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The behavioural constellation of deprivation: Causes and consequences

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 January 2017

Gillian V. Pepper
Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University, Newcastle NE2 4HH, United Kingdom
Daniel Nettle
Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University, Newcastle NE2 4HH, United Kingdom


Socioeconomic differences in behaviour are pervasive and well documented, but their causes are not yet well understood. Here, we make the case that a cluster of behaviours is associated with lower socioeconomic status (SES), which we call “the behavioural constellation of deprivation.” We propose that the relatively limited control associated with lower SES curtails the extent to which people can expect to realise deferred rewards, leading to more present-oriented behaviour in a range of domains. We illustrate this idea using the specific factor of extrinsic mortality risk, an important factor in evolutionary theoretical models. We emphasise the idea that the present-oriented behaviours of the constellation are a contextually appropriate response to structural and ecological factors rather than a pathology or a failure of willpower. We highlight some principles from evolutionary theoretical models that can deepen our understanding of how socioeconomic inequalities can become amplified and embedded. These principles are that (1) small initial disparities can lead to larger eventual inequalities, (2) feedback loops can embed early-life circumstances, (3) constraints can breed further constraints, and (4) feedback loops can operate over generations. We discuss some of the mechanisms by which SES may influence behaviour. We then review how the contextually appropriate response perspective that we have outlined fits with other findings about control and temporal discounting. Finally, we discuss the implications of this interpretation for research and policy.

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