“We discovered that the amount of money in families isn't always the most important factor in cognitive development. Instead, the stability or instability of your environment—whether, for example, you had dinner at the same time each night with your family—may be far more important.” —Vladas Griskevicius

There’s little question that growing up in a stressful environment can leave a lasting impact on a child. Numerous studies have linked it to heart disease, compromised immune systems, and even low scores on intelligence tests.

But can a stressful childhood environment actually have some cognitive benefits? That’s what Professor Vladas Griskevicius and Carlson PhD student Chiraag Mittal considered in a recent project. More specifically, they looked at how stress affects “executive functioning”—an umbrella term for the skills that govern control and self-regulation.

“Stressful early environments tend to be unstable and chaotic,” Griskevicius says. “That made us wonder if such settings might make people better at ‘shifting,’ which is essentially multitasking—switching quickly from task to task.”

On the flip side, Griskevicius and his team also hypothesized that those same individuals might not be adept at inhibition, “which is delaying gratification, being unable to resist temptation,” he notes.

They tested the ideas by assigning subjects—college students and adults from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds—tasks that forced them to make rapid shifts without losing focus. The result: People who grew up in unpredictable early environments performed exceptionally well on the tests. What’s more, their performance levels picked up as their test-induced stress levels rose. And that held true whether the subjects came from wealthy or poor families.

Another significant discovery: Participants from stable backgrounds scored far lower on shifting. And just as the team thought, the flip side was also true—those individuals scored much higher on inhibition.

As Griskevicius notes, the results offer empirical proof that challenges some of the conventional thinking on cognitive development and functioning. “We’re constantly taught that growing up in adverse conditions makes people wilt, and that there’s nothing you can do about it as an adult. You’re essentially broken. We found that growing up in adverse environments can actually prepare you to be better at some valuable skills.” 

Watch Griskevicius further describe his findings:

“Cognitive Adaptations to Stressful Environments: When Childhood Adversity Enhances Adult Executive Function”
Mittal, Chiraag, Griskevicius, Vladas, Simpson, Jeffry A., Sung, Sooyeon, Young, Ethan S., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2015)