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Growing up poor affects behavior under economic uncertainty: people from poor families become impulsive

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Posted August 25, 2014
Picture: Two youths in a neighborhood of poor people. Author: Danny Lyon. Year: 1942. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Picture: Two youths in a neighborhood of poor people. Author: Danny Lyon. Year: 1942. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

American scientists reveal that behavior under economic uncertainty is linked to a childhood environment. Interestingly, people coming from families of lower socioeconomic status become more impulsive when the economic future is not clear. Meanwhile, individuals raised in more affluent families become less spontaneous during such situations.

„Sense of control is a psychological driver of behaviors associated with fast and slow life history strategies,“ authors of this study Chiraag Mittal and Vladas Griskevicius claim.

All of us have limited resources. However, we allocate them differently. These differences are explored by so called life history theory. According to this theory individuals face a tradeoff between somatic and reproductive efforts. „Whereas somatic effort is like building a savings account, reproductive effort is like spending from that account in ways to improve the likelihood of immediate reproductive success,“ psychologists explain.

Such tradeoffs are solved using different life history strategies. Some individuals use slow strategies. They delay immediate rewards in order to gain larger payoffs in the future. Meanwhile others try to get fast gratification. Of course, most of us are somewhere in between. Although it is commonplace to praise slow strategies, goodness of the strategy depends on the environment.

„Faster strategies are adaptive in environments that are harsh and unpredictable. Because the future is uncertain and delayed payoffs may never be realized in such environments, it is adaptive for organisms to enact faster strategies that increase the odds of reproducing sooner,“ researchers explain. When, future is predictable slow strategies become evolutionary beneficial.

Current study replicates the results of previous research and confirm that people coming from poor families become hot-headed under economic uncertainty. In contrast, individuals who had more affluent childhood behave calmly. However, psychological mechanism underlying these observations remained unknown until now.

Series of experiments carried out by Mittal and Griskevicius demonstrate that these differences are caused by divergences in the sense of control. „Five experiments showed that environmental uncertainty changes people’s behavior by altering their sense of control. Uncertainty led people from poor childhoods to feel that they have less control, but it led people from wealthy childhoods to feel that they have more control,“ scientists say.

Article: Mittal, C., & Griskevicius, V., 2014, Sense of Control Under Uncertainty Depends on People’s Childhood Environment: A Life History Theory Approach. Journal of Personalityand Social Psychology, source link.

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