The origins of psychiatric diagnoses – James Davies

Ever struggled with a psychiatric diagnoses given to you?

Ever been curios about where mental illness categories come from?

ever been curious about the process by which came about a way of categorizing, talking about and thinking about human struggle and human distress?

Curious about the power that the language of mental illness holds our our lives, our discourse about human and response to human struggle?

James Davies tells the story of how he went about uncovering just how the compendium of mental disorders -DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual)- was generated and the rational for the approach

“Agreement does not constitute scientific proof”.

Voting is not science.

Evidence of a majority vote in a committee of nine to twelve people in the minutes of that committee is evidence of how the members of that committee voted. It does does not by any stretch qualify as “scientific evidence”.

When James Davies went to talk with Robert Spitzer, who headed the task force of nine people driving the project to great the new diagnostic system, he asked Spritzer…

“what led you to believe you could do it this way?”

Robert Spitzer:  “Because we could”.

Not evidence of evil or evil intent, and for sure not evidence of any science or even science-y-ness, but it is the language used and the very way of thinking found at the root of all evils perpetrated and imposed by the institutions and structures we create.

How can we participate unknowingly in systems of oppression?
Because relying on our unknowingly participating and our willingness to not question and to just-go-along-with the orthodoxy is exactly how systems of oppression do work.

James Davies…

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We have had enough – Michael Jordan

I am deeply saddened, truly pained and plain angry.
I see and feel everyone’s pain, outrage and frustration.
I stand with those who are calling out the ingrained racism
and violence toward people of color in our country.
We have had enough.

– Michael Jordan

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COVID-19 in Toronto Shelters: Publicly Reported Numbers of Residents Who have tested positive

There is much reporting of numbers COVID-19 numbers.

REcent weeks have rightly seen a focus of attention on teh unfolding tradgedy in lon term care homes. the province of Ontario made it a priority- one of four. At eth same time it made another population a priority yet that has mot seen a similar focus of attention.

People who have been rendered  homeless, of whom Toronto has about 7,000 registered as living in homeless shelters , there are others who are without homes and live outside the shelter system and outside.

What does it look like if we plot the numbers that have been made publicly available?

Well, it looks like this…

It looks like that all-too-familar curve we’ve seen now from all those other places where officials and politicians waited for too long for data to come in telling them what they and we already know: that they should have been acting and acting decisively long ago.

Its not like there are not plenty of examples to learn from- what not to do.

Pretty scary?

No wonder folks are currently leaving shelters in droves because they don’t feel safe there and they can see too little progress, too little action and too late.

Even where numbers are reported, such a measure – of people who have tested positive – is always a lagging indicator – it can only paint a picture of what was happening  some time ago.  This is especially important since in  recent weeks we’ve learned how people don’t need to be symptomatic to transmit COVID-19.

Indeed we’ve learned in the news how  post-mortem testing has revealed that the earliest cases in both California and France occurred at least a month earlier than local public health officials had previously declared.  A month is a long time in the face of an exponential death-curve of a deadly virus.

Of course testing can only reveal if people are COVID positive if  testing is offered or available and actually conducted. People who are homeless or in shelters or living outside shelters cannot  test positive if they can’t get tested at all.Yet long after the Province of Ontario officially declared homeless persons  a priority group for testing – one of only four such groups –  when folks who are homeless go to a testing and assessment centre they more often than not get told:

“I’m not going to test you today”

While we’re all itching for uncle Doug [Ford] to let us out to play, and while distancing  rules are already being flouted everywhere by those who think the rules don’t apply to them or who have the privilege of knowing  enforcement officers will  leave them alone,  its worth bearing in mind that  unless we get this  sorted we’ll be stuck back inside in a few weeks .

To paraphrase Marvin Gaye:

What [The Fuck] ‘s Going On?

The numbers plotted in the chart below  numbers are those released officially bu City of Toronto, in the public domain.
It is true that a sizable chunk of the totals relate to one shelter where there has been a large outbreak, we only think that’s not the case on others because we have not been testing there.  It is also true that people who are homeless and not registered in shelters don’t get reported in these totals at all – even when they do get tested.

Could it be that we don’t count people when we’ve already decided as a society that [these]

people don’t count?

No two ways about it this is a fuck up, and by design by neglect or both and , dear Toronto, that’s on you, and not holding officials to account is just not good enough.

