Monday, July 4, 2022

Environmental harshness and unpredictability, life history, and social and academic behavior of adolescents in nine countries

Chang, L., Lu, H. J., Lansford, J. E., Skinner, A. T., Bornstein, M. H., Steinberg, L., Dodge, K. A., Chen, B. B., Tian, Q., Bacchini, D., Deater-Deckard, K., Pastorelli, C., Alampay, L. P., Sorbring, E., Al-Hassan, S. M., Oburu, P., Malone, P. S., Di Giunta, L., Tirado, L. M. U., & Tapanya, S. (2019). Environmental harshness and unpredictability, life history, and social and academic behavior of adolescents in nine countries. Developmental Psychology, 55(4), 890–903.

Abstract: Safety is essential for life. To survive, humans and other animals have developed sets of psychological and physiological adaptations known as life history (LH) tradeoff strategies in response to various safety constraints. Evolutionarily selected LH strategies in turn regulate development and behavior to optimize survival under prevailing safety conditions. The present study tested LH hypotheses concerning safety based on a 6-year longitudinal sample of 1,245 adolescents and their parents from 9 countries. The results revealed that, invariant across countries, environmental harshness, and unpredictability (lack of safety) was negatively associated with slow LH behavioral profile, measured 2 years later, and slow LH behavioral profile was negatively and positively associated with externalizing behavior and academic performance, respectively, as measured an additional 2 years later. These results support the evolutionary conception that human development responds to environmental safety cues through LH regulation of social and learning behaviors.

Keywords: fast and slow life history strategy; environmental harshness; unpredictability; externalizing; academic performance; child and adolescent development

It seems impulsivity doesn't evolve in response to childhood environmental harshness

Can impulsivity evolve in response to childhood environmental harshness? Atsushi Kometani, Yohsuke Ohtsubo. Evolutionary Human Sciences, Volume 4, May 24 2022, e21. DOI:

Abstract: Previous studies have suggested that human impulsivity is an adaptive response to childhood environmental harshness: individuals from families of low socioeconomic status (SES) tend to be more impulsive. However, no studies have tested the evolvability of this reaction norm. This study examined whether (a) impulsivity is associated with higher fitness among individuals from low SES families, while (b) it is associated with lower fitness among individuals from high SES families. We assessed three indices of impulsivity (temporal discounting, risk taking and fast/slow life history strategy), childhood SES and five proxy indices of fitness (number of children, lifelong singlehood, annual household income, subjective SES and life satisfaction) of 692 middle-aged participants (40–45 years old). None of the results supported the evolvability of the impulsivity reaction norm, although low childhood SES was associated with lower fitness on every proxy measure. Impulsivity (operationalised as the fast life history strategy) was associated with lower fitness regardless of childhood SES.


We examined the evolvability of the impulsivity reaction norm. Although the results confirmed the basic presumption that childhood economic harshness adversely influenced participants’ later fitness, none of the other results supported the impulsivity reaction norm's evolvability: when operationalised as risk-taking tendency, impulsivity was associated with higher fitness among individuals with high, but not low, childhood SES (this pattern, however, was not replicated in our subsequent unpublished study including only male participants). When operationalised by Mini-K score, it was associated with lower fitness regardless of childhood SES.

The present study failed to replicate the results of previous studies (Griskevicius et al., Reference Griskevicius, Ackerman, CantĂș, Delton, Robertson, Simpson and Tybur2013). In particular, childhood SES was not significantly associated with either risk taking or temporal discounting. Given the robust association between childhood SES and BCD (Pepper & Nettle, Reference Pepper and Nettle2017), the present study's operationalisation of impulsivity might have provided inadequate indices of impulsivity. For example, one could argue that the temporal discounting and risk-taking tasks should have been incentivised (but see Amir et al., Reference Amir, Jordan and Rand2018, which reported no systematic differences between incentivised and non-incentivised risk-taking tasks). Mishra et al. (Reference Mishra, Barclay and Sparks2017) recently proposed a model of risk-taking (relative state model) that distinguishes two types of risk-taking behaviours, need-based and ability-based risk-taking; the former is motivated by poor environments, while the latter is motivated by superior abilities (i.e. the prospect of successful risk-taking). In future studies, it is worthwhile not only to incentivise risk-taking tasks but also to distinguish subtypes of risk-taking and impulsivity based on such a nuanced model.

One limitation is that we assessed fitness in a modern, industrialised society that is largely different from the environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA). For example, if low SES conditions in contemporary Japan are still more benign compared with harsh conditions in EEA, the present study may not be a fair test of the hypothesised phenotypic plasticity. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that childhood SES was in fact positively associated with every measure of fitness in this study. Moreover, careful analyses revealed some comparability of the modern and ancestral environments (i.e. positive association between wealth and the number of children in both modern and ancestral environments; Nettle & Pollet, Reference Nettle and Pollet2008). Nevertheless, this particular result does not necessarily imply that the comparability between the modern and ancestral environments extends to other aspects. For example, one could argue that impulsivity is an effective strategy for disadvantaged individuals only in EEA but not in the modern environment. Since there is a wide range of differences between the modern environment and EEA, or the so-called evolutionary mismatch problem (Li et al., Reference Li, van Vugt and Colarelli2018), it is informative to replicate this study in populations that maintain traditional lifestyles.

We admit that this study does not disprove the evolvability of human reaction norms as a whole. This study only tested the evolvability of impulsivity in response to childhood economic harshness. There are other independent and dependent variables that have attracted researchers’ attention in the context of life history theory in psychology. For example, timing of puberty and parental strategies are oft-studied life history traits (i.e. dependent variables), and childhood mortality/morbidity and unpredictability are oft-studied environmental (independent) variables (Ellis et al., Reference Ellis, Figueredo, Brumbach and Schlomer2009). Therefore, future studies need to include a wider range of measures of childhood environments and life history traits in order to fully test the evolvability of any form of phenotypic plasticity in response to early environments.

In summary, this study does not reveal any evidence of the evolvability of the impulsivity reaction norm in response to childhood economic harshness. Therefore, we urge researchers to critically assess the impulsivity reaction norm, especially whether the adaptationist explanation is better supported by empirical data than by-product explanations.