New voters look a lot like Yes voters

The Scottish independence referendum has produced an amazing engagement with democracy. Since 2011, the majority of eligible voters who weren’t on the electoral register have now registered. They make up over 7% of the electorate. So who are they?

Looking at the groups who are traditionally least likely to be registered gives some clues. According to reports by the Electoral Commission cited here, people renting accommodation from private landlords are much more likely to be unregistered than owner-occupiers. Relatedly, 16-24 year-olds, students and people who have moved recently are less likely to be registered.

This profile looks promising for the Yes campaign. In canvassing returns, home owners are much less likely than private renters to support independence. And poll results consistently show that Yes voters predominate in younger age groups. Lower socioeconomic status (SES) also predicts Yes support, and it can be inferred from the other characteristics of unregistered voters that they are more likely to have low SES. So most newly registered voters fit the mould of typical Yes voters.

The big unknown is whether the polls are taking this new chunk of the electorate into account, let alone people who were already registered but have never or rarely voted before. Criticisms include phone surveys only calling landlines – this would seem to exclude renters, young people and low SES groups who tend to rely more on mobile phones. YouGov’s online panel is a self-selecting group who are presumably already interested in politics, the opposite of people who have never voted.

The polls do of course weight their results to boost the numbers of under-represented groups in their sample. But can this really be accurate when none of a certain social group is present in the sample to begin with?

Support for independence is higher in almost every social group with less power, influence and opportunity – people who are younger, less well off, less well educated, renting. Traditionally they haven’t had a voice, and so have been largely ignored by mainstream politics and media. But the beauty of a referendum is that one vote is worth the same as every other. And the nature of inequality is that advantage is accumulated by a small minority. If turnout is high enough on the 18th, the disadvantaged majority will vote for independence.

By Breck MacGregor

Why older voters are not the key battleground in the independence referendum

The only age group in which a majority say they will vote No is 60+. It’s a heavy majority at that – 59% No to 36% Yes with 5% undecided in the latest YouGov poll – which explains why it tips the balance to give No an overall lead. This generational divide has led some to say the Yes campaign should focus on older voters as the key battleground in the referendum. But there are numerous reasons to believe that this would be the wrong strategy.

Pragmatically, older voters are more likely to use postal votes, and so a disproportionate number of the 60+ vote will already have been cast. 1 in 6 votes are postal in the referendum, a sizeable chunk of the electorate. There are fewer undecided voters too, with the last three You Gov polls having 4-8% of this age group as undecideds, compared to 9-13% of 25-39 year olds.

The polls indicate that the Yes gains are coming both from undecided voters and soft No voters, but there may be less prospect of older soft No voters changing their minds. As Mike Smithson pointed out on Political Betting: “We also know from other polling that the older you are the less likely it is that you will change your mind. That relates to all elections and not just the referendum.”

Is it just an age thing that makes older voters more likely to vote no – a desire to hold on to the status quo? The size of the fall-off in support for independence argues against this. It seems unlikely that so many current 40-59 year-olds will change their minds as they pass 60.

Growing up in the second world war and the ‘golden age’ that followed may have ingrained a sense of Britishness, and more importantly a sense of success and achievement with it. The building of the welfare state including the NHS alongside low unemployment and economic growth defined the early part of today’s pensioners’ lives. Many will have been established in jobs for life by the time the economy faltered.

By contrast, the Thatcher era dominated the early lives of many under 60s, which will inevitably colour their perception of Britishness. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon recognised this when mentioning Maggie within the first minute of their respective TV debate contributions.

For the reasons above, the 60+ No vote may be more immune to persuasion. It would certainly seem risky to focus on this age group at the expense of others.

By Breck MacGregor Tagged

‘Troubled families’

The term ‘troubled families’ covers a multitude of sins. It refers to both the social problems the families are victim to, and the trouble that the families themselves cause in their communities. The balance of emphasis is presumably down to your own political viewpoint.

