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J Pers Soc Psychol. 2011 Jun;100(6):1015-26. doi: 10.1037/a0022403.

The influence of mortality and socioeconomic status on risk and delayed rewards: a life history theory approach.

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Department of Marketing, Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, MN 55455, USA.


Why do some people take risks and live for the present, whereas others avoid risks and save for the future? The evolutionary framework of life history theory predicts that preferences for risk and delay in gratification should be influenced by mortality and resource scarcity. A series of experiments examined how mortality cues influenced decisions involving risk preference (e.g., $10 for sure vs. 50% chance of $20) and temporal discounting (e.g., $5 now vs. $10 later). The effect of mortality depended critically on whether people grew up in a relatively resource-scarce or resource-plentiful environment. For individuals who grew up relatively poor, mortality cues led them to value the present and gamble for big immediate rewards. Conversely, for individuals who grew up relatively wealthy, mortality cues led them to value the future and avoid risky gambles. Overall, mortality cues appear to propel individuals toward diverging life history strategies as a function of childhood socioeconomic status, suggesting important implications for how environmental factors influence economic decisions and risky behaviors.

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