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Running The World – Jarvis Cocker

Running the World
Did you hear? There’s a natural order
Those most deserving will end up with the most
That the cream cannot help but always rise up to the top
Well I say, “Shit floats”
If you thought things had changed
Friend, you’d better think again
Bluntly put, in the fewest of words
Cunts are still running the world
Cunts are still running the world
Oh yeah
Now the working classes are obsolete
They are surplus to society’s needs
So let ’em all kill each other
And get it made overseas
That’s the word, don’t you know
From the guys that’s running the show
So let’s be perfectly clear boys and girls
Cunts are still running the world
Cunts are still running the world
Oh yeah
Oh yeah
Feed your children on crayfish and lobster tails
Find a school near the top of the league
In theory…
Source: LyricFind
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#WeApplaud #OnApplaudit: Millions pay tribute to hospital workers from their balconies

Millions of citizens in countries across Europe step out of the front door, onto the balcony or lean out the window to applaud the work of healthcare workers who  care for us and others who work in other essential services  .

What started in Italy and Spain, reached France on Tuesday  and on on Thursday evening the UK too.

By: Sam BALL

On Tuesday evening, people across France gathered at their balconies and windows to clap for the country’s health workers battling the coronavirus pandemic as the country went into lockdown.

The applause was triggered by calls across social media throughout Tuesday, as the country headed towards its first night under a government enforced lockdown that has seen people prevented from leaving their homes other than to work, excercise, shop for food or get medical treatment.

Using the hashtags #OnApplaudit (We Applaud) and #TousAlaFenêtre (All at the Window), French people were asked to start applauding en masse at either 7pm or 8pm and to continue doing so at the same time every night.

It is an initiative that first started in Italy and Spain, both under lockdown amid the coronavirus outbreak, and has since spread to other countries including Greece, Portugal and Switzerland.


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Reality – objective, cultural, shared and unshared

Some ideas on reality by Seth Godin: shared, unshared, objective and cultural; also context, bananas and bicycles.

Reality used to be a friend of mine.
Sometimes we impose our version of reality upon others. Sometimes others use their power to impose theirs on us.

Like when we’re told that what we’re experiencing is
“not real”.

Shared objective reality

by Seth Godin

That’s not the only way we experience the world, and until relatively recently, it wasn’t even the dominant one.

The sun rose this morning. You don’t have to agree with me, but a stranger to our disagreement would confirm that it happened.

Objective reality is measured. It’s not based on talking points. It’s repeatable and verifiable.

When humans share an understanding of how things are objectively, we’re able to make enormous progress, because this objective reality is consistent. It doesn’t matter which group we’re in, or who our leaders are. We don’t have to check with someone else before we can decide if what’s in front of us is true or not. So we can work together to build roads or bridges, to cure an illness or make an omelet.

Much of our life is actually driven by shared cultural reality instead. This is what happens when ‘we’ all agree that brides wear white, or that squirrel isn’t worth eating. There isn’t a universal ‘we’, simply groups that define themselves that way. Shared cultural reality is essential to create harmony within groups, but it can drift over time, sometimes erratically, because the compass can change. It can change when leaders insist it does, and it can change in the face of other changes in the culture.

Our cultural and our objective realities overlap and often conflict. For example, too often, we’ve made the cultural decision that people of certain races, backgrounds or genders are somehow inferior. In the face of objective reality, the cultural reality is (too slowly) changing. Shared cultural reality can stick around for a long time, again because there’s no agreed-upon compass to point to. It’s surprising but likely true that the most devout cheerleader for a given cultural tribe would have been stoned as a heretic by that same group a hundred years ago. The context shifts.

Amplified by the media, divisions over this cultural reality are getting worse. Spin, widely spread, not only seeks to divide us on cultural issues, but resorts to insisting that the objective reality that is challenging those issues isn’t real. By seeking to deny the things we ought to be able to agree on, it sets us back.

The other two corners of 2 x 2 grid are:

Unshared objective reality. This is the scientist or scholar we call a genius. Someone who sees the objective truth before the others, who is pilloried and then celebrated for challenging the status quo we all will be abandoning one day soon.

And unshared cultural reality. This is the artist, the poet or the offbeat person who is living with a different set of cultural rules than the rest of us.

The conflict of our time is between people who are challenging our shared objective reality by claiming that their shared cultural reality takes precedence over what we’ve discovered. And vice versa–objectivists who insist that cultural reality doesn’t matter. It does. It makes us human and helps us find meaning.

They’re different, but we need them both. One way to accomplish this is to not confuse them.

The banana is not a threat to the bicycle.


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Hearing Voices Group Toronto | 2020

Now in our Tenth Year !