The current government has announced that there are more families which fall under their definition of ‘troubled’ than previously thought. The proposed solution is to carry on with the programme of intensive interventions that aim to turn troubled families around. This style of intervention works – families in the programme are twice as likely to stop anti-social behaviour. But there is no attempt to tackle the underlying causes, and prevent families from falling into the category in the first place.

When you look at the government’s criteria, this is surprising. Most of them stem from structural issues, over which families have little control – being on a low income, unable to afford basics, poor housing, and parents with no qualifications. The intervention must then focus on the ‘trouble’ the families cause, rather than that they find themselves in. It’s the usual suspects: antisocial behaviour, domestic violence, and poor health behaviours.

But when they throw things like obesity and chronic disease at an early age into the mix, you blur the line between personal responsibility and the influence of outside factors. This may be just the point; to blame poverty on the poor. Of course both societal and individual factors are important determinants of social problems. But rather than being alternatives, they represent different levels of explanation.

‘Troubled families’ are people who have ended up on a very fast life history strategy. The social problems they experience map perfectly onto the traits identified in the life history theory literature. For instance, the government report aims to get children back into school, reduce youth crime and antisocial behaviour, and ‘put adults on a path back to work’. Domestic violence, and drug and alcohol abuse is also associated with troubled families. Compare these issues with those quoted in a paper on life history theory:

“For example, people who exhibit criminal and delinquent behaviours also tend to abuse legal or illegal substances, experience familial problems, such as familial distress, father absence, unemployment or underemployment, drop out of school, and exhibit social distress, teen pregnancy, and psychopathology.” – Figueredo et al. (2006)

This is in no way surprising – the link between the fast strategy and deprivation is iron-clad – and ‘troubled families’ is just a rebranding of the poorest in society.

The problems which people seem to bring upon themselves make a tragic sense when viewed through the lens of life history theory. Parenting functions to prepare children for adulthood. If all you have experienced in life is harsh conditions and poor relationships, it makes sense (evolutionarily) to prepare your children for the same. This is how we evolved to deal with adversity. It’s just that in modern societies, only some people experience adversity, leaving the rest uncomprehending of the consequences.

The academic literature on life history theory recognises that many social problems fall within its purview. To quote Figueredo et al. (2006):

“The social and behavioural literature indicates that many behavioural traits commonly considered “social problems” in modern industrial society occur in such clusters…[Life History Theory] construes such clusters to be coordinated arrays of contingently adaptive life-history traits.”

The message is that what is considered problem behaviour is in fact our default response to deprivation. Unfortunately, this message hasn’t been communicated to policymakers who could use it as a powerful tool to prevent problems developing. Of course some existing policies are consistent with the implication from life history theory that reducing poverty will have manifold benefits. But their case could be considerably strengthened by a wider understanding of the behavioural syndrome which underlies such a range of social problems.

The strength of the link between the fast life history strategy and social problems, and the variety of separate research fields it has been identified in, suggests that no amount of remedial effort can fully negate it. What actually troubles deprived families, and society in general, is the fast life history strategy.

Why inequality undermines societies – an evolutionary perspective

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This article originally appeared on Contributoria, at .

The level of economic inequality within countries has been linked to a range of worse health and social outcomes. Evidence from the evolutionary behavioural sciences of how we have evolved to react to our environment may shed light on why we fail to flourish under extreme inequality.

Five years ago The Spirit Level was published, bringing into the mainstream the evidence on the harms of economic inequality. The two academics behind the book, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, drew on research in the various social science disciplines involved in their day jobs. They went beyond their own field of social epidemiology to show that more unequal societies are not only less healthy, but have worse outcomes on myriad other measures. It’s worth listing these to emphasise the diversity of inequality’s ill effects: infant mortality, child wellbeing, educational attainment, teenage births, social mobility, obesity, mental health, drug abuse, trust, altruism and cooperation, violence and homicide, imprisonment, foreign aid, and environmental sustainability. In the years since the book was published, inequality has become a major political issue internationally.

