Will economic uncertainty make you save more — or spend more? The answer may depend on your childhood experience, a new study suggests.
The research, published in Psychological Science could help explain why poverty can sometimes be so difficult to escape. In two different experiments, researchers led by Vladas Griskevicius of the University of Minnesota studied people who had been raised either in relative financial comfort in middle or upper class households or had had some childhood experience with poverty. In the first experiment, 168 people were shown either images of the current recession—such as houses displaying foreclosure signs and people standing in long unemployment lines— or pictures of natural scenes.
They were then asked to make 20 choices, which involved deciding whether they preferred to receive either a small amount of money — $30 — the day after the experiment or a larger amount — $41 — a month later. Another task involved choosing between a guaranteed reward of small amounts of cash or gambling on getting larger, but uncertain monetary rewards later.
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People who had viewed the nature scenes— no matter what their background— tended to choose later, larger rewards and make safe choices rather than gambling. But among those who had first viewed recession images, the wealthier and poorer participants made diverging choices: the better-off participants increased their tendency to go for long term over short term gain, while the poorer ones chose more immediate rewards and made more risky gambles.
The second experiment involved 61 participants who either read a purported New York Times article headlined “Tough Times Ahead: The New Economics of the 21st Century” or an article that appeared as if it came from a similarly reputable source, and, like the first, was also unpleasant and, in addition, potentially boring. It detailed a tale of someone’s lengthy search for lost keys.
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Participants then performed a task designed to measure the appeal of certain branded luxury items such as Rolex watches, Gucci clothing or accessories, or Porsches. The volunteers were shown images of these items, and had to move a lever that would simulate either approaching the object or avoiding it as quickly as possible. The task is a standard method for tracking how attracted people are to certain objects; in previous studies the response times correlated well to real life actions: alcoholics, for example, tended to approach drinks faster than those who weren’t addicted.
Again, only the people who had seen the economically troubling article showed differences related to their upbringing. Those who had grown up comfortably were slower to approach the luxury goods after being cued to consider the bad economy, while those who had experienced poverty were faster to move towards them.
What could explain how childhood poverty leads people to risk resources and settle for short term gain when it seems more logical to act cautiously with money? The researchers suggest that while this type of action seems foolish economically, it may reflect a deeper evolutionary survival strategy. In biology, focusing on short term gains can be the key to survival under conditions of scarcity.
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Previous studies have shown that when facing an uncertain environment where the risk of early death is high, organisms ranging from rats to humans tend to mature earlier sexually, reproduce at a younger age and even show signs of aging more rapidly. This “live fast, die young” strategy can be successful under such conditions: “spending” your energy rapidly when you aren’t likely to have much time to do so will pay off in the form of leaving offspring more often than waiting will. “Early life environments characterized by higher levels of unpredictability… lead people to enact faster strategies, which speeds up the timing of their physiological development and sexual maturation,” the authors write.
Studies involving human subjects also support the role of uncertainty in changing risk calculations. In the well-known “marshmallow test”— where children have to choose between one treat now or two treats later — their decisions are influenced by how reliable the delivery of previous rewards was by the researchers.
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While the implications on financial decisions may not seem as profound as those for evolutionary development, the scientists say their results may lead to deeper understanding of why people seem to get caught in a cycle of poverty. If those who have experienced social hardships are more inclined to take bigger economic gambles, then an environment in which financial organizations are ever-ready with loans, at high interest rates, can prove ruinous for the borrowers in the long run. “These findings underscore that behaviors that might appear foolish or irrational from an economic perspective can be deeply rational from an evolutionary perspective,” the authors write. Appreciating that deeper reason behind why some people spend what they do may lead to more effective ways of helping them save.