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Research suggests that poverty reduces our ability to pursue long-term goals, but it is yet unclear how this effect occurs. Does poverty make temptations greater, and self-control failures more frequent? Or do agents respond to poverty’s harsher conditions by abandoning their long-term aspirations, choosing shorter-term goals instead? To our knowledge there is no direct test of these two possible mechanistic explanations. Using a method that allows us to take ‘psychological snapshots’ of everyday experiences, we will map out the influence of context on people’s decision-making process, in order to better understand the mechanisms of self-control in contexts if poverty.

Our study will include the most diverse population yet in self-control studies: people from high and low SES backgrounds in urban Colombia. It will allow us to advance toward answering the Big Question ‘What are the virtues?’ by providing new insights into how the virtue of self-control manifests in poverty contexts. We will also contribute to answering the Big Question ‘How can we flourish?’ by identifying which strategies, skills, and support conditions are most effective for fostering flourishing in the midst of scarcity and hardship.

The project’s main activities are an experience sampling study of self-control in diverse populations in Colombia, and a research seminar where leading experts in the field will guide teams of Latin American researchers in developing robust research projects on character virtues, the most promising of which will be given seed funding.

We will build research capacity in Latin America by developing a research workflow to use experience sampling methods to study diverse populations in the region; training researchers in the region to use cutting-edge tools to study the virtues; and mentoring them to design and fund their own research. The project will have impact beyond academia by providing insights into how to foster flourishing in contexts of scarcity.