ISSN 1671-3710
CN 11-4766/R

Advances in Psychological Science ›› 2022, Vol. 30 ›› Issue (8): 1894-1904.doi: 10.3724/SP.J.1042.2022.01894

• Regular Articles • Previous Articles    

Low Socioeconomic Status and intertemporal choice: The mechanism of “psychological-shift” from the perspective of threat

DU Tangyan, HU Xiaoyong(), YANG Jing, LI Lanyu, WANG Tiantian   

  1. Faculty of Psychology, Southwest University, Key Laboratory of Cognition and Personality, Ministry of Education, Chongqing 400715, China
  • Received:2021-07-19 Online:2022-08-15 Published:2022-06-23
  • Contact: HU Xiaoyong


Much evidence shows that people living in low socioeconomic conditions often engage in "short-sighted behavior". They seem to focus on meeting short-term needs and aspirations rather than long-term benefits and returns, such as investing less in education, saving too little, and borrowing too much. These choices may further deepen their disadvantage and cause them to fall into the trap of "low socioeconomic status-behavioral decision-making-low socioeconomic status".

Why are people living in low socioeconomic conditions more likely to be short-sighted? Previous studies believe that low socioeconomic status shapes individual preferences and values and impairs self-control. These defects make them more likely to make irrational behavioral decisions. However, in recent years, researchers have pointed out that the seemingly irrational behavior of people living in low socioeconomic conditions is an adaptive response to a threatening environment. People who live in low socioeconomic conditions always face various risks and threats, such as resource scarcity, environmental instability and unpredictability, and a bad childhood environment. If the current demand is high and the future is uncertain, it is more beneficial to obtain the smaller benefits available at present than to wait for the larger returns in the future. Scarcity theory, construction level theory, and life history theory are three representative theoretical viewpoints that answer the mechanism behind the “short-sighted behavior” of the people who live in low socioeconomic conditions from the perspective of the interaction between individual and the environment. The psychological shift model integrates them from the perspective of threat, regards the "short-sighted" behavior of the people living in low socioeconomic conditions as the product of the operation of the general social and psychological mechanism, and points out that the psychological shift triggered by threat perception is the internal mechanism of low socioeconomic status affecting intertemporal choice.

Specifically, the experience of living in low socioeconomic conditions induces a “psychological shift” in response to socioecological cues. At the cognitive level, they focus on things related to scarcity when facing the threat of scarcity. At the level of thinking, they represent events concretely and contextually when facing uncertain threats. At the behavioral strategy level, once the threat cues appear, people who experience low socioeconomic conditions in childhood may notice the threat faster and switch to the fast life history strategy. These psychological shifts lead to the occurrence of "short-sighted behavior".

To attribute a more practical policy value to the psychological shift model, future research can be carried out from the following aspects: First, the research perspective that "short-sightedness" is the survival strategy of people living in low socioeconomic conditions in a threatening environment needs to be further popularized. This adaptive perspective more comprehensively and accurately describes the intertemporal choice process of people living in low socioeconomic conditions, reduces the stigmatization of people living in low socioeconomic conditions to a great extent. Second, the mechanism of poverty affecting intertemporal choice needs to be further studied. The novel and enlightening psychological shift model from the perspective of threat needs much empirical research to confirm. The multilevel relationship between low socioeconomic status and intertemporal choice in different development stages still needs to be discussed. Finally, “short-sighted behavior” intervention for people living in low socioeconomic conditions needs to be carried out widely and deeply. Based on the core mechanism of eliminating threats to reduce short-sighted behavior, future studies should combine the valuable experience accumulated in the process of poverty alleviation and the internationally agreed strategies that can significantly reduce the “short-sightedness” of the people living in low socioeconomic conditions. These actions may help develop an effective intervention program in line with China's national conditions, so as to provide scientific psychological paths for realizing common prosperity.

Key words: low socioeconomic status, intertemporal choice, threat, psychological shift

CLC Number: