A new paper by a team of scientists at the University of Minnesota (Chiraag Mittal, Vladas Griskevicius, Jeffry Simpson, Sooyeon Sung and Ethan Young) investigates this surprising hypothesis. The researchers focused on two distinct aspects of cognition: inhibition and shifting.
Inhibition involves the exertion of mental control, as the mind overrides its own urges and interruptions. When you stay on task, or resist the marshmallow, or talk yourself out of a tantrum, you are relying on your inhibitory talents. Shifting, meanwhile, involves switching between different trains of thought. “People who are good at shifting are better at allowing their responses to be guided by the current situation rather than by an internal goal,” write the scientists. These people notice what’s happening around them and are able to adjust their mind accordingly. Several studies have found a correlation between such cognitive flexibility and academic achievement.
The researchers focused on these two cognitive functions because they seemed particularly relevant in stressful childhoods. Let’s start with inhibition. If you grow up in an impoverished environment, you probably learn the advantages of not waiting, as delaying a reward often means the reward will disappear. In such contexts, write the scientists, “a preference for immediate over delayed rewards…is actually more adaptive.” Self-control is for suckers.
However, the opposite logic might apply to shifting. If an environment is always changing – if it’s full of unpredictable people and intermittent comforts – then a child might become more sensitive to new patterns. They could learn how to cope by increasing their mental flexibility.
On selfish people:
This implies that people who grow up in families where selflessness is rewarded will develop an instinctively cooperative approach. Similarly, companies that do not deter employees from only thinking of themselves will likely have a selfish staff—even in cases where refusing to cooperate is actively harmful.
“It applies to interactions between friends, coworkers, family members—all interactions where you have the chance to do something that’s costly for you but beneficial for other people,” says Rand.
Cross-culturally, it suggests that those who grow up in countries without a strong rule of law will develop an uncooperative intuition, he adds.
Which means that if you meet an instinctively selfish person, reasoning is unlikely to persuade them to cooperate. But if you are that selfish person, you can blame evolution for your bad behavior.