Cognitive Adaptations to Harsh Environments

Lecture | February 6 | 10-11:30 a.m. | 5101 Tolman Hall

 Willem Frankenhuis, Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University

 Department of Psychology

Growing up in a harsh environment has a major impact on cognition. People from such environments tend to score lower on a variety of cognitive tests. The predominant view in psychology is, therefore, that chronic exposure to harsh conditions impairs cognition. I have recently challenged this consensus by proposing that harsh environments do not exclusively impair cognition. Rather, people also developmentally adapt, or ‘specialize,’ their minds for solving problems relevant in such conditions. These problems might require different skills and abilities from those assessed on conventional tests. This hypothesis predicts harsh-adapted people may show enhanced performance on tasks that match recurrent problems in their environments, compared with safe-adapted people. In this talk, I will present results of a preregistered study examining whether exposure to, and involvement in, violence enhances people’s (N=126) learning and memory for danger, but not for location, information. The better we understand harsh-adapted minds—including their strengths—the more effective we can tailor education, policy, and interventions to fit their needs and potentials.