Dr. Vlad Griskevicius, March 3, 2017

Can Growing Up in a Stressful Environment Enhance Decision Making in Adulthood?

Can growing up in a stressful childhood environment enhance certain mental abilities? Most evidence thus far suggests the answer is no. People who grow up in stressful environments tend to score lower on tests of intelligence, memory, and other important cognitive abilities. This reduced performance is often assumed to imply that exposure to early-life stress impairs general mental functioning. But rather than impairing cognitive functioning, another possibility is that childhood adversity could be shaping cognition in adaptive ways. I present experimental evidence showing that growing up in unpredictable childhood environments can improve some types of executive functioning in adulthood. Importantly, these positive effects of adverse childhood environments emerged only when adults were tested in uncertain contexts. This catalyst suggests that some individual differences related to early-life experience manifest themselves under conditions of uncertainty. These findings indicate that adverse childhood environments do not universally impair mental functioning, but can actually enhance specific mental abilities in the face of uncertainty.