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Childhood Uncertainty and Decision-Making in Adulthood: When Individual Differences in Information Use Reflect Adaptive Responses to the Environment
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The ability for individuals to adapt to their local environment is a universal property of evolved organisms. As a group, humans possess a shared set of tools for overcoming recurrent adaptive challenges, but human environments are diverse and the exact characteristics of an adaptive challenge vary between individuals. Thus, the best way for individuals to overcome adaptive challenges depends on the unique presentation of the challenge they face. Previous research shows that an important dimension along which environments vary is uncertainty and that early life experiences with uncertainty can shape judgment in adulthood. When uncertainty is high, cues that predict important outcomes can be corrupted by statistical noise, leaving only a smaller subset of robust cues that remain valid predictors. Therefore, individuals seeking to make good decisions in highly uncertain environments should tend to use fewer cues when forming judgments (Hypothesis 1a), especially when stakes are high (Hypothesis 1b). Furthermore, because fewer cues remain valid in high-uncertainty environments, the preferences of people from high-uncertainty environments should be more similar than the preferences of people from low-uncertainty environments (Hypothesis 2a). Again, this relationship was expected to be stronger when stakes are high (Hypothesis 2b). To test these hypotheses, 1,035 participants were randomly assigned to complete a task designed to threaten the goal of finding a mate or a control task. Next, participants completed several trials of the mate choice task: For each trial, participants studied the descriptions of two potential mates and then indicated which individual would make a better long-term romantic partner. Results provided some support for Hypothesis 1: Women from uncertain childhood environments tended to rely on fewer cues when choosing mates, but only in the control condition. Among men, childhood uncertainty was not associated with the number of cues used to evaluate mates in either condition. Results for Hypothesis 2 were partially supported by both men and women: When mate-seeking goals are threatened, men with uncertain backgrounds tended to express more similar preferences than men with low-uncertainty backgrounds. The same relationship was observed among women, but only in the control condition. Implications for theories proposing that the early-life environment influences adult judgment in adaptive ways are discussed.