Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Does the ability to accumulate wealth make us value the future more?

Posted 29 Sep 2015 / 0

PLoS ONEFuture Discounting in Congo Basin Hunter-Gatherers Declines with Socio-Economic Transitions

These findings are really fascinating, because they suggest that some degree of “building towards the future” is inspired by the ability to accumulate wealth. There’s a lot in these findings to explain why small-scale societies stay small and how larger-scale societies evolve from smaller-scale societies. That said, one has to be really careful about extrapolating too much from this study, because it looks at only a tiny slice of the socio-economic continuum. I am not surprised to see that future discounting decreases as some degree of wealth accumulation is possible. But this study basically looks at the difference between not being able to accumulate wealth and the ability to accumulate a moderate amount of wealth. That does not mean that as the ability to accumulate wealth increases further, future discounting continues to decrease. If that were the case, we would not be in the situation we now find ourselves, with the wealthiest fraction of human beings contributing the most to our ecological imperilment.

A couple of things to note here. First is that future discounting is defined by one’s ability to discount future individual gain. There’s nothing here that looks at discounting at a larger scale, say that of the social group. The egalitarian tribespeople may very well be discounting the future at a much lower level if we consider how their behavior relates to the survival of their group; hypothetically that is how this behavior evolved in the first place, as groups that sought short-term gain over long-term gain might have had a better overall outcome.

The fact that this behavioral shift appears to be pretty convincingly a case of phenotypic plasticity is fascinating. That we might have a lot of flexibility in our “ability to wait for the big payoff” suggests that our ancestors had to properly assess and survive in a variety of environments with very potential for storing up needed resources.

I would love to see an analogous study performed along a further stretch of the socio-economic continuum, although I doubt that bullion cubes are going to serve as a suitable reward.

A Minor Post, Adaptation, Articles, Behavior, Behavioral Ecology, Cultural Anthropology, Cultural Evolution, Economics, Evolutionary Psychology, Human Nature, Memetic Fitness, Phenotypic Plasticity, Psychological Adaptation, Social Norms

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