The Upside of Unpredictability

To pursue the question of potential upsides of chaotic childhoods, Griskevicius and a team led by Chiraag Mittal focused on two elements of executive function: inhibitory control, or inhibition; and task switching, the ability to disengage from one task and pick up another. They hypothesized that people who grew up amid unpredictability would fare worse on measures of inhibition but better at task shifting, especially in situations that evoked elements of their childhood.


They primed half of their subjects to think about instability by having them read an article titled “Tough Times Ahead: The New Economics of the 21st Century”; the other half read a text about a person looking for lost keys. In computer-based challenges routinely used to measure inhibition, people who grew up in unpredictable environments showed no significant difference from their peers under the control condition of having read the article about the keys. Primed with the article about economic uncertainty, however, they performed significantly worse.

The results were different when it came to task shifting: In the control condition, the two groups performed similarly. But in the uncertainty condition, those who experienced unpredictability in childhood outperformed their privileged peers—they were faster in shifting focus without a loss of accuracy.


Developmental psychologist Bruce Ellis of the University of Utah describes this trait as the ability to “unstick yourself,” a type of cognitive flexibility that correlates positively with traits such as creativity. It may be that individuals raised in stressful environments have a greater willingness to leave something undone—a lack of perfectionism that helps them do what’s necessary without dwelling on what could have been—compared with those raised in homes with the luxury of routinely expecting perfection.


“We are not in any way suggesting or implying that stressful childhoods are positive or good for people,” Mittal and Griskevicius have insisted. Still, a closer look at the potential strengths of every individual, no matter his or her background, could help overturn stereotypes, both in the culture at large and in the minds of those who have grown up in uncertain environments that tend to foster self-doubt.


Kids who grow up feeling that nothing is under their control may turn into adults who don’t particularly value feeling in control, but that could be an asset for those making their way in a treacherous economy. Consider Steve*, a New York-based software developer whose most vivid childhood memories of Christmas involve hiding under the couch in the basement to avoid getting caught in his parents’ verbal crossfire. “They spent so much time fighting with each other that they did not have much energy left over to tend to us,” he says. Steve recalls wanting to help around the house, but never being told what to do or, when he completed chores, whether he had done an adequate job. Around age 10, he started cutting his arm with a razor blade, hoping to get attention—to no avail.


“Even during the good times there was a sense that you were on borrowed time and disaster was just around the corner,” he says. “And it always was.”

As an adult, though, Steve has proven to be highly flexible, with a willingness to take significant risks with little hesitation. He is sure that his upbringing has helped him through rough career patches. When facing big questions—where to work or how much to invest in a relationship—he has a high tolerance for ambiguity, for living in that in-between stage in which one does not know whether success or crushing failure awaits.

Evidence of other possible cognitive advantages is gradually emerging. Chiraag Mittal, now at Texas A&M, is looking into the effects of childhood environment on memory. His early findings indicate that people who grow up in unpredictable environments are better at what’s known as working memory updating; they have the ability to forget information that is no longer relevant and to attend quickly to newer data that is.


Bianchi believes that growing up with stress may promote certain forms of associative learning—the ability to recognize that multiple elements of one’s environment are connected in some way or that certain behaviors will be rewarded or punished in a given scenario. Growing up in an environment that’s constantly in flux, she says, may make people “more aware of and responsive to changes in the environment.” In the lab this means subjects may be quicker to perceive that they have been given wrong instructions to a computer game—and to change their behavior accordingly. “This would have profound implications,” Bianchi says. It means that people who are used to being able to rely on rules and to trust instructions—such as those who grow up in more stable environments—may stick with the rules even in the face of negative results. Meanwhile, those from stressful backgrounds may be quicker to explore other possibilities and stumble upon novel solutions.

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