The Mar 19th 2020 HV Group Toronto mtg
will be going to the MOVIES

6pm to 9pm
@Robarts Library, UofT


The Where

Inner City Family Health Team – ICFHT
4th Floor
69 Queen St East

The When

  • Dates –  see poster
  • Times-  6:00pm to 7:30pm

1. Take the stairs or the the smellyvator to 4th floor.

2. ICFHT operates a clinic on Thur eves – which we’re not part of.
You’ll come through reception, ask for the HV  Group or ask for Kevin
We keep a simple list- just so we know who’s ine th building-  there are no records kept.
And, be nice eh?

More about Inner City FHT :

The WTF?

  • What’s a hearing Voices Group?
    A Hearing Voices Group is not a clinic,
    not treatment,
    not a service,
    not a program,
    NOT an intervention.
    It is just people who get told their experiences are “not real”  Doin’ it for themselves…
  • What you don’t need
    You don’t need a referral – because we don’t take them.

What do we mean by Hearing Voices?

Hearing voices as experience

“Voices” is sometimes literal – we hear voices you don’t- voices you might think are “not there” to be heard just because you don’t hear them does not make them “not there”, “not real”, it just means you don’t hear them.

Sometimes it’s metaphorical, or simply does not presuppose that voices must come from human bodies – the universe has many voices.

Hearing Voices as approach

Sometimes “hearing voices” is a broad term for an approach/ outlook/ worldview that can be used to embrace a whole bunch of experiences that have been made taboo and are often dismissed  as “not real” and/or “abnormal” but which are actually so common they are better / more usefully be classified as “pretty  bloody ordinary indeed”.

  • 75% Three-in-four humans will hear a voice no one else hears at least once – often around challenging life events, like loss of a loved one
  • 50% of people in long term marriage heard, saw, otherwise sensed the presence of their deceased spouse 
  • 22% of young people
  • About 10% of all people hear voices regularly
  • Two thirds of world leaders at the 1943 Quebec Conference did 
  • Even 38% of Doctors do it…

The majority of people who hear voices never need seek help: they find the experience valuable, useful, even enjoy it, and find it helps them in their life or work – eg many, many  writers do.

Culture shapes our experiences , research shows how people living on different continents experience voices differently.

In some cultures it is those who do not hear voices , and do not talk about it who are regarded as giving cause for concern.

In fact, if you don’t hear voices sometimes then maybe you’re missing out.

As for those who do struggle… it is often because they feel disempowered and disconnected from others , isolated. 

About 80% have experience adverse experiences like abuse, neglect, bullying in their youth.

A person given a diagnosis of “psychosis” is fifteen times more likely to have been abused as a child than a person with no psychiatric diagnosis.

sh!t is f#cked

The last two alone suggest how much this Sh!t is f#cked .

…and how much we need find our compassion.

Difficult-to-hear-voices always make sense in context of the whole-life of the person who hears them- so long as we make time and allow ourselves to really listen then we can understand.

Hearing Voices is not just about “voices”…

If you sometimes hear voices, hear other things, see things, smell things, feel things, think things that others don’t and when you try to talk top them about it they get their freak on, then give us a try because we do to.

We talk about “hearing voices” because it’s descriptive of the most common of the kind of experiences that get called names like “psychosis”. I hear voices [you don’t], its that simple.

It also tends to be the one that scares more people more shitless so they want to control and treat us like crap because they do.

Why do some people struggle? people who feel disempowered by their experience of voices are often disempowered in other aspects of their life. If we work on those, the voices can change. if we work with our voices, it can get easier to change things in our life we need and want to change.

Who can come?

if you hear voices...If you want to come, come.
If you’re only coming because someone else told you to come, then try asking them 

“have you realised how much you  sound like a ‘command hallucination’?

We are totally non-medical, non-diagnostic.

We’re a full charter hearing voices group.

The voices are real

The voices arereal
– as real as real can get.

We know that you don’t make ’em up and we know it can be a pain-in-the-ass –  almost as much of a pain-in-the-ass as pain-in-the-ass humans can be a pain-in-the-ass -or arse if you prefer.teh voices are real

We also know it can be valuable and funny and sad and insightful and scary and everything else that life can be.

If you’re struggling and want to try something new
we can share some stuff that you can try – some is really simple, some bloody hard, some might work for you, some might not. Nothing works if you don’t try it.

The only way to find out what works for you is if you try it .


Voices change

You can, if you want to, change how you experience whatever you experience, that includes voices. 

The Hardest Thing…

the hardest thing...

The hardest thing that people who hear voices have to deal with…

Our Hearing Voices group is one place you can find we try hard to not treat each other that way.

