By Matthew Hutson
Robin Marvel was never supposed to succeed. By the time she was a teenager she’d watched her mother be violently beaten by her father and a number of boyfriends, been sexually assaulted herself, moved haphazardly around the country, become an alcoholic, and gotten pregnant by her boyfriend.
“There was never any stability at all,” Marvel says of her life with her mother. “I was always homeless, we were always being evicted or moving, the lights would be off for weeks. We would get kicked out of domestic violence shelters because she would break the rules.”
Sometimes Marvel would come home to find cocaine and mounds of marijuana on the table. “My mom was extremely unstable. She would just wake us up in the middle of the night and say ‘We’re moving to Michigan.’ Then the same thing would happen in Michigan—we’d just move back. I missed the first three months of third grade because we were living in a station wagon in Sacramento.”
Having a daughter at 17 sobered Marvel temporarily, but in a few years she began drinking heavily again. “I wouldn’t see my daughter for days,” she says. “I was just being this really awful person. I maxed out credit cards. I had a car repossessed. I didn’t understand the responsibility of paying bills and keeping good credit. And I didn’t see the importance in it either. I didn’t see the value in being able to build a financially responsible life.”
Reflecting on her perspective at the time, Marvel says, “You have no control over life, it just kind of sucks. It was just kind of a normal thing for me to live in that horrible lifestyle.”
Studies in social science and psychology have shown people like Marvel—people whose early existences are largely defined by a lack of resources, instability, and violence—often live foreshortened lives filled with risk-taking and even crime. Vladas Griskevicius, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, wants to change the way we think about people like Marvel, and the seemingly senseless choices that they make.
“The takeaway message in most of psychology is that if you grow up in a bad environment, you’re going to be deficient in some way,” Griskevicius says. “That growing up poor or in harsh conditions prevents you from flowering and reaching your potential.”
Drawing on core ideas in evolutionary biology and economics, Griskevicius has another story to tell. “People who grew up in a harsh environment are better adapted to thrive in that kind of environment,” he says. When you are led to believe that life has no future, it makes sense to capitalize on what you can get in the present. Human decision-making, even when it seems irrational and reckless on the surface, is characterized, Griskevicius says, by a “deep rationality.”
Studies by Griskevicius and other researchers can be seen as a response to the argument, the gist of the American Dream, that people can readily change their behavior with optimism and persistence. But the scientists’ takeaway message doesn’t rest on pessimism and futility. While adaptation to a harsh environment can lead to self-destruction, it can also sow the seeds of success.
Picture: Gates of Ale (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons