The study, published in the journal Science, suggested a person's thinking and reasoning ability could be diminished by the exhausting effort of tasks like scrounging to pay bills and surviving from day-to-day. As a result, less "mental bandwidth" remains for education, training, time-management and other steps that could help break out of the cycles of poverty, the study said.
Jiaying Zhao of the University of British Columbia, who conducted the study as a graduate student at Princeton University, said poverty consumes so much mental energy that those in poor circumstances have little remaining brainpower to concentrate on other areas of life.
As a result, those with few resources are more likely to make bad decisions that perpetuate their financial woes, Zhao said.
"Previous accounts of poverty have blamed the poor for their personal failings, or an environment that is not conducive to success," Zhao said in a statement.
"We're arguing that being poor can impair cognitive functioning, which hinders individuals' ability to make good decisions and can cause further poverty."
In one set of experiments, the researchers found worrying about financial concerns had an immediate negative impact on the ability of low-income individuals to perform on common cognitive and logic tests.