The adaptive mind: Children raised in difficult circumstances show enhanced mental flexibility in adulthood

According to a stream of psychological research, a tumultuous upbringing sets you up for a raw deal later in life. Being raised in households that lack wealth or stability is associated with outcomes that include altered decision-making abilities, memory and general cognitive function. These changes are usually considered impairments, but does a bad childhood really make you less capable, or just different?

The research on decision-making, for instance, reveals “sub-optimal” decisions made by people raised in stressful environments – opting for a small reward now rather than holding out for a big one later – that actually make sense given the person’s history: if nothing is guaranteed in your world, it’s a smart decision to grab what you can now.

One way to look at this is that stressful conditions don’t lessen you so much as condition you. Chiraag Mittal, a grad student at the Carlson School of Management, and his colleagues suspected this might apply to more than decision making. They recently published an article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology where they look at cognitive function, specifically executive functioning, to see if the story isn’t only one of deficits.

Executive function is what allows us to process and manage complex behaviour, including paying attention and making decisions. In fact, it contains so many facets that Mittal’s team chose to focus on two. Inhibition is the ability to stay on task in the face of distractions, measured here by accuracy on a simple judgment task (which way points the arrow briefly flashed on-screen?) while being distracted by flashes elsewhere on-screen. This ability is associated with delaying gratification, which is less useful in real-world unpredictable contexts where the “big reward next year” may never come.

Meanwhile, the second facet they looked at, shifting, is the ability to turn from one goal to another as effortlessly as possible – here measured by the efficiency of switching from categorising on-screen targets one way then another (e.g. by colour and then by shape) on given trials, depending on the current rule. Shifting ability is an important skill for anyone living in unpredictable circumstances, and Mittal’s team predicted that adults with that background would do better at this task, and worse at the inhibition task, than those from stable backgrounds.

The data bore out these predictions – when it came to mental flexibility, people with a history of childhood adversity actually outperformed their more fortunate peers. There was a wrinkle – a small-sample replication threw up anomalies, so the researchers ran a more robust third study with 181 student participants. This confirmed the general pattern: participants who said they’d had an unpredictable early life (changes in residence, movement of other cohabitants in and out of home, and changes in parents’ employment status) performed worse at inhibition, but better at shifting. However, this effect only reared its head when the tests were preceded by a task stoking a sense of uncertainty – reading an alarming newspaper account of “Tough Times Ahead”. This fits with past research showing that effects tied to a stressful upbringing often seem only to be elicited in conditions of current unpredictability (a rule that is also true in animal research).

In a follow-up with a smaller sample, the researchers made use of an ongoing collection of data from a group of people born into poverty between 1975 and 1976 . Using recorded details on their upbringing at multiple time points between birth and ten years old, coders could produce more reliable ratings of the participants’ childhood experience of unpredictable circumstances. Due to time constraints, only shifting ability could be looked at, but again the earlier finding was replicated: when primed with uncertainty, people who had been raised in greater turmoil performed better. A meta-analysis combining the results from all four of the researchers’ studies strongly confirmed this effect.

The mental process of inhibition allows people to pursue goals and underlies the willpower to stick with things, characteristics that encourage personal success. But shifting ability is also associated with a higher-order ability that’s important in life: creativity. People from disadvantaged, unstable backgrounds undoubtedly face challenges, but this research suggests, if not a bright side, a more nuanced one. People aren’t passively victimised by their circumstances – they adapt to them, sometimes in ways that make it easier to thrive in challenging conditions.


Mittal, C., Griskevicius, V., Simpson, J., Sung, S., & Young, E. (2015). Cognitive adaptations to stressful environments: When childhood adversity enhances adult executive function. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 109 (4), 604-621 DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000028

further reading
Poverty shapes how children think about themselves
Why is poverty associated with mental health problems for some people, but not others?
Testing the American Dream – can the right mix of personality and IQ compensate for poverty?
When depressed mothers give birth to thriving babies

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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