The explanations which are put forward to explain the effects of inequality usually focus on our immediate responses. Biologically, our levels of stress hormones rise; behaviourally, we become more prone to compete and be aggressive with others; psychologically, we become anxious and obsessed with our social status. But that’s where most explanations stop asking why – short of asking ‘why do we respond in these ways to inequality?’ On one level, it’s sufficient to know the proximate causes and ignore the ultimate causes, but this misses an opportunity to learn something instructive about human nature.

“Why do we respond in these ways to inequality?”

To go beyond the visible and measurable factors, a more expansive timeframe is needed. As a species we evolved over millions of years – for physical traits, this is uncontested scientifically. There is more vigorous debate over the extent to which mental traits have been subject to natural selection. Evolutionary psychology is often thought to portray traits as genetically determined, innate and fixed. While this is an approach that some academics take, it is clearly inappropriate to apply this to the inequality evidence. However, the responses to inequality appear to be consistent across societies. This indicates that there are adaptive traits which respond to inequality systematically – we have evolved the ability to adjust to our current situation.

This principle of calibration to the environment is well established in the evolutionary field of life history (LH) theory. It characterises a strategy which we take throughout life as a trade-off between growth and reproduction. At any given time, we can invest (unconsciously!) biological resources in growth at the expense of reproduction, or vice-versa. Ideally, we would take time to grow for as long as possible to ensure long-term health, before bringing the next generation into the world. This wasn’t always possible in the ancestral environment we evolved in – famine, war, diseases and other components of ‘environmental harshness’ all reduced life expectancy. With such considerations, it would have been no good taking your time to develop, only to die before you could reproduce. Rather, the onus is on as quickly as possible getting to a state where you can pass on your genes.

What results from the trade-off is a scale of LH strategies from slow to fast. In an uncertain environment, early maturation and reproduction protect against the risk of dying before reproducing. Other traits typical of the fast LH strategy include having more children, as a hedge against high infant mortality, and investing less parental care in them, be it shorter breastfeeding duration or father absence. Babies are born smaller, which leads to lower adult height, but with an increased risk of obesity and certain chronic diseases later in life.

The obvious objection to applying LH theory to modern problems is that thanks to developments of civilisation like modern medicine, sanitation, and the rule of law, we no longer really need to worry about making it to adulthood. But we’ve simply not had enough time to evolve and adapt to our new environment. The result is a mismatch between the environment we are adapted to and the one we find ourselves in. This is why we still respond to cues of environmental harshness.

It appears that inequality is a cue of environmental harshness which accelerates LH strategies. This is understandable in the context of access to resources – food, shelter, social capital – which are essential to survival. But egalitarianism was the norm for our early human ancestors. They lived in bands of hunter-gatherers, where meat was shared equally in the group regardless of who killed it. We can infer this from the archaeological record, as well as anthropological reports of the few remaining tribes of hunter-gatherers. In these groups, counter-dominance strategies like ridicule and ostracism prevent any one individual from gaining too much power.

“Egalitarianism was the norm for our early ancestors”

Groups became unequal with the advent of agriculture and other developments. Again, this may be too recent for evolution to have taken effect. However, we may have adapted to inequality in ancestral groups of hierarchical primates, prior to the emergence of the Homo genus. Either way, inequality seems to elicit faster LH strategies, whether as a functional adaptation or not.

Our response to inequality goes beyond behaviour directly related to reproduction. Natural selection will have acted on aspects of our biology, psychology and behaviour to form a coherent suite of responses to the social environment. For instance, the rational reaction to living with social stratification is to compete for all you can get, as you’re not guaranteed a fair share. Appeasing those above you in the pecking order while exploiting those below you is the usual result –the opposite of the healthy disrespect for authority found in the egalitarian groups. Sycophantic worship of celebrities alongside demonization of people at the lower end of society may be the modern-day version of these social processes.