We choose not to …
-use diagnostic or medical language
-tell you what’s wrong with you, what to call yourself,  or who you are

We choose instead …
-to listen,
-to share what works for us, how we make sense of our own experience.

we envision a society that understands

We envision and enact a society that understands voice hearing, supports the needs of individuals who hear voices and views them as full citizens.
This type of society is not only possible it is already on its way.

We believe all  human experience is meaningful and understandable – if only we make time to listen, and to figure out what it means to us.

We believe the hearing voices approach is emancipatory…

Emancipatory for people who hear voices…

If I hear voices they are “my” voices: mine because it’s…

  • me who gets to hear them
  • me who gets to choose what they mean to me  
  • me who gets to choose what I do about what they say

Emancipatory for people who support loved ones who who hear voices and emancipatory for workers and for clinicians too…

seriously-folksFree yourself from the doctrinaire nonsense that says the people you care about hear voices because they haven’t taken enough tablets,  or had enough chemicals injected into their buttcheeks, that they can’t do anything for themselves, that they can’t learn and live a life worth living, and that that your role is confined to sneaking around their back and checking up on them to make sure they take their drugs.

“Hearing Voices” is not about “mental illness”

Hearing Voices is not about “mental illness” – whatever that is.
It’s not even really about illness.

It is a global emancipatory human rights movement, in 35 countries on all continents…
but mostly it’s about being human.

Heck, Canada even has a voice hearing former Prime Minister on its money…


Here’s our charter – what we’re about.

Print pdf: hvn-toronto-group-charter





Big Tom Hanks
Big Up and Big Thanks to Houselink Community Services for granting us use  of their spaces  for eight years!


Please feel free to print share our poster .

Printer friendly version here: 
Hearing Voices GROUP Toronto-Poster-2020

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The biology of our best and worst selves – Robert Sapolsky

One thing that’s clear is you’re not going to get anywhere if you think there’s going to be the brain region or the hormone or the gene or the childhood experience or the evolutionary mechanism that explains everything. 

Instead, every bit of behavior has multiple levels of causality.

Robert Sapolsky

The fantasy always runs something like this. I’ve overpowered his elite guard, burst into his secret bunker with my machine gun ready. He lunges for his Luger. I knock it out of his hand. He lunges for his cyanide pill. I knock that out of his hand. He snarls, comes at me with otherworldly strength. We grapple, we fight, I manage to pin him down and put on handcuffs. “Adolf Hitler,” I say, “I arrest you for crimes against humanity.”

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Poverty is not a lack of character: it’s a lack of cash.

Excellent piece by Rutger Bregman at and illustrated with photos by Chow and Lin.
and, bonus..
Scroll to the end for Rutger Bregman’s TED Talk

  • Poverty isn’t a lack of character it’s a lack of cash
    How did “Toronto the Good”, become Toronto the Hostile?
    At least 10,000 people in Toronto [and that’s just those on the City’s database, many more fall off or stay well away] rely on emergency shelters, emergency emergency respites, mats ofn floor in drop ins and sleeping rough under bridges, in stairwells, coffee shops have become street corner shelters. Many many more live but one paycheck away from falling into “the system” that is bursting at the seams.
    Yet we blame those who suffer most for this, because worst of worst crimes in Canada, they inconvenience us.
  • Genes can’t be undone – poverty can
    -What, then, is the cause of mental health problems among poorer people? Nature or culture? Both [D’oh!]
  • You can’t take a break from poverty
    Workers get to take a break, as evidenced over any holiday period, services close so staff get a much needed break, those stuck in the system they work in get no break.What if the poor aren’t actually able to help themselves? What if all the incentives, all the information and education are like water off a duck’s back? And what if all those well-meant nudges only make the situation worse?

Rutger Bregman

Poverty isn’t a lack of character – it’s a lack of cash.

Our efforts to fight poverty are often based on the misconception that poor people must pull themselves up out of the mire. But the relentless struggle to make ends meet has serious effects on the brain. Poverty is not a lack of character – it’s a lack of cash.

The widespread interest was hardly surprising. After all, it wasn’t just some shifty, mafia-run gambling den opening its doors that day. Harrah’s Cherokee Resort was and still is a massive luxury casino owned and operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and its opening marked the end of a 10-year-long political tug-of-war. One tribal leader had even 

that “gambling would be the Cherokees’ damnation”, and North Carolina’s governor had tried to block the project at every turn.

Soon after the opening, it became apparent that the casino would bring the tribe not damnation but relief. The profits –

enabled the tribe to build a new school, hospital, and fire station. However, the lion’s share of the takings went directly into the pockets of the 8,000 men, women, and children of the Eastern Band Cherokee tribe. From $500 a year at the outset, members’ per capita earnings from the casino quickly mounted to making up a quarter to a third of the average family income.

As coincidence would have it, a Duke University professor by the name of Jane Costello had been researching the mental health of youngst

ers south of the Great Smoky Mountains since 1993. Every year, the 1,420 kids enrolled in her study took a psychiatric test. The cumulative results had already shown that those growing up in poverty were much more prone to behavioural problems than other children.

This wasn’t exactly news, though. Correlations between poverty and mental illness had been drawn before by another academic, Edward Jarvis, in his famous paper

But the question still remained: which was the cause, and which the effect?

Tokyo, Japan, February 2011. ¥1,679; ¥394 ($4.84, €3.51) for food. From the series The Poverty Line by Chow and Lin.

The chicken or the egg

At the time Costello was doing her research, it was becoming increasingly popular to attribute mental problems to individual genetic factors. If nature was the root cause, then handing over a sack of money every year would be treating the symptoms, but ignoring the disease. If, on the other hand, people’s psychiatric problems were not the cause but the consequence of poverty, then that $6,000 might genuinely work wonders. The arrival of the casino, Costello realised, presented a unique opportunity to shed new light on this ongoing question since a quarter of the children in her study belonged to the Cherokee tribe, more than half of them living below the poverty line.

Soon after the casino opened, Costello was already noting huge  for her subjects. Behavioural problems among children who had been lifted out of poverty went down 40%, putting them in the same range as their peers who had never known hardship. Juvenile crime rates among the Cherokee also declined, along with drug and alcohol use, while their school scores improved markedly. At school, the Cherokee kids were now on a par with the study’s non-tribal participants.

On seeing the data, Costello’s first reaction was disbelief. “The expectation is that social interventions have relatively small effects,” 

“This one had quite large effects.”


that the extra $4,000 per annum resulted in an additional year of educational attainment by age 21 and reduced the chance of a criminal record at age 16 by 22%.

Ten years after the casino’s arrival, Costello’s findings showed that the younger the age at which children escaped poverty, the better their mental health when they were teenagers. Among her youngest age cohort, Costello observed a “dramatic decrease” in criminal conduct. In fact, the Cherokee children in her study were now better behaved than the control group.

What, then, is the cause of mental health problems among poorer people? Nature or culture? The conclusion was both

But the most significant improvement was in how the money helped parents, well, to parent. Before the casino opened its doors, parents worked hard through the summer but were often jobless and stressed in the winter. The new income enabled Cherokee families to put money aside and to pay bills in advance. Parents who were lifted out of poverty now reported having more time for their children.

They weren’t working any less though, Costello discovered. Mothers and fathers alike were putting in just as many hours as before the casino opened. More than anything,

the money helped ease the pressure on families, so the energy they’d spent worrying about money was now freed up for their children. And as Bradley put it, that “helps parents be better parents”.

What, then, is the cause of mental health problems among poorer people? Nature or culture? Costello’s conclusion was both: the stress of poverty puts people genetically predisposed to develop an illness or disorder at an elevated risk. But there’s a more important takeaway from this study.

Genes can’t be undone. Poverty can.

Getxo, Spain, October 2018. €23.35; €4.74 ($5.47) for food. From the series The Poverty Line by Chow and Lin.

Why poor people do foolish things

A world without poverty – it might be the oldest utopia around.

But anybody who takes this dream seriously must inevitably face a few tough questions. Why are poor people more likely to commit crimes? Why are they more prone to obesity? Why do they use more alcohol and drugs? In short, why do the poor make so many poor decisions?

Harsh? Perhaps, but take a look at the statistics: the poor borrow more, save less, smoke more, exercise less, drink more, and eat less healthfully. Offer money management training and poor people are the last to sign up. When responding to job ads, they often write the worst applications and show up at interviews in the least professional attire.

Margaret Thatcher, the former British prime minister, once called poverty a 

Though not many politicians would go quite so far, this view that the solution resides with the individual is not exceptional. From Australia to England and from Sweden to the United States, there is an entrenched notion that poverty is something people have to overcome on their own. Sure, the government can nudge them in the right direction with incentives – with policies promoting awareness, with penalties, and, above all, with education. In fact, if there’s a perceived silver bullet in the fight against poverty, it’s a high-school diploma (or even better, a college degree).

But is that all there is to it?

What if the poor aren’t actually able to help themselves? What if all the incentives, all the information and education are like water off a duck’s back? And what if all those well-meant nudges only make the situation worse?

Amsterdam, the Netherlands, April 2013. €32; €4.83 ($6.27) for food. From the series The Poverty Line by Chow and Lin.

