t get you out of poverty. But negative thinking will keep you there. Unless you are the revolutionary fish-wives of Paris of course.

    1. jrs

      of course any given thing might get an individual out of poverty, which is the appeal of this stuff in the first place (not usually positive thinking alone though, but perhaps at least the ability to put on a positive front for others, combined with other things. And none should deny putting on a positive front has *some* value or else there would be no “emotional labor”).

      But on an aggregate level there are going to be poor people as long as there are low wage jobs and as long as there is unemployment and as long as there is an insufficient safety net to make up for these two things.

      1. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

        There are going to be poor people as long as…

        Similarly, there will always be dishwashers even if everyone is a college graduate (assuming that job, in all eateries, is not automated at some point in the future).

        Now, they can be paid the same as surgeons, in an ideal world, but a dishwasher is not as prestigious (to those who are not mahatmas, or great souls, of course) nor as attractive when it comes to mating.

  5. TheScream

    The classic argument of the ruling elite: you are underclass because you choose to be underclass; I chose to be born to wealthy parents, attend expensive private schools, and use my trust fund to invest in my father’s friend’s companies!

    1. Duke DeGuise

      Indeed, success in life is all about personal responsibility and choices, and thus poor children should receive no sympathy for choosing the parents they did, and deserve what they get.

      1. Petter

        Karma. Accept your fate, status, circumstances. Know your place. Act responsibly, virtuously… fill in the blank…and in your next life, or a couple of lives down the line, you too will live a life of milk and honey.

  6. Sound of the Suburbs

    Flawed assumption – we live in a meritocracy.

    What does a meritocracy look like?

    Let’s work it out from first principles.

    1) In a meritocracy everyone succeeds on their own merit.

    This is obvious, but to succeed on your own merit, we need to do away the traditional mechanisms that socially stratify society due to wealth flowing down the generations. Anything that comes from your parents has nothing to do with your own effort.

    2) There is no un-earned wealth or power, e.g. inheritance, trust funds, hereditary titles

    In a meritocracy we need equal opportunity for all. We can’t have the current two tier education system with its fast track of private education for people with wealthy parents.

    3) There is a uniform schools system for everyone with no private education.

    Do you still want a meritocracy?

    The Social Darwinists on the Right would have a heart attack, although a level playing field is necessary for the best to succeed.

    1. Newton Finn

      True enough, but is even a perfect meritocracy, with a completely level playing field, really humane and ethical? Isn’t it just a different system of brute force that allows the strong to dominate and exploit the weak, not the physically strong, in this case, but the intellectually strong? The guy who put his finger on ALL of this–and wound up with a stunningly beautiful vision of a radically egalitarian society–was Edward Bellamy.


      1. anon

        … but is even a perfect meritocracy, with a completely level playing field, really humane and ethical?

        As you note, no it isn’t. Also, the concept of being meritorious, will have wildly varying differences of opinion, generally varying by class, but also the capacity to care about others. For instance, to me, those currently widely touted as being meritorious for over a decade now, are amoral, power obsessed, megalomaniacs, to a person; though I’m sure I’m not alone among the average populace in believing that the first requirements for being meritorious, are kindness, compassion and the consideration of other’s wellbeing in one’s everyday actions.

      2. Sound of the Suburbs

        There is no reason for the people that do well, to neglect those that don’t.

        If you couldn’t ensure your own children did well then you might be a lot more concerned with those lower down the scale as your own children might end up there.

        Society would also be a lot more mixed and you would know people from different levels in society and know personally what their problems are.

    2. shinola

      In a meritocracy, what keeps the “Peter Principle” from kicking in?

      (You know, the old “an individual in a hierarchy will rise to their level of incompetence” thing)

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        We would need mechanisms for making every promotion up the pyramid of ladders to be a temporary promotion. If the promotee proves to be incompetent at that level, send the promotee back to its previous highest level of competency, where it may continue to function productively.

  7. chewitup

    Or as Baloo said to Mowgli…

    Look for the bare necessities
    The simple bare necessities
    Forget about your worries and your strife
    I mean the bare necessities
    Old Mother Nature’s recipes
    That brings the bare necessities of life.

  8. Jim A.

    To a great degree, it looks like this methodology completely fails to realize the difference between helping INDIVIDUALS improve their status relative to others in similar situations, versus creating an economy structured to reduce the number of people in poverty. Which is interesting because we are already suffering from problems with the “education is the key to getting out of poverty,” idea. We haven’t created an economy with fewer people living in poverty. Instead we have created an economy where college degrees are not a ticket to a secure, middle class life. Instead they are required for entry to the job market at ever more menial levels.

