Can an unpredictable childhood environment enhance working memory? Testing the sensitized-specialization hypothesis

Ethan S. Young, Vladas Griskevicius, Jeffry A. Simpson, Theodore E.A. Waters, Chiraag Mittal

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

78 Scopus citations


Although growing up in an adverse childhood environment tends to impair cognitive functions, evolutionary-developmental theory suggests that this might be only one part of the story. A person's mind may instead become developmentally specialized and potentially enhanced for solving problems in the types of environments in which the person grew up. In the current research, we tested whether these specialized advantages in cognitive function might be sensitized to emerge in currently uncertain contexts. We refer to this as the sensitized-specialization hypothesis. We conducted experimental tests of this hypothesis in the domain of working memory, examining how growing up in unpredictable versus predictable environments affects different facets of working memory. Although growing up in an unpredictable environment is typically associated with impairments in working memory, we show that this type of environment is positively associated with those aspects of working memory that are useful in rapidly changing environments. Importantly, these effects emerged only when the current context was uncertain. These theoretically derived findings suggest that childhood environments shape, rather than uniformly impair, cognitive functions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)891-908
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2018

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 American Psychological Association.


  • Evolutionary psychology
  • Life history theory
  • Social development
  • Unpredictable environments
  • Working memory


Dive into the research topics of 'Can an unpredictable childhood environment enhance working memory? Testing the sensitized-specialization hypothesis'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this