Poverty changes your brain to make you less intelligent, study suggests

Researchers find link between low incomes and poorer brain function and say the stress of life with little money could be part of the reason; there is ‘little evidence’ to suggest falling intelligence pushes people into poverty, they add.


Falling into poverty appears to make people become less intelligent and become old before their time, according to a new study.

Researchers found life on the breadline for 20 years was “strongly associated” with “worse cognitive function” and premature aging.

And they suggested the potential causes of this phenomenon included the stress of having little money, inadequate housing and sanitation, and an unhealthy lifestyle – a poor diet, smoking, alcohol and too little exercise.

Writing in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, researchers led by Professor Adina Zeki Al Hazzouri, of Miami University, said the trend was found even among highly educated people who fell on hard times.

This, they argued, means it is unlikely that people who are becoming less intelligent for some other reason are falling into poverty.

The researchers studied information about 3,400 adults who took part in a study on heart disease. They were all 18 to 30 when the project began in 1985.

As part of that study, details about their income were recorded and they were also given tests used to detect what is known as “cognitive aging”.

“The overall magnitude of the associations suggests that economic adversities experienced in young adulthood are important determinants of cognitive health in midlife,” the paper said.

“From a mechanistic perspective, economic hardship may be on the pathway and an important contributor to clinically significant cognitive deficit and premature aging among economically disadvantaged individuals.

“Furthermore, in analyses restricted to participants with a high level of education, significant associations were still observed, suggesting little evidence that reverse causation could explain these findings.”

They put forward four different possible “pathways” in which poverty could affect people’s brains.

“First, exposure to low income and socioeconomic conditions has been associated with unhealthy behaviours, such as alcohol use, smoking, and inadequate physical activity, which are in turn risk factors for small brain infarcts and poor cognition,” the paper said.

“Second, exposure to low income may influence educational attainment and ultimately shape many of the risk factors of cognition, including adult living environment (inadequate housing and sanitation), health behaviours, and access to resources.

“Third, the stress of exposure to low income has been shown to be associated with dysfunction of the hypothalamic adrenocortical axis [glands inside the brain], which in turn is a pathway leading to worse risk factors of cognition.

“Fourth, income inequality may suggest a lack in public investment and health infrastructure, which then influence health through stress-induced mechanisms and decreased social and physical resources.”

Vegetarians Are More Intelligent And Empathetic Than Meat-Eaters

Vegetarians are more likely to have high intelligence and empathy skills, a new study found.

Although vegetarianism and veganism are becoming more popular, particularly in health-conscious areas such as LA, there are still a lot of people who have doubts over plant-based diets. However, recent studies [1] by the National Child Development Study have actually shown that more intelligent individuals are more likely to become vegetarians than their lesser-intelligent meat-loving counterparts.


The researchers used 11 different cognitive tests during their study and it was found that those who were vegetarian at age 42 had a significantly higher IQ than those who ate meat, with almost a 10-point difference in IQ results. This result isn’t just confirmed by one study, however, there have been other tests within this field that have proven the correlation between diet and intelligence.

Evolutionary Psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa [2] also looked into the relationship between Vegetarianism and high intelligence in her study which found that people who have high intelligence and empathy skills are more likely to change personal habits that affect the world around them, such as eating meat. Intelligent people are more likely to adapt to their surroundings and make conscious decisions on what they are going to eat, instead of the habits we’re conditioned to uphold from our ancestral environment.

The link between intelligence and plant-based diets doesn’t just work one way, however. Eating a well-balanced vegetarian diet can actually provide more protein than a meat-based diet and with these nutritional benefits, the body, and the brain is becoming stronger and more capable. So maintaining a plant-based diet can improve brain health, productivity, and intelligence.

Being conscious about what we eat isn’t just about consumption, cravings, and hunger, but about sustainability and with the expansion of meat production being the main cause of deforestation in the last two decades, it’s not likely that we will be able to sustain our current rates of meat consumption for much longer.

Maintaining a vegetarian diet doesn’t have to be a constant dietary requirement – sometimes you may just crave a burger. It’s about slowing down the consumption of meat and consciously making the change to preserve what we have left. To research and make a conscious decision about your diet can require intelligence and empathy so it’s easy to see where this research has come from.

So although science says vegetarians are more intelligent, that doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t be more conscious about our meat-eating habits. You can do your own research and make conscious decisions about your diet. Whatever your dietary choices, make sure you’re happy with what you’re eating.

Can You Really Be Too Attractive or Intelligent?

The expression, “You can never be too rich or too thin,” could also easily apply to cultural perceptions of beauty and intelligence. Much of the psychological literature supports the idea that people with ample quantities of both qualities are not only evolutionarily blessed, but also likely to be happier, more productive, and more successful. They find it easier to mate, have better jobs, and experience higher self-esteem—or so you might be led to believe.There are, however, some surprising problems that come with having too much of one or both of these supposedly enviable blessings.