The power of context

These are harsh questions, but then, it’s not just anybody asking them; it’s Eldar Shafir, a psychologist at Princeton University. He and Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist at Harvard,

The gist? It’s the context, stupid.

Shafir isn’t modest in his aspirations. He wants nothing less than to establish a whole new field of science: the science of scarcity. But don’t we have that already? Economics? “We get that a lot,” laughs Shafir when I meet with him at a hotel in Amsterdam. “But my interest is in the psychology of scarcity, on which surprisingly little research has been done.”

To economists, everything revolves around scarcity – after all, even the biggest spenders can’t buy everything. However, the perception of scarcity is not ubiquitous. An empty schedule feels different to a jam-packed workday. And that’s not some harmless little feeling. Scarcity impinges on your mind. People behave differently when they perceive a thing to be scarce.

What that thing is doesn’t much matter. Whether it’s too little time, money, friendship, food – it all contributes to a “scarcity mentality”. And this has benefits. People who experience a sense of scarcity are good at managing their short-term problems. Poor people have an incredible ability – in the short term – to make ends meet, the same way that overworked CEOs can power through to close a deal.

You can’t take a break from poverty

Despite all this, the drawbacks of a “scarcity mentality” are greater than the benefits. Scarcity narrows your focus to your immediate lack – to the meeting that’s starting in five minutes, or the bills that need to be paid tomorrow. The long-term perspective goes out the window. “Scarcity consumes you,” Shafir explains. “You’re less able to focus on other things that are also important to you.”

Compare it to a new computer that’s running 10 heavy programmes at once. It gets slower and slower, makes errors, and eventually freezes – not because it’s a bad computer but because it has to do too much at once. Poor people have an analogous problem. They’re making bad decisions not because they are stupid but because they’re living in a context in which anyone would make bad decisions.

Scarcity narrows your focus to your immediate lack – to the meeting that’s starting in five minutes, or the bills that need to be paid tomorrow

Questions such as “What’s for dinner?” and “How will I make it to the end of the week?” tax a crucial capacity.

“Mental bandwidth,” Shafir and Mullainathan call it. “If you want to understand the poor, imagine yourself with your mind elsewhere,” they write. “Self-control feels like a challenge. You are distracted and easily perturbed. And this happens every day.” This is how scarcity – whether of time or of money – leads to unwise decisions.

There’s a key distinction though between people with busy lives and those living in poverty: you can’t take a break from poverty.

Singapore, May 2013. S$18.33; S$2.22 ($1.79, €1.37) for food. From the series The Poverty Line by Chow and Lin.

Just how much does poverty affect intelligence?

“Our effects correspond to between 13 and 14 IQ points,” Shafir says. “That’s comparable to losing a night’s sleep or the effects of alcoholism.” What’s remarkable is that we could have figured all this out 30 years ago. Shafir and Mullainathan weren’t relying on anything so complicated as brain scans. “Economists have been studying poverty for years and psychologists have been studying cognitive limitations for years. We just put two and two together.”

It all started a few years ago with a series of experiments conducted at a typical US mall. Shoppers were stopped to ask what they would do if they had to pay to get their car fixed. Some were presented with a $150 repair job, others with one costing $1,500. Would they pay it all in one go, get a loan, work overtime, or put off the repairs?

While the mall-goers were mulling it over, they were subjected to a series of cognitive tests. In the case of the less expensive repairs, people with a low income scored about the same as those with a high income. But faced with a $1,500 repair job, poor people scored considerably lower. The mere thought of a major financial setback impaired their cognitive ability.

Shafir and his fellow researchers corrected for all possible variables in the mall survey, but there was one factor they couldn’t resolve: the rich folks and the poor folks questioned weren’t the same people. Ideally, they’d be able to repeat the survey with subjects who were poor at one moment and rich the next.

Shafir found what he was looking for some 8,000 miles away in the districts of Vilupuram and Tiruvannamalai in rural India. The conditions were perfect. As it happened, the area’s sugarcane farmers collect 60% of their annual income all at once right after the harvest. This means they are flush one part of the year and poor the other.

So how did they do in the experiment?

At the time when they were comparatively poor, they scored substantially worse on the cognitive tests. Not because they had become less intelligent people somehow – they were still the same Indian sugarcane farmers, after all – but purely and simply because their mental bandwidth was compromised.

Hamburg, Germany, November 2011. €30.90; €4.82 ($6.61) for food. From the series The Poverty Line by Chow and Lin.

How giving money away actually saves money

“Fighting poverty has huge benefits that we have been blind to until now,” Shafir points out. In fact, he suggests, in addition to measuring our gross domestic product, maybe it’s time we also started considering our gross domestic mental bandwidth. Greater mental bandwidth equates to better child-rearing, better health, more productive employees – you name it. “Fighting scarcity could even reduce costs,” he says.

