Ideas can mean the difference between wealth and poverty


Adam Smith never said that “The real tragedy of the poor is the poverty of their aspirations”, as some people who have never read him think. It is hard to think of a less Smithian view – he was the opposite of that quote's patrician and patronising voice, and had a deep compassion for people who had been unlucky in life. But there is some evidence that disadvantaged people underinvest their savings at a huge cost to themselves. This seems to be true even when there are no social constraints or market failures that might cause this to happen.

One reason for this may simply be that poor people do not realise that the investment opportunities exist, or do not really consider that they might benefit from them. Consider those bright young students from deprived backgrounds who have never even considered applying to university, just because nobody in their families ever has either. Your experience of the world shapes how you react to various opportunities that you get.

To test this hypothesis, a group of researchers at Oxford performed a controlled trial in remote Ethiopian villages, where they showed one of several one-hour documentaries about poor Ethiopian farmers who had expanded a business, improved their farming practices or broken cultural norms by, say, marrying for love. “Individuals succeeded largely through their own efforts and by drawing on assistance from community members and available resources, not through outside government or NGO intervention.”

The trial involved a placebo group (shown a comedy movie) and a control group (shown nothing at all) and it seems to have been a success. Six months after the screenings, the documentary group’s savings rate had risen significantly above the control group’s and had also begun to access credit at a higher rate. (These are some of the poorest people in the world, so the absolute amounts – a few pounds – may seem very small to our eyes.)

School enrolment was up by 15 percent in the documentary group, although it was also up by 10 percent in the placebo group so the effect is unclear, and spending on school expenses was up by 17% (compared to no change in the placebo group).

Overall, the results seem to show that showing extremely poor people examples of people like them who had made something of themselves inspired them to invest in themselves and their families.

It’s just one study, but it hints at something bigger. Incentives matter, of course, but you have to be aware of the existence of an incentive for it to work on you. Even if you’re aware of it, you might discount (or exaggerate) its significance according to your experiences. In a complex world, each of us uses a different pair of glasses to focus on what matters and filter out what doesn't. And no pair is perfect.

There is no obvious public policy lesson from any of this, except perhaps that people don’t always react predictably to incentives. Incentives matter – but so do ideas.