Let’s take intelligence first: For decades, psychology defined this aptitude in terms of the ability to do well on paper-and-pencil “IQ” tests. In the late 1980s, new data emerged questioning whether this traditional approach to intelligence actually tapped into people’s ability to succeed at important life tasks. One line of studies investigated what we now call emotional intelligence (“EQ”), or the ability to understand yourself and other people, and found that children followed into adulthood who had done particularly well on tests of EQ were more successful in college than those who did well on standard IQ tests.

Along similar lines, Cornell psychologist Robert Sternberg’s notion ofpractical intelligence emphasizes “street smarts.” A person high in this quality can read other people well and solve actual problems that require solutions in the here-and-now. This individual may not score well on traditional IQ tests and, in fact, may perform quite poorly. Rather than simply learning the right answers to test questions, people high in practical intelligence can accurately judge the questions from a variety of angles. This makes it a challenge for them to pick out the one best answer on a multiple-choice test.

To capture intelligence as a multifaceted quality, including the ability to do well in school, Harvard’s Howard Gardner developed the notion of multiple intelligences. Emotional and practical intelligence are different abilities, in his view, but only part of the total picture. People can be intelligent with their bodies, in their understanding of nature, and their ability to produce and enjoy music.

Now let’s return to the question of how it is that someone can be “too” intelligent. As I’ve just shown, there may be more than one type of intelligence. If you have a choice of being smart in one or two, interpersonal sensitivity and self-understanding are probably the ones that will carry you furthest in life. However, there’s a difference betweenbeing smart and thinking you’re smart.

When high intelligence becomes part of your identity, you may fall victim to the belief that “I can do anything.” As a result, you may feel burdened by the need to realize your potential. If you’re thwarted from realizing your identity as a smart person, your world can come crashing down around you. You might also find yourself constantly looking for direction in order to find that perfect “anything.”

It’s possible that your identity as a smart person can lead you to become a bit too much of a smart-aleck. Having long been reinforced for being clever and bright, you play out this role, constantly trying to outwit everyone in your circle. You might also come to think that the only route to acceptance is to question or challenge what others around you are saying. Rather than endearing yourself to others, though, your intelligence seems like showing off, and you become a source of annoyance.

Being smart, then, can have its drawbacks particularly if your intelligence is limited to the academic and not the personal. How about appearance?


In a society that values beauty, how can anyone be too pretty or handsome? To answer this question, we can turn to a 2012 study by Swedish psychologists Jean-Cristophe Rohner and Anders Rasmussen that investigated the “physical attractiveness stereotype.”

This refers to our tendency to judge beautiful people as sharing a variety of psychological characteristics based on their looks alone. As Rohner and Rasmussen point out, “People have been associating beauty with positive qualities since the cultural ascension of the Ancient Greeks” (p. 60). Beautiful people, they argue, are perceived as nicer and more successful.

Their study examined the fascinating question of whether the physical attractiveness stereotype would lead hotel employees to view more attractive people as kinder, but also as more demanding and more likely to spend money. To test this question, they surveyed the attitudes of 113 hospitality employees at hotels along the Slovenian coastline. As they predicted, the more attractive the guest (as shown to the staff in photos), the more likely he or she was seen as fitting this stereotype.

Here, then, is an indication that being attractive might create problems for you when you’re trying to get someone to help you out. It’s not exactly a plus to be seen as wealthy and demanding—even if people do think you’re nice.

It’s possible, though, that people who are beautiful do become demanding, not because they’re the narcissistically entitled type, but because they tend to get special treatment. All they have to do is produce their dazzling smile, and others defer to their needs. Swiss psychologist Jessika Golle and colleagues (2014) found that viewers judged an attractive person who smiled as happier than a smiling person with anunattractive face. A lifetime of positive reinforcement teaches you that it works to flash your attractive smile at others when you want them do your bidding.


The problem of being too good-looking, smart, or both, boils down to a question of identity. The more you define yourself in terms of these characteristics, the more difficult it is to accept the disappointments that looks and aptitude can’t entirely prevent. Aging doesn’t help: As you get older, your beauty will, at least according to society’s standards, fade. Your mental abilities may be more resilient, but if you rest on your laurels as the child genius you once were, it will be more difficult for you to accept the reality of what you could and could not accomplish in your career.

Maintaining your mental health may be a matter of redefining yourself not solely as someone who’s attractive and smart. To gain greater self-fulfillment, learn to use your experiences to gain insight into, and to develop, the more ordinary but equally worthy aspects of your identity as a total person.


Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, “Fulfillment at Any Age,” to discuss today’s blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.



Golle, J., Mast, F. W., & Lobmaier, J. S. (2014). Something to smile about: The interrelationship between attractiveness and emotional expression.Cognition And Emotion, 28(2), 298-310. doi:10.1080/02699931.2013.817383

Rohner, J., & Rasmussen, A. (2012). Recognition bias and the physical attractiveness stereotype. Scandinavian Journal Of Psychology, 53(3), 239-246. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9450.2012.00939.x