Can't Buy Happiness?

Money, personality, and well-being

Life History Explains Our Responses to Financial Recessions

Childhood stress is related to spending rather than saving as an adult.

When women are faced with competition for mates, they tend to respond by spending more money on appearance-enhancing products (i.e., clothes and cosmetics). This partly explains the phenomenon (which was first observed as long ago as the 1920s) that in down economic times, and when there are fewer high status males, sales of cosmetics — not one of life’s necessities — increase rather than decrease. Life History Theory can explain this, and the more general findings about how we react to bad economic times, phenomena. 

Biologists have long used Life History Theory to explain the different reproductive strategies animals use. There are two basic strategies. The fast strategy involves having as many offspring as possible at a young age. This strategy minimizes the investment any one animal makes in its own and its off-spring’s physical development. Think of insects, small mammals, etc, that have lots and lots of offspring, but don’t spend much energy nurturing them. This is a good strategy when being alive tomorrow is really uncertain. On the other hand, we have animals like humans, elephants, whales who spend a great deal of resource growing before becoming sexually mature,. They also spend a great deal of resource nurturing their young. Only animals that have a good chance of living long lives can afford such a strategy. This is the slow reproductive strategy.

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Thus, a key aspect of life history theory is that the lower the odds are of an animal reaching sexual maturity, the faster will be its reproductive strategy.

Life history explains, as demonstrated by Vlad Griskevicius and colleagues, why children raised in harsh and uncertain environments (e.g., poverty, abuse, war) tend to adopt faster life strategies than children raised in more secure environments. Fast-strategy children grow up to be more impulsive, take more health risks, and have sex and children at an earlier age.

One of the key findings in the life history research involving people is that these differences in strategy tend to be expressed more (and often only) when people are under threat. So, for instance, when people are confronted with loss of work and income, people with different life histories may be expected to respond differently. In their most recent study, this is what Griskevicius and colleagues showed that when people are primed (reminded, made to think about) with threats to their financial wellbeing, people who were poorer as children were more likely to respond by making more impulsive, riskier choices, whereas people from more secure backgrounds did the opposite.

It is interesting to note that in the past, one criticism of life history research with people is that actual childhood economic status might not mean a person felt insecure or unsafe as a child. Many people raised in objectively “poor” environments report having had a happy childhood, some even being unaware of their relative poverty. To overcome this legitimate concern, the researchers used a biological marker of childhood insecurity — oxidative stress — to determine which participants had had stressful, fast-strategy childhoods. Childhood stress and the hormones that stress causes to be released leave tell-tale traces that are still visible in adults, and these traces can be divined through a simple urine analysis. Whether measured by asking about childhood income or by measuring oxidative stress, childhood stress is related to spending rather than saving when faced with financial threats as an adult.

Now, it is possible that people who choose riskier, more impulsive behavior when they hear of a looming recession will be more successful than those who behave in a more thoughtful manner. But, all things being equal, it seems unlikely.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people's spending habits — how do you spend your money and who do you spend it on — and if your spending habits result in more or less happiness or change your values. We are also interested in understanding how our personalities, our life histories, and the environments we live in influence how we think about and spend money.

To learn about what might be influencing how you think about and spend money, Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then take our  a few of our spending habits (Experiential Buying ScaleMaterialistic Values Scale, and Compulsive Buying Scale) quizzes as well as a few value and personality (Dispositional Positive Emotion Scale and our Beliefs about Well-being) surveys. When you register and take a survey, you receive feedback about your spending habits, your happiness, and your values — information that could help you understand yourself and others a little more.

The article referenced above is called, “When the Economy Falters Do People Spend or Save? Responses to Resource Scarcity Depend on Childhood Environments."

Ryan T. Howell, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University.

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