The cluster of traits associated with the fast LH strategy share the theme of short-termism. This even extends into the choices we make, in the form of a cognitive bias known as future discounting. When offered the choice of a smaller reward now or a larger reward at a certain point in the future, some are better than others at resisting the temptation of instant gratification. But when the long-term future is uncertain, it’s rational to discount it and take what you can get today. This is another trade-off, between taking a hit for a bigger payoff in the long run, or short-term benefits at the expense of long-term costs.

“When the future is uncertain, it’s rational to take what you can today”

LH strategy has a strong social gradient – lower socioeconomic status (SES) tends to mean a faster LH strategy. Returning to the health and social outcomes of The Spirit Level, a recurring theme is that most of them show a social gradient, with worse outcomes at lower SES. What Wilkinson and Pickett demonstrated was that outcomes that are associated with deprivation are also associated with inequality in itself: average outcomes are worse in more unequal societies. It may be that LH traits follow the same pattern, and that the well-established link with SES can be extended to inequality.

Indeed, the effects of inequality seem to reflect the consequences of the fast LH strategy. More babies being born underweight leads to higher infant mortality. Less parental investment in children lowers child wellbeing. An obsession with social status exacerbates depression and anxiety. A bias to discount the future shortens perceived time horizons, leading to lower educational attainment and lower impulse control in drug abuse. Sustainability and climate change are similarly neglected by a short-term perspective. And a general quickening of life stages shortens childhood, increases teenage births and curtails healthy lives.

Excess inequality can be added to deprivation as a scourge that stunts our growth and flourishing. This inevitably follows from our evolved tendency to react to our social environment. What this means for social policy is that outcomes which have been seen as pathological must be reappraised as contingent responses to our circumstances.

This doesn’t mean that they should be accepted of course. But interventions like education campaigns that appeal to reason can’t solve social problems, when social conditions affect our biology, psychology and behaviour through mechanisms which are outside of conscious control. To get to the root cause, society must be made more equal.

References

Inequality

Flannery, K. (2012). The creation of inequality: how our prehistoric ancestors set the stage for monarchy, slavery, and empire. Harvard University Press.

Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. (2011). The spirit level. Penguin, London

Life History Theory

Brumbach, B. H., Figueredo, A. J., & Ellis, B. J. (2009). Effects of Harsh and Unpredictable Environments in Adolescence on Development of Life History Strategies: A Longitudinal Test of an Evolutionary Model. Human Nature (Hawthorne, N.Y.), 20(1), 25–51. doi:10.1007/s12110-009-9059-3

Dickins, T. E., Johns, S. E., & Chipman, A. (2012). TEENAGE PREGNANCY IN THE UNITED KINGDOM : A BEHAVIORAL ECOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE, 6(3), 344–359.

Ellis, B. J., Figueredo, A. J., Brumbach, B. H., & Schlomer, G. L. (2009). Fundamental Dimensions of Environmental Risk. Human Nature (Vol. 20, pp. 204–268). doi:10.1007/s12110-009-9063-7

Figueredo, a, Vasquez, G., Brumbach, B., Schneider, S., Sefcek, J., Tal, I., … Jacobs, W. (2006). Consilience and Life History Theory: From genes to brain to reproductive strategy. Developmental Review, 26(2), 243–275. doi:10.1016/j.dr.2006.02.002

Griskevicius, V., Ackerman, J. M., Cantú, S. M., Delton, A. W., Robertson, T. E., Simpson, J. a, … Tybur, J. M. (2013). When the economy falters, do people spend or save? Responses to resource scarcity depend on childhood environments. Psychological Science, 24(2), 197–205. doi:10.1177/0956797612451471

Kruger, D. J., Munsell, M. A., & French-turner, T. (2011). USING A LIFE HISTORY FRAMEWORK TO UNDERSTAND THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NEIGHBORHOOD STRUCTURAL DETERIORATION AND ADVERSE BIRTH OUTCOMES, 5(4), 260–274. Nettle, D. (2010). Dying young and living fast: variation in life history across English neighborhoods. Behavioral Ecology, 21(2), 387–395. doi:10.1093/beheco/arp202

Future discounting

Daly, M., & Wilson, M. (2005). Carpe diem: Adaptation and devaluing the future. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 80(1), 55-60.

