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Why Some People Spend More Impulsively during Tough Economic Times

How much we had growing up affects us for life
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Times of recessions often cause people to tighten their purse strings. During the 2007-2009 recession, more than half of Americans experienced some type of economic hardship, such as the loss of a job or a reduction of hours. As a result, overall spending decreased in luxuries like vacations and alcohol, and necessities such as food. Some people even moved back in with their parents.

However, while some people returned to their childhood home to conserve money, recent research actually suggests that for some people, childhood conditions not only shape our spending decisions, but actually cause some people to spend more impulsively in times of a recession. This is the suggestion of recent research led by Vladas Griskevecius from the University of Minnesota and Joshua Ackerman from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a series of studies, they found that, ironically, people raised in an environment low in economic resources make riskier and less conservative choices when reminded of recessions, regardless of their current economic status.

In an initial study, half of participants were shown a series of images related to the recession (for example, pictures of home foreclosure signs or unemployment signs) while the other half viewed more neutral images. Next were two financial decision making tasks – one in which participants made a series of choices between a smaller amount of money immediately or a larger amount of money 33 days after the experiment (e.g., a preference for $30 now or $41 in 33 days), and one in which participants made a series of choices between a smaller amount of guaranteed money or a gamble for a larger amount of money (e.g., $30 for sure or a 54% chance of $50).

The amount of economic resources participants had when growing up – and not how well off they were at the time of the experiment– turned out to be a key factor in shaping these decisions. Among those initially shown the images related to the recession, those raised in an environment poor in economic resources were more likely to choose a smaller amount of money and more likely to choose a risky gamble than those raised in a more well-off environment. However, this was not true for those who initially viewed the neutral images, suggesting that there is something particular about recessions that makes childhood loom large.

This was confirmed in two additional studies. In the second study, participants first read either a news article about the recession or an article about a different topic. Next was a task assessing participants’ affinity for luxury goods. Among only those who read the article about the recession, participants raised in a resource-poor environment had a stronger preference for luxury goods than those raised in a more resource-rich environment. A third study also showed that those raised in a resource-poor environment make riskier gambles, but this time, instead of asking participants about their childhood background, it was measured via the level of oxidative stress in a urine sample, a known marker of childhood environment. Again, current level of economic resources was not a factor in how people responded after being reminded of the recession in either study.

These findings are striking because they suggest that childhood conditions loom over us into adulthood--even being more important than current conditions. Not only that, but since childhood conditions only shaped decisions when people were initially reminded of the recession, these findings also suggest that when times are tough childhood conditions can cause us to make the exact wrong decisions.

But why is this? The authors suggest that these findings are tied to an evolutionary strategy gone awry. Their work was inspired by life history theory, a theory from evolutionary biology stating that organisms have to make trade-offs when deciding how to allocate resources (e.g., food, money) in order to maximize reproductive fitness. Some organisms develop fast strategies characterized by a striving for short-term gains without regard for long-term consequences, while other organisms develop slow strategies characterized by long-term planning and delaying payoffs.

Other research has shown that this principle has wide-reaching consequences for people, especially with regards to the development cycle and reproductive behavior of people from different economic classes. People from more economically poor backgrounds develop “faster” strategies than those from more economically rich backgrounds, and as a result puberty begins earlier, sexual behavior begins earlier, relationships are more casual, and impulsivity is higher.

Recent work by Griskevecius and colleagues started to take this idea one step further and introduced the idea that these strategies developed earlier in life shape reactions to stress later in life. For example, In one study, they found that, when reminded about their own mortality, people raised in a resource-poor environment report wanting to have children sooner, while those raised in a more resource-rich environment report wanting to put off having children. These recession studies take this one step further by showing that strategies learned in childhood can shape later decisions, even when the decision might be inappropriate and financially costly.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to NewYorker.com. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.

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