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.