A randomized experiment among poor entrepreneurs tested the impact of exogenously inducing higher financial aspirations. In theory, raising aspirations could have positive effects by inducing higher effort, but could also reduce effort if unmet aspirations lead to frustration. Treatment resulted in more ambitious savings goals, but nearly all individuals fell far short of reaching these goals. Two years later, treated individuals had not saved more, and actually had lower borrowing and business investments. Treatment also reduced belief in the amount of control over one's life. Setting aspirations too high can lead to frustration, leading individuals to reduce their economic investments.
Can raising the aspirations of the poor help them escape poverty? Theoretically, sub-optimally low aspirations could arise through a behavioral bias (Dalton et al., 2016). Aspirations spur individuals to work harder, but when determining their effort level, people fail to account for how realized outcomes will affect future aspirations and hence future effort. This “aspirations failure” may cause a behavioral poverty trap: poverty begets lower aspirations, which keeps individuals in poverty. In the absence of other binding constraints, simply inducing the poor to set higher aspirations can help them break out of the poverty trap. This “mindset” approach has been the focus of bestselling financial self-help books such as Secrets of the Millionaire Mind (Eker, 2005) and Rich Dad, Poor Dad (Kiyosaki, 2017). In the developing country context, Ray (1998) was first to highlight the potential for poverty traps due to sub-optimally low aspirations (see also Appadurai (2004), Ray (2006), Duflo (2012) and Lybbert and Wydick (2018)).
There is, however, a potential downside to encouraging higher aspirations. If aspirations are set too high, individuals may fail to reach their goals, and become frustrated. This frustration could lead people to reduce their economic investments (Genicot and Ray, 2017, 2020). Furthermore, frustration could have lasting negative consequences if it affects consequential psychological factors, such as the perceived ability to control one’s life outcomes.
Encouraging small-scale entrepreneurs to increase their financial aspirations did lead individuals to set higher savings goals, but most individuals failed to achieve their goals. Two years after the treatment, treated individuals had no higher savings, and – strikingly – were borrowing substantially less (in total and from the partner microfinance institution). The aspirations treatment also led to lower business investment. Genicot and Ray (2017, 2020) emphasize that, in theory, setting higher aspirations may lead to higher economic investments, but failure to achieve aspirations may lead to frustration, and a decline in economic investments. Our results provide empirical support for this theory. Aspirations should therefore be set high, but not too high. The aspirations treatment we study may have set individuals’ goals too high to be achievable, leading to discouragement and a decline in investments. We also find that the aspirations treatment reduced internal locus of control. This is an outcome of interest in itself, and it may also be an additional mechanism through which the ultimate negative impacts on investment arose.
Our findings also highlight important ethical considerations for development programs as well as research studies that seek to raise aspirations. When we initiated this study in 2012, there was little recognition in the aspirations literature that an intervention raising aspirations could potentially have a negative effect. In the subsequent decade, the theoretical literature (Genicot and Ray, 2017, 2020) and non-experimental studies (Janzen et al., 2017, Bloem, 2021) highlighted the possibility that aspirations could have negative effects if they are set too high. Our findings, providing causal evidence based on a randomized controlled trial, should considerably strengthen concerns that aspirational interventions could have negative effects in practice.