Your Childhood Environment Predicts Whether You Spend or Save in Times of Economic Scarcity

People who have grown up in poorer families are more impulsive, take more risks and approach temptations more quickly under conditions of economic uncertainty.

What is the most adaptive response when resources are scarce? Is the best response to save money for the future or to spend it for immediate gains? It seems rational to decrease spending and increase savings.

New experimental research by Griskevicious and colleagues (2013) suggests that a person’s childhood environment predicts his or her psychological and behavioural response to economic scarcity.

The authors draw on evolutionary theory to explain this. They distinguish between slow and fast life-history strategies. People who have grown up in families with low socioeconomic statuses are more likely to enact a fast life-history strategy.

At the psychological level, fast strategies are associated with short-term opportunism, whereas slow strategies are associated with long-term planning, delay gratification and future payoff. Whether a fast or slow strategy is adaptive depends on the environment that a person has grown up in.

In evolutionary terms, harsh environments, characterized by unpredictability and resource scarcity, lead people to enact faster strategies. For example, in environments with high mortality rates, people tend to have their first child at an earlier age. In these environments, it is an (evolutionary) adaptive response to be speed up both physiological development and sexual maturation.

Griskevicious and colleagues (2013) conducted three experimental studies. The authors found that participants, who grew up wealthier, reacted to economic scarcity with less risky and impulsive behaviours, and they were slower to approach temptations,  and they saved their money in contrast to people who grew up poorer.

However, when the participants did not experience cues to economic scarcity, only few differences were found between these two groups of people.  So people’s childhood backgrounds only predicted the participants’ behaviours when resource scarcity cues were present.

In an experiment, the authors also found that people’s stress levels (oxidative stress) predicted whether they had a fast or a slow life-history strategy. People, who had higher levels of oxidative stress, responded to resource scarcity by taking more risks, i.e. they had faster strategies.

Image: Parée