Poverty of Thought

Eric Lis

Dr. Eric Lis is a physician, gamer, and author of the Skirmisher Publishing LLC sourcebook, Insults & Injuries.

A wise man once said that it's easier to philosophize and contemplate the secrets of the universe when your stomach is full. As with any profound statement, equally wise men and women have said basically the same thing with slightly different words throughout human history. The fact is, though, that it's true, and if you want to be really concrete about it, it comes down to a combination of two factors, because when you haven't necessarily got enough food, you have neither the biological energy to waste on philosophy, nor the freedom and leisure.

While most role-playing game systems are impressively egalitarian by suggesting that learned and powerful characters can come from pretty much any gender, ethnicity, and background, the simple fact is that in the real world, if you're poor and hungry, you're a lot less likely to obtain an advanced education, and in a medieval fantasy world, you would probably be a lot less likely to become a mage or alchemist or something. A big part of that is limited access to early childhood education in many parts of the world, even in first-world countries, which naturally makes it harder (though by no means impossible) to make education part of your life later on. Part of it is a lack of leisure; if you have to start working full time at the age of twelve, it's harder to finish high school, let alone become a nuclear physicist. A huge part of it, as we're becoming increasingly aware through research, seems to be a direct effect of poorer nutrition. Equally importantly, poorer people tend to live with a lot of little life stressors that richer people don't have. While it's certainly stressful to manage millions' of dollars worth of investments, it probably has a different effect on your brain than if you're worrying about whether the drug dealers down the street will start shooting up the neighbourhood or how you're going to pay for a child's medical bill.

A little bit less than a year ago, Science, one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, published a paper on this exact phenomenon. It was an imperfect study, and it rightly received some criticism after it was published, but it still has some important findings which are very relevant to the direction that research is moving. The authors, a team composed of British, American, and Canadian researchers from several fields, combined two studies to make a single conclusion. In one part, they set up a lab in New Jersey, brought richer and poorer people into a laboratory setting, and asked them to puzzle through a series of fictional situations involving low or high sums of money (i.e., one participant might be told that a car needs $100 of repairs while another participant might be told the repairs will cost $1000). The idea wasn't to test how good they were at solving the problems, but rather to get them thinking about their own real-life financial problems and, in no uncertain terms, to stimulate worry. While people were still in the state of worry, they were asked to complete non-verbal cognitive tasks, such as picking a shape that would complete a pattern or clicking one of two buttons depending on a stimulus. When people were presented the inexpensive financial problems, richer and poorer participants performed the same. When the problems were more expensive, poorer participants performed much worse than richer participants, as well as worse than poor participants given inexpensive cases. To rule out the possibility that the difference were due to math skills, the authors conducted the same experiments with the same numbers, but made it pure math as opposed to stories of finances, and everyone performed the same. It made no difference whether people underwent the cognitive tests during or after solving the financial puzzle. In short, once you got people thinking about their financial problems, this proved to be a bigger strain on the concentration of poorer people than richer people.

Since laboratory conditions don't always mimic the real world, particularly when you give people strange cognitive tests that might not be at all similar to their usual daily tasks, so they then went out into the field. In this case, this was quite literal... the authors went to rural India and found over 400 farmers from over 50 villages. They interviewed the farmers before their harvests, when they tended to be in much worse financial states and were carrying larger loans and debts, and after, when life was more comfortable. At both time points, they administered literacy-independent cognitive tests. Individuals performed notably worse pre-harvest, and this correlated with the farmers' perceptions of how dire their financial situations were. The farmers' diets at the times of testing didn't appear to play a role.

The authors; interpretations of these two studies is that poorer people live with a perpetual distraction that richer people don't necessarily have. The human brain has finite capacity; we can only remember so many numbers at a time, we can only pay attention to something for so long in a single sitting, and we can only focus on a certain number of tasks simultaneously. A big part of intelligence -- in role-playing game, perhaps also wisdom -- is explained by just how large those capacities are in a given individual. The authors argue that poorer people live every day with a higher baseline "cognitive load" and that they therefore have fewer resources left over to deal with life's challenges. The authors go on to argue that the effect sizes they saw were equivalent to knocking about thirteen points off of someone's IQ, or the change you see in someone suffering from sleep deprivation or who's mildly intoxicated, but this is largely speculation on their part and wasn't something they actually measured.

In a medieval fantasy setting, many people are poor. Many of our characters come from farming villages or, for that matter, slums. Even if financially comfortable, many of our characters don't always know where their next meal is coming from, or even if they'll eat on a given day. These stresses are draining for people, and any sort of omnipresent worry makes it harder to use your brain to tackle other problems with maximum efficiency. It may be harder for a farmer to become an archmage, on top of all the other challenges, because planning for a harvest makes it harder to study. In all ways, when you get right down to it, it's easier to me an adventurer when you're well-fed.