Evolution, Life History Theory, and Consumer Behavior: Influences of Current and Childhood Environment on Financial Risk



We live in a world of known unknowns. From unpredictable terrorist attacks, to global economic turmoil, to the erratic spread of infectious diseases, many people feel that modern life is more uncertain than ever. Does this sense of capricious fate influence financial decisions? For example, does uncertainty lead people to save money for the future or to spend it all now? Integrating psychology and consumer behavior with the evolutionary framework of Life History Theory, I examined how uncertainty influenced financial decisions regarding long-term investment vs. immediate payoffs. Findings from a series of experiments showed that the influence of environmental uncertainty depended on a second critical factor: individuals’ childhood socioeconomic status. For individuals who grew up wealthy, uncertainty increased long-term investment and saving for the future. Conversely, for individuals who grew up poor, uncertainty decreased saving, producing a desire to go into financial debt to spend money now. This research shows that life-history strategies—including financial allocation decisions regarding long-term investment vs. immediate payoffs—shift as a function of unpredictability in the current environment.
Vladas Griskevicius, Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Minnesota McKnight Land-Grant Professor, has an extensive background in psychology and evolutionary theory. His research examines the ancestral roots of modern consumer behavior. Using theoretical principles from evolutionary biology, Griskevicius investigates how modern behavior is driven by ancestral motives, which often steer conscious decisions in unconscious ways. His work on conspicuous consumption and donations as a mating strategy has been recognized by the Society for Consumer Psychology and reported in The Economist. Additionally, his research on emotions, persuasion, and social norms was lauded by the Human Behavior and Evolution Society, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. The BBC, TIME magazine, and the Boston Globe have covered his research on “Going Green to Be Seen”, and his work has been published in top-tier marketing and psychology journals. Griskevicius recently received several teaching honors and a majorNational Science Foundation grant for his research, "Fundamental Motives and Decision-Making."
Contact information:
Dr. S. Puntoni