Griskevicius, V., Ackerman, J. M., Cantú, S. M., Delton, A. W., Robertson, T. E., Simpson, J. a, … Tybur, J. M. (2013). When the economy falters, do people spend or save? Responses to resource scarcity depend on childhood environments. Psychological Science, 24(2), 197–205. doi:10.1177/0956797612451471

Other

Scott-samuel, A., Bambra, C., Collins, C., Hunter, D. J., Mccartney, G., & Smith, K. (2013). THE IMPACT OF THATCHERISM ON HEALTH AND WELL-BEING IN BRITAIN, 44(1), 53–71.

Whiten, A., & Erdal, D. (2012). The human socio-cognitive niche and its evolutionary origins. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 367(1599), 2119–29. doi:10.1098/rstb.2012.0114

Image Paul Anderson [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Evolutionary insights for public policy

The significance of an evolutionary approach to public health is increasingly being recognised. The negative effects of poverty and inequality are also being recognised as a huge burden on health. Occasionally, the two are even combined to acknowledge our evolved responses to inequality.

Overall though the various efforts seem to have stopped short of explicitly proposing an evolutionary explanation to the Spirit Level evidence between countries. Understandably, the focus has been on measures like teenage pregnancy and breastfeeding rates that directly measure life history (LH) strategy (see this post on LH theory). But other outcomes may be the result of a faster LH strategy too: infant mortality may be higher in more unequal countries because of a reduced biological investment in each child, leading to low birthweight and prematurity.

The other outcomes in the Spirit Level can be brought under the life history strategy umbrella too, with its general principle of short-termism. The harsher and more unequal the social environment, the more uncertainty there is over long-term prospects. This would have been true in our ancestral environment too, and with morbidity and mortality rates so much higher, the selection pressure on behavioural strategies would have been extremely strong. The danger of dying before or during reproductive years made early reproduction paramount. As a result, we evolved a comprehensive response to harshness, which speeds up the course and development of key life stages, and prioritises reproduction over growth.

The response is evident in various domains:

Biologically, periods of growth are shortened, and puberty is brought forward. As in Barker’s thrifty phenotype hypothesis, where less important organs like the pancreas get less energetic investment when energy is scarce, physical size is sacrificed to allow reproduction to occur earlier. This under-investment early on in life may lead to the various health problems that develop later. Of course middle-aged health problems wouldn’t have been a major problem evolutionarily, if the early reproduction meant that your genes had been passed on in a difficult environment. They may not even have developed, with an environment of low calorie availability and an active lifestyle avoiding the metabolic disorders seen today. The molecular symptom of quicker development is oxidative stress, which is a measure of the biological stress on an individual. It is linked with chronic low-level inflammation and suppression of the immune system. Heightened cortisol levels, and activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis which releases adrenaline, are also implicated. The response to stress is complex, but the various measures are consistently related to low socioeconomic status, and so can be argued to be part of the fast LH strategy.

Cognitively, people show a higher rate of a cognitive bias known as future discounting. This involves taking smaller, short-term gains at the expense of larger, long-term ones. Delaying gratification and impulse control require a low rate of future discounting.

Behaviourally, this bias could be argued to underlie almost any of the behavioural problems in the Spirit Level – drop-out rates from high school and low educational attainment, unsustainable environmental practices, addiction of any kind, from gambling to alcohol and drugs. Public goods problems (like climate change) require a long-term assessment of costs and benefits, so a bias to discount the future is disastrous for agreements on action. Hierarchy also encourages conspicuous consumption to signal status – another unsustainable practice. Future discounting may explain why trust is lower in more unequal countries, as a long-term view is needed to help someone today, when you may not be paid back for a while.

Parental investment is another feature which is sacrificed in the fast LH strategy. This is seen in harsher parenting styles. Parental inconsistency has been linked with elevated levels of stress hormones in children. And one of the parents may not even be there – 26% of families in 2011 were single-parent households. Absent fathers account for the vast majority of these. The effect on boys is the development of excessively masculine traits; girls hit puberty earlier. Both genders are more likely than average to repeat their parent’s lifestyle. The UNICEF index of child wellbeing correlates negatively with inequality, as do childhood behavioural problems.

Consequently, mental health suffers in unequal societies – especially anxiety. This can’t be said to be adaptive in modern society, but as with chronic stress, it is possible to theorise how it could have helped in an ancestral environment. In small doses, anxiety and low mood may have been one way of avoiding conflict, by avoiding aggression from others. But as with stress, constant exposure is pathological.

Inequality, by stratifying the social hierarchy, favours competition over cooperation as the way we interact with each other. Status becomes more important, as it has always signalled an ability to access resources, including mates. Excessive inequality means that those at the top can monopolise resources, and those at the bottom have nothing to lose when they try to climb the ladder. This manifests itself in higher rates of violence and homicide. Men may go to greater lengths to keep partners as well as compete for them, using violence and sexual coercion. The violence statistics don’t include sexual violence due to international differences in definitions, but (not unrelatedly) the status of women and gender equality are better in more equal countries.

In order to bring about the policy changes necessary to reduce inequality, disparate interest groups need to be made aware of the wide-ranging effects of inequality and the associated LH traits, in order to campaign with a louder voice together. This means physical and mental health organisations, alcohol and drugs charities, violence reduction schemes and so on could benefit from coming together to work for something that would tackle all of their respective issues at source. It’s not about creating a ‘natural’ environment – there’s no such thing, as we adapt to vastly different societies. It’s recognising that a more equal society brings out the best of our nature.

Discounting an Independent Scotland

In one year, Scotland will vote on whether to become an independent country. The campaigns for both the Yes and No votes are getting into full swing. Crucial to reaching the right target audience is understanding the profile of voters for each side. Studies like the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey allow people’s voting preferences to be analysed alongside a wealth of other information about them, to see if any trends emerge.

What Scotland thinks

So which sections of the population are more likely to vote Yes? First up, there’s a well-established trend for younger people to be more likely to support independence. Critics argue that the SNP are exploiting this by lowering the voting age from 18 to 16. Another finding from various polls is ‘the Braveheart effect’ –  men are more likely to support independence than women. And those in working class occupations are more likely to support independence than their middle class compatriots.

It’s easy to construct reasons why each group of people might be more inclined to vote Yes. But could there be a common, underlying factor that unites these seemingly disparate groups? One theory states that it is the consequences of independence that are foremost in people’s minds – a hard-headed analysis of the likely economic changes under independence, rather than an ideological attachment to either independence or the union. A telling survey question ‘would you vote for independence if you would be £500 per year better off?’ finds that a majority would do so.

Delayed gratification

Such a commercial offer is reminiscent of a psychology experiment that explores how people think about the future. It asks a series of questions on whether you would prefer to get, for example:

£10 today

Or

£20 in a month’s time.

Preferences vary widely from strongly preferring the immediate reward, to always holding out for the bigger payout. In the jargon, the trait is known as future discounting: if you take the money and run, you have a steep discounting rate, whereas if you delay your gratification, you have a shallow discounting rate. The idea is that the more you think about the long term, the further away are your time horizons and the more importance you assign to future outcomes. Conversely, if you are more present-oriented, you discount the future and value present resources more highly.

To the extent that future discounting can be applied to the independence debate, it might be used to assess the accusations on both sides of not thinking through the long-term consequences of a Yes or No vote. The evidence on future discounting suggests a controversial conclusion – those groups more likely to vote for independence are the same groups that discount the future more steeply.

Living for today

Men on average prefer immediate rewards to a greater extent than women. This has been linked to sex differences in competitive behaviour, and the general tendency for men to be more likely to ‘live fast and die young’. Similarly, younger people show more short-term thinking in future discounting experiments. One study found the opposite, however. But evidence on impulsivity seems to suggest that younger people favour immediate returns while disregarding the consequences – the majority of crimes are committed by young males.

Those in lower socioeconomic status (SES) groups also show a steep rate of future discounting. Groups with more education or a professional occupation have a more future-oriented time perspective. Another study found that people who grew up in poverty react to mortality risk by valuing the present and discounting the future more.

All of the above doesn’t necessarily mean that those people who say they’ll vote yes have steeper future discounting rates. It would be extremely easy to test this though, simply by inserting a future discounting test on one of the numerous surveys on independence. And even if this returned a positive result, it doesn’t mean that their decision to vote yes is a result of their steeper rate of future discounting. If it is though, it could be a rational response to having less to lose and more to gain in a shake-up of the economy, as younger people and those in lower SES groups do.

The interest of all this to the Yes and No camps would be little more than academic, if it simply spells out who will vote for each side next September. But if it could be used to influence people’s voting preference…

Nudge, nudge

Recent research in the field has gone from looking at how individuals differ in their preference, to actually trying to change it. This usually takes the form of showing relevant cues to participants, and seeing what effect this has on their discount preference.

For instance, even just being shown pictures of poverty leads to favouring the immediate reward in a classic discounting experiment. Our adaptive response to a lack of resources is also triggered by physical shortage – having a low-calorie drink with artificial sweeteners primes us to take the ‘smaller but sooner’ reward. In contrast, having a sugary drink actually decreases our rate of future discounting. The more food there seems to be in the environment, the more we can plan for the long term without worrying where our next meal is coming from. Men are susceptible to another cue – pictures of attractive women.

Independence polling itself has found evidence of an analogous ‘priming’ effect. Asking Scots first whether they think that the Scottish Parliament does a good job (which the majority do), and then asking whether they support independence, increases the proportion who say yes.

From theory to practice

So could the insights on future discounting be used to prime people to be more likely to vote for one side? Again, a study could use established cues to induce a discounting bias, and then ask participants for their opinion on independence. The campaigns would be advised to make use of appropriate cues to elicit their desired bias. This would create an implicit meaning in campaign materials and communications that reinforces their explicit message.

A tendency to discount the future may be the common factor that unites the sections of the population who are more inclined to vote Yes. But to the extent that future discounting is malleable, attitudes towards independence could be influenced. Given that more than one million voters are undecided, the opportunity is there.

Inequality and life history theory

Societal problems cluster together. This was true when squalor, want, idleness, disease and ignorance were Beveridge’s five great evils, and it is true now when an index of multiple deprivation is used to measure social disadvantage, and health co-morbidities are a dominant issue. That these problems are concentrated in one section of society is taken as read – how could it be any other way? But compare different rich countries on their average performance, and some consistently outperform others on a wide range of outcomes. Wealth can’t explain this as the countries are all at the top table. Inequality is coming to be recognised as the cardinal factor.

While the stats don’t lie on this, they beg the question why inequality has so many nefarious consequences. To explain problem behaviours, a theory of how the social environment affects people psychologically is needed. The explanations that are put forward are usually at the proximate level – psychosocial effects for instance. These explanations are entirely valid, providing potential causes of poorer health and wellbeing. The ‘why’ question can always be asked again, though: why does inequality have such a negative psychosocial effect on us? Answering this question involves moving to the grandly titled ‘ultimate’ level of explanation – the adaptive value of behaviours.

This is a big change in the context of explaining problematic behaviours like violence and teenage pregnancy, which are understandably usually seen as maladaptive responses. But variation in such traits can be seen as adaptive, according to life history (LH) theory. While the idea is lodged in evolutionary psychology, it has little interest in genes or innate predispositions, though acknowledging they exist. Rather the emphasis is on how we adapt our behaviour to the living environment we find ourselves in.