And that’s precisely what happened south of the Great Smoky Mountains. Randall Akee, an economist at the University of Los Angeles, calculated that the casino cash distributed to Cherokee kids ultimately cut expenditures. According to his conservative estimates, eliminating poverty actually generated more money than the total of all casino payments through reductions in crime, use of care facilities, and repetition of school grades.

So what can be done?

Shafir and Mullainathan have a few possible solutions up their sleeves: giving needy students a hand with all that financial aid paperwork, for instance, or providing pill boxes that light up to remind people to take their meds. This type of solution is called a “nudge”. Nudges are hugely popular with politicians, mostly because they cost next to nothing.

The casino cash distributed to Cherokee kids ultimately cut expenditures … eliminating poverty actually generated more money than all casino payments

But, honestly, what difference can a nudge really make? The nudge epitomises an era in which politics is concerned chiefly with combatting symptoms. Nudges might serve to make poverty infinitesimally more bearable, but when you zoom out, you see that they solve exactly nothing. Going back to our computer analogy, I ask Shafir: why keep tinkering around with the software when you could easily solve the problem by installing some extra memory instead?

Shafir responds with a blank look. “Oh! You mean just hand out more money? Sure, that would be great,” he laughs and mentions the evident limitations of introducing such a policy in the United States.

Granted, it would take a big programme to eradicate poverty in the US. According to economist Matt Bruenig’s calculations, it would cost $175bn. But poverty is even more expensive.

estimated the cost of child poverty at as much as $500bn a year. Kids who grow up poor end up with two years’ less education, work 450 fewer hours per year, and run three times the risk of bad health than those raised in families that are well off.

Investments in education won’t really help these kids, the researchers say. They have to get above the poverty line first.

of 201 studies on the effectiveness of financial education came to a similar conclusion: such education makes almost no difference at all. This is not to say no one learns anything – poor people can come out wiser, for sure. But it’s not enough. “It’s like teaching a person to swim and then throwing them in a stormy sea,” laments Shafir.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

“Poverty is a great enemy to human happiness; it certainly destroys liberty, and it makes some virtues impracticable, and others extremely difficult,” said the British essayist Samuel Johnson in 1782. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he understood that poverty is not a lack of character.

It’s a lack of cash.

Adapted from Rutger’s book, Utopia for Realists: and How We Can Get There.

Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore.

About the images. The Poverty Line is an ongoing project by photographer-economist duo Stefen Chow and Huiyi Lin. Between 2010 and 2020, they travelled to 36 countries to create images illustrating the daily budgets of those living in poverty. 

The captions provide the amount of money that people in a given country have to spend on a daily basis, as well as the amount that is left for food after all the other expenses are deducted. 

The images show the amount of food that can be bought for the amount that’s left over. With local newspapers as backdrops, the images are a depiction of life on the breadline in different cultural contexts, inviting the viewer to imagine a life under such difficult circumstances.
See more work by Chow and Lin here

Sydney, Australia, August 2011. A$31.08; A$7.52 ($8.02, €5.61) for food. From the series The Poverty Line by Chow and Lin.


TED Talk


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The path to success is a squiggle

Success- whatever that is, is not at the end of a predetermined linear path of must-do steps. It is much, much more to do with having made our own path to getting there- wherever that is we find ourselves in where we can say.
I’m okay with this,
I’m okay with me.

Fine article by Madeline Levine at on how, as parents we get in our kids way by insisting success means but one thing, and that they must follow the path, stay on the path, or else.

The Atlantic:

Kids Don’t Need to Stay ‘On Track’ to Succeed


A 10-year-old boy sits quietly on the sofa in my office, his legs not quite touching the floor. I ask whether he’s ever thought about what he’d like to do when he grows up. With no hesitation, he perks up and exclaims, “I want to run a start-up.” He doesn’t even know what a start-up is, but he does know, in exacting detail, the trajectory he will need to take to become wildly successful in running one. Not yet finished with middle school, he has charted the next 15 years of his life: He plans on applying to the most competitive high school in town, hoping that this will increase his odds of going to Stanford. He knows he will have to serve time as an intern, preferably at Google. He is intent on being a “winner.”

My young patient’s parents, teachers, and community are all likely to encourage this way of thinking, but they are only making his future chances of being successful less likely. In the enclaves of privilege in this country, part of the culture is more and more centered on a narrow notion of what success looks like and how to attain it. Money is overvalued, and character undervalued. The 10-year-old sitting before me is the logical outcome of this culture. He wants to be a winner, but knows nothing about the kind of work he’s signing on for.