  9. Darius

    The English blamed the Irish potato famine on laziness and drunkenness, not that the English owning all the resources and throwing starving peasants out of their meager homes to die barefoot and naked on the snowy road.

    1. The Rev Kev

      In an earlier famine the British had halted all food exports from Ireland until the famine was over but in this one the British kept the exports up in spite of a million people starving to death. There is an interesting story of how the Ottoman Sultan sent not only money but 3-5 food ships to Ireland (https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/little-known-tale-of-generous-turkish-aid-to-the-irish-during-the-great-hunger) which the British tried to stop. Though officially denied, there is some evidence that this actually happened (https://www.irishcentral.com/news/new-evidence-shows-turkey-delivered-food-to-ireland-during-the-famine-156681255-237507681) and the gesture was never forgotten by the Irish. Good thing that the British did not have D-notices back then.

  10. EoH

    Hope and prayer work for gun violence. Why not poverty?

    These studies focus on the idea of fixing systemic problems by adjusting individual attitudes. Toujour l’audace and all that. That might improve outcomes for a few individuals at the periphery. The Raj did that by giving the odd brilliant student a scholarship to Oxbridge, leaving the masses to toil without relief.

    These studies appear to blame the victim, while protecting those who want to preclude systemic attitude adjustments. It’s hard to imagine why they were funded in the first place.

    1. TheScream

      Controlled testing has shown that prayer is ineffective on health outcomes when hospitalization is involved. In fact, it was shown to worsen health. Perhaps poor believe pray TOO much?

  11. PKMKII

    A conclusion in search of evidence. They’re taking the mythology of the American Dream, that structural limitations either are irrelevant or don’t exist, and that sufficient levels of grit are all that are needed, and try to jerry-rig the scientific method into producing a result that fits into the mythology. It’s like setting up an experiment that ignores all climate evidence except for ones showing that temperatures could go down, and then extrapolate it to mean global warming is false.

  12. Rosario

    Refer to The Stockdale Paradox.

    One has to acknowledge reality before they can be positive (optimistic) about it or anything else. This is of particular importance to people advocating for policy as Jayachandran seems to be in the article.

    I will argue, conditioning people in poverty to “think positively” without material conditions being altered in their favor will have a dramatic negative effect on their mental health. They think positively, yet nothing changes, yielding to delusion, then despair as the next reality check hits. Continue this over and over and you have ripe conditions for substance abuse, suicide, violent behavior, institutionalization, etc. Which all, in turn, further contribute to the individual’s loss of income, autonomy, etc. I will go so far to say that the article is not ignorant, it is immoral and inexcusable, and the economist should be ashamed of writing it.

    1. anon

      I will argue, conditioning people in poverty to “think positively” without material conditions being altered in their favor will have a dramatic negative effect on their mental health. They think positively, yet nothing changes, yielding to delusion, then despair as the next reality check hits. Continue this over and over and you have ripe conditions for substance abuse, suicide, violent behavior, institutionalization, etc. Which all, in turn, further contribute to the individual’s loss of income, autonomy, etc. I will go so far to say that the article is not ignorant, it is immoral and inexcusable, and the economist should be ashamed of writing it.

      100% agree.

    2. A report from the real world

      Regarding the negative effect; I can completely confirm its existence; at a time in my life I fell in the trap of internet based, relatively wealthy (tech industry) community thinking. After a few years my views of reality became simmilar to those in the 1 percenter class, except with me being on the receiving end of a monthly welfare payout.

      Needles to say “reality check” did hit; I failed to properly manouvre the employment services labyrinth and lost my monthly support.

      I would have died if my family didn’t intervene, I barely managed to get back on track, meaning: back to receiving support and I still have enourmous debt that accumulated in the “reality check period” plus significantly worsened health and general life conditions.

      “Think positive” programs are a death trap, literally.

  13. anon

    Whoa, that New York Times title, Think Positive, Climb Out of Poverty? It Just Might Work, is sadistic towards anyone in, or facing, poverty.

    The first person who came to my mind is Dr. Martin Seligman:

    Positive psychology began as a new domain of psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as president of the American Psychological Association.

    which was a direct outcome of his being the Father of Learned Enforced Helplessness; which was subsequently a torture method used at Guantánamo Bay (et al).

    And what to say about this sickening paragraph in the New York Times piece, implying that it’s just newly been discovered (but only after the paid Thought Leaders conducted an — always mandatory these days to verify even the simplest of historic common wisdoms — Academic Study™ on it) that people in poverty feel better momentarily when they have cash to spend on basic needs:

    Better mental health is also one of the striking benefits of the cash grants that the American nonprofit, Give Directly, has given to poor households in Kenya. Recipients said they felt happier, and, when they were given a large enough grant, their level of cortisol — a stress hormone — fell. Improved mental health and lower stress levels not only enabled people to work more, it empowered participants to make better decisions, such as to take up profitable long-term investment opportunities.