LH theory originally dealt only with differences between species. It sought to explain why some species mature quickly, produce large numbers of offspring, and invest little parental care in them, and other species follow the opposite pattern. These LH strategies are seen as being on a fast-slow continuum, with different species occupying different places on it. Energy can be invested in growth or reproduction – fast LH traits make the most of current resources to prioritise reproduction. This makes sense in an environment where survival is uncertain – i.e. if individuals of a species can’t be sure that they’ll live through their reproductive years, strategically they should reproduce earlier to ensure their genes are passed on. If they followed a slow strategy, they would risk dying before reproducing.

Humans occupy the extreme slow end of the LH continuum. We take decades to mature and reproduce, and invest heavily in caring for a small number of offspring. But there is individual variation. LH theory can been applied to these differences using the same logic as what influences between-species differences – how amenable the environment is to investing in long-term growth. Mortality is much lower now than in our evolutionary past. Disease, famine, lethal violence, death in childbirth and infant mortality made survival difficult until very recently in our evolution. Although these threats are greatly reduced, cues of these threats to survival, or environmental stress, will still be salient psychologically. These cues may not accurately predict threats in modern society, leading to a mismatch between what we’ve evolved to react to and what is important to survival today.

The ideal environment to grow up in is one where access to resources is assured. It is clear that people in developing countries follow a faster LH strategy – this underlies the demographic transition of women having fewer children as a country gets richer. And in developed countries, those lower down on the income distribution follow a fast LH strategy. Social status is key. Primates are hierarchical, and high-ranking individuals can monopolise resources. This is one reason why not only material deprivation, but relative deprivation is so nefarious psychologically. In addition, more unequal societies have more stratified hierarchies, which exacerbates the social cost of being at the bottom. And even those further up the ladder seem to be affected by excess inequality.

It looks like even among rich countries, the more unequal countries engender a faster average LH strategy. This wouldn’t be a big surprise, as those problems which are worse in more unequal countries are also those which show a strong social gradient. It is well established that more unequal countries do have more of these problems – LH strategies could be driving this. This suggests that inequality is a salient cue for environmental harshness.

The fast LH strategy is based on the uncertainty of long-term resources. Someone learning that they can’t rely on long-term access to resources develops a cognitive bias towards discounting the future. This means that when offered a certain amount of money today or a larger amount in a week’s time, they prefer the immediate reward. It encourages short-termism, and discourages investing in the future. The fast LH strategy’s associated behaviours are all based on discounting the future, and making the most of current resources.

They are also all seen as social problems: teenage pregnancy, unhealthy eating, alcohol abuse. Future discounting leads to risky behaviours like driving dangerously, and risky sexual behaviour. Education campaigns are often used to try to reduce problem behaviours. Their effectiveness may be limited as they appeal to people directly, whereas LH theory suggests that subconscious influences are the main driver of variation in behaviour.

A LH theory informed approach would seek to get to the root cause of problem behaviours. Inequality is chief amongst them, with a large body of evidence behind it. There are other, more specific factors which act as cues of environmental harshness, and so speed up LH strategies. Father absence leads to girls developing and maturing more quickly, and increases masculine traits in boys. Urban decay, lack of social support and the stream of tragic news stories of people dying young must all have an effect.

As if all of the above wasn’t enough, the fast LH strategy is bad for the environment. Immediate consumption of available resources is what has led to global warming and climate change. And by discounting the future more steeply, people on the fast LH strategy may even be less able or willing to see the long-term consequences of their actions. More equal countries recycle more, and have proved more willing to act on climate change.

Because the range of problems that LH strategies influence is so wide, slowing down average LH strategies would bring multiple benefits to society. This  could even be achieved without additional expenditure, simply by redistribution to reduce inequality.