Even if parents ascended a relatively smooth track from school to career success, it’s misguided to assume that what worked for them will be right for their kids, too. (See: the parents who push their kids to apply to their alma mater, for instance.) Encouraging children to follow a linear path makes them cautious and competitive, when what they are most likely to need are curiosity, a willingness to take risks, and a talent for collaboration.I’ve talked with people from all walks of life whose stories seem to show that it is rare to go from point A to point B without multiple detours. One of these people is Steven Kryger, who has lived a life full of sudden reversals. The first in his family to attend college, he started out at the University of Pennsylvania as a computer-engineering major before transferring to the Wharton School of Business. “I don’t think I even knew what ‘business’ meant,” he told me. “I never had any firsthand experience, because I didn’t know people in the business world.” After graduation, Kryger moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he got a position in Macy’s executive-training program. He initially enjoyed the position, but soon started to find the job unfulfilling.

“I started thinking, What would I really love to do? I figured being a fireman or law-enforcement officer would be a lot of fun,” Kryger said. So in 1988, he became an officer on the Oakland police force.

On January 20, 1993, while searching a house with his team, Kryger was shot in the thigh by a suspect. The bullet severed his femoral artery, vein, and nerve. Surgery and months of rehabilitation saved his leg, but he needed to wear a brace for physical activity. “The police department wouldn’t let me go out on the streets in that condition. They offered me a whole bunch of other positions, but I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied if I had to stay inside a building all day.” At 32, he switched careers again.

Thinking of the “amazing high-school coaches” who inspired him, Kryger met with the assistant superintendent of his school district, who advised him about the courses he’d need to complete in order to coach and teach math in the public­-school system. It took three more years of college, plus another year when he was teaching high school during the day and completing his own studies at night. But he kept at it. Two decades later, Kryger is the athletic director at Menlo­-Atherton High School, where he also teaches four math classes and coaches the boys’ varsity lacrosse team.

Kryger’s story is similar to that of Nate McKinley, who overcame a set of internal challenges before settling on the job that would become his career. McKinley started out following the path that had been set for him by his father, an international busi­nessman. He majored in global studies, with a concentration in business, choosing his classes at his father’s suggestion. After graduation, he worked at a financial institution before switching to a securities-lending start-up. At first he found the job exciting, but his enthusiasm waned after a year or so, and the three­-hour round-­trip commute seemed longer and longer. Eventually, McKinley told me, he decided he wanted to try something more challenging: “A friend brought me an old apple press, and I made my first batch of hard cider. It was revolting! So during my commute on the train, I would read about yeast, fermentation, and the hundreds of varieties of apples. My next batch of cider wasn’t gross; it was actually drinkable.”

McKinley persisted, and soon he had batches of five-gallon jugs of fermenting cider in his basement. A year or so later, he was ready to let others try his brew: “At our annual Halloween party, we had a tasting and encouraged the neighbors to bring apples to press and to have a taste. People liked it!”

McKinley was still working in Boston from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., but he often stayed up past midnight making cider. Soon he was making his first sales, to a local farm stand and a brewery. A year after McKinley went retail, he was laid off from his day job. “Although it was scary, it was a blessing in disguise. I could finally dedicate myself to my passion.”In another year, McKinley’s cider was on the menu at seven local restaurants, and his retail sales had expanded beyond nearby liquor stores and specialty shops to stores on Cape Cod. He was producing 5,000 gallons of cider annually, with plans to double production the following year. His wife, Tessa, told me, “He’s happier than he’s ever been, and as our kids make their way through school, I can’t think of a better role model.”

What exactly constitutes success is, of course, open to a world of meaning. Financial independence is one way to measure success, a sense of doing meaningful and fulfilling work is another, and raising a healthy family and contributing to one’s community yet another. Sometimes these varying definitions converge; sometimes they don’t. One of the patterns that I see regularly among people who consider themselves successful is real passion about the work they do: the kind of passion that makes them work harder than others, welcome mistakes and even failures as learning opportunities, and feel that what they do has impact. While money may be inherited, real success always has to be earned.If a linear progression tightly tied to grades, SAT scores, admittance to selective colleges, and high-­powered internships for well-­known companies were in fact the path taken by most successful people, we still would have to weigh its value against healthy child development, but at least we would have some evidence that our kids would one day benefit from all of the aggressive preparation, coaching, and tutoring. However, reality—that is, real people following real trajectories—suggests that this particular template is only modestly accurate. More often, a meandering and unexpected path is what leads to success.

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