  14. GregtheAmerican

    A couple random points.

    Hard work and good attitude mean nothing if someone strongarms your capital away after you’ve finally accumulated a bit. Probably a bit discouraging really.

    The lesson of the American experiment is that the means of wealth are in existence already in every class of person and every race,creed etc.–if it is allowed to flourish in liberty. No education necessary.

    I think in some places of the world, large percentages of those special souls born as capable makers get smacked down and destroyed by corruption, war, guilds, governments–to the extent where they and their attitudes have become non existent.

    The establishment has no interest in enabling competitors, they like having an underclass.

    American liberals have no idea how wealth is made, their politics reveal this.

    Humans like to succeed, they want enough to eat, their children to live in peace, and to have comfort and prosperity. When all are allowed to pursue this happiness within the right structure–well, you’ve all read the Declaration of Independence.

    1. Synoia

      you’ve all read the Declaration of Independence.

      Nice document you have there. It does apply to all people living under its writ, right?

  15. Barry

    People who are winning a game are more likely to believe it’s a good game.

    Changing the game increases the risk that they will stop being winners. Therefore, when they do bother to think about the problems the losers are having, they tend to focus on how the losers should be better players.

    People who are born winning think the game is easy and therefore are more likely to hold losers in contempt.

    People who are not born winning but who achieve success are prone to thinking their accomplishments prove that others starting in their situation should be able to do as well as them. Therefore they can easily fall into the trap of thinking the losers aren’t trying hard enough.

    Thinking about those who are not doing well in a system in terms of their attitudes and training is very comforting. It rocks no boats and smooths over any doubts about whether one deserves to be a winner.

  16. MyLessThanPrimeBeef

    Yet we all engage in hoping, in various situations.

    “I hope this hurricane will not be too devastating.”

    In another age, praying to gods would be the call. “Oh All-Mighty” or “I beseech you, all powerful Hurricane god.”

    What is the scientific, rational response in this situation?

    “It’s likely many will die. It’s inevitable. That’s life?”

    Why do we say, “I hope you recover from your cold soon?” Note also that, if that is the only thing you do, it would not be all that good. Perhaps you should let that person rest for a few days.

  17. tongorad

    The Horatio Alger Myth was perhaps most brutally parodied in 1934, by Nathanael West’s A Cool Million.
    A must read.
    I guess ruling class myths don’t change much, huh?

  18. Altandmain

    I think that this has become the new way to blame the poor.

    “Oh you are so pessimistic. If you only you had more optimism, through some crazy self fulfilling prophecy, you’d be rich!”

    That’s insane, but it shows how far it’s gone. It also gives new ammunition to critics of the “out of touch Liberal elite” which probably pushes these beliefs (especially considering it is the NYT that is publishing this and the upper middle class/professional demographics that read the NYT).


    We need policies like a Second New Deal, a massive transfer of wealth from rich to poor, etc, to deal with our problems. Not enough hope is not a serious policy solution and seems more like a way to shift blame.

  19. cripes

    The Personal Responsibility™ heresy is a brutal form of propaganda mind control that the beneficiaries of inequality force upon the victims of inequality to maintain their power and control. A nice bennie that goes with successful brainwashing is that the victims will attack those who deny the heresy and tend towards suicidal behavior when, inevitably, their positive thinking alone does not lead to positive results. A positive feedback loop for the perpetrators.

    Throw in a tsunami of drugs, legal and illegal, Hollywood hero myths, celebrity endorsements, sports millionaires, hip-hop role-models, prosperity gospel preachers, the soft hand of the philanthropy hustlers and the occasional TED talk; man what a racket.

    Although it takes a few short generations to equalize weight, height, IQ and bank accounts, building a society without structural poverty is not rocket science. Norway and Alaska operate Sovereign Wealth Funds largely successful in administering national wealth on behalf of its citizens. Public banks, universal education, healthcare, affordable housing. Security from eviction, bankruptcy and homelessness. Prohibition of usurious interest, predatory loans, poverty wages, rentierism, Criminal Justice™ extortion rackets would help. End privatization of public assets. Henry George suggests a Land tax to discourage speculation and bubbling. Enforce laws against corruption, racketeering, and monopolies, not weed. Do something about Wall street. A bulldozer would be a start.

    We haven’t even mentioned ownership of the means of production; but training, incentivizing and funding worker cooperatives is a good start, without touching their Pwecious Pwivate Pwoperty™

    The flip side of obscene poverty is obscene wealth and is always a political matter.

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