Sense of Control Under Uncertainty Depends on People's Childhood Environment: A Life History Theory Approach

Chiraag Mittal, Vladas Griskevicius

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

249 Scopus citations


Past research found that environmental uncertainty leads people to behave differently depending on their childhood environment. For example, economic uncertainty leads people from poor childhoods to become more impulsive while leading people from wealthy childhoods to become less impulsive. Drawing on life history theory, we examine the psychological mechanism driving such diverging responses to uncertainty. Five experiments show that uncertainty alters people's sense of control over the environment. Exposure to uncertainty led people from poorer childhoods to have a significantly lower sense of control than those from wealthier childhoods. In addition, perceptions of control statistically mediated the effect of uncertainty on impulsive behavior. These studies contribute by demonstrating that sense of control is a psychological driver of behaviors associated with fast and slow life history strategies. We discuss the implications of this for theory and future research, including that environmental uncertainty might lead people who grew up poor to quit challenging tasks sooner than people who grew up wealthy.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)621-637
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of personality and social psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2014

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2014 American Psychological Association.


  • Life history theory
  • Persistence
  • Resource uncertainty
  • Sense of control
  • Socioeconomic status


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