Adults who experienced high-stress childhoods are less likely to notice when a potential loss or disaster is right around the corner, often getting themselves into health, legal or financial trouble that could have been avoided, according to a new study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The researchers suggest this phenomenon may be biological, stemming from an unhelpful lack of activity in the brain when a situation should be prompting heightened awareness. The findings could help train at-risk young people to become better at avoiding risk.
“It’s not that people are overtly deciding to take these negative risks, or do things that might get them in trouble,” said Dr. Seth Pollak, a University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology professor who has studied kids and stress for decades.
“It may very well be that their brains are not really processing the information that should tell them they are headed to a bad place, that this is not the right step to take.”
The researchers brought back to the lab more than 50 people, now ages 20 to 23, who were participants in a study Pollak conducted about stress hormones when they were eight years old.
The participants were drawn equally from that study’s least-stressed and most-stressed kids. Those who dealt with chronic high stress as children experienced traumatic events like parents killed by gunfire or substance abuse, multiple foster home placements, and severe maltreatment.
For the study, adult participants completed a series of tasks while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), designed to stimulate the brain regions associated with weighing gain and loss, risk, and reward.
The findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the high childhood stress group was less attentive to potential loss than the low childhood stress group, and more piqued by resulting losses.
Researcher University of Wisconsin-Madison psychiatry Professor Rasmus Birn said one of the most striking findings was watching the high-stress group work through a gambling scenario in which a token was hidden behind one of 10 squares. Some of the squares were colored red, others blue. The object was to choose the color of the square covering the token.
“Most people if you see nine red squares, one blue square — and the token is randomly placed — you’re going to guess red,” said Birn. “And yet, in a lot of these individuals who experienced high childhood stress we saw, they’re betting on the one instead of the nine. And they’re betting against the odds again and again.”
And they spent longer doing it, agonizing over the decision before making a poor decision again, according to Pollak.
“It was our observation not that they couldn’t do math, but that they weren’t really attending to the right things,” said Pollak. “We didn’t see people improving over time. You might say, ‘Well, they don’t get how it works.’ But the people with high-stress childhoods, even after many trials, they weren’t using negative feedback to change their behavior and improve.”
According to the brain scans of the high-stress group, there was a surprisingly low amount of activity in the brain region expected to light up when confronted by a potential loss.
“And then, when they would lose, we’d see more activity than expected — an overreaction — in the part of the brain that responds to reward,” Pollak said, “which makes sense. If you didn’t catch the cue that you were likely to lose, you’re probably going to be pretty shocked when you don’t win.”
The high-stress group also reported undertaking more risky behaviors — smoking, not wearing a seatbelt in a car or texting while driving — on a regular basis than their low-stress counterparts.
Importantly, it was only the childhood stress level, not the level of stress in the participants’ adult lives, that was predictive of their ability to identify potential loss or avoid risky behavior.
The researchers’ knowledge of the participants’ childhood stress is unique. Typically, evaluating the childhood of a group of adults requires relying on their memories and spotty records.
“But we knew these people when they were kids,” said Pollak. “We have a clinical assessment of their stress levels in childhood that was done at that time of their lives, while their parents sat in the waiting room. That’s powerful data.”
The results have significant implications and have already drawn interest from child welfare authorities and family court judges often in the position of trying to change behavior by threatening or applying punishment.
“So many of our behavioral interventions are predicated on the idea that people will understand there’s a sign they’re about to be punished,” said Pollak. “Maybe we need to rethink some of those things.”
Perhaps people can be taught to spot potential loss and risk. Understanding the brain mechanisms that contribute to repeated poor judgment could shed light on ways to prevent it.
“What are they paying attention to? What associations from past experience are they able to remember and connect? Can we help them make better observations and predictions?” said Pollak. “Framing behavioral problems as a learning problem opens up new doors of what we can do to help people.”
Next, the researchers plan to go deeper with this new information.
“Now that we have this finding, we can use it to guide us to look at specific networks in the brain that are active and functionally connected,” said Birn. “We may find that childhood stress reshapes the way communication happens across the brain.”