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For people raised in chaos, risk-taking is hardwired.
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.