Slow life history strategies and increases in externalizing and internalizing problems during the COVID-19 pandemic

The ongoing COVID pandemic has had a psychological impact on people of all ages, including adolescents. Although the devastation wrought by COVID appears unprecedented, disease pandemics have recurred throughout human history. Any attempts to mitigate the psychological impact of the current pandemic should reflect the understanding that humans have evolved coping strategies shaped by evolutionarily recurrent adversities, including infectious diseases. Coping with environmental adversities requires coordination between physiological and psychological systems. These regulatory responses are known as fast and slow life history tradeoff strategies.

Throughout evolution, infectious diseases like the coronavirus and other mortality risks such as famine and war have prevented people from acquiring sufficient resources (e.g., food and safety) to support their life needs. Tradeoffs therefore occur between different needs. Individuals who invest more energy and time in growth and development are called slow life history strategists, whereas those who invest more in reproduction and less in growth and development are called fast life history strategists. Cognitively and behaviorally, fast strategists are oriented more to the present, whereas slow strategists are oriented more to the future.

When environmental risks are high, fast life-history strategies prevail because they increase the chances that they will be able to reproduce quickly before they die prematurely. However, when environments are safe and predictable, slow life history strategists outcompete fast strategists by investing in learning and long-term development. In short, evolution tends to couple safe and stable living environments, especially in childhood, with slow life history strategies but harsh and unpredictable childhood environments with fast life-history strategies.

We examined whether childhood environmental adversities and slow versus fast life-history strategies during adolescence were related to increases in young people’s externalizing behaviors (such as aggression) and internalizing problems (such as depression and anxiety) during the COVID pandemic. Participants included Black, White, and Latino young people from North Carolina who were originally recruited at the age of 8 and were interviewed annually after that. During the COVID pandemic, these participants were 20 years old, on average.

When participants were 10 years old, we assessed four aspects of childhood environmental adversity. First, children and their mothers each responded to 7 questions about the safety of their neighborhood (e.g., “My neighborhood is a dangerous place to live”). Second, children and their mothers indicated whether each of 5 aspects of chaos and disorder characterized their home life (e.g., “It’s a real zoo in our home”). Third, mothers indicated whether each of 10 unpredictable life events had occurred in the family (e.g., death of a family member). Fourth, mothers indicated whether their household had experienced financial instability during the last year (e.g., an income decrease of more than 25%).

When participants were 13 years old, we assessed adolescents’ life-history strategies related to insight, planning, and control (“Once I make a plan to get something done, I stick to it”); mother/father relationship quality (“Dad/mom makes it easy for me to confide in him/her”); family social contact and support (“Spend time with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles”); friends’ social contact and support (“I have friends that I really care about”); and general altruism (“I try to help others”).

When participants were age 20, they were asked to report whether and how four areas of their life (i.e., anger, argumentativeness, anxiety, and depression) changed during the COVID pandemic. Sample items included “I get in more arguments now than I did before the outbreak” and “I feel more anxious now than I did before the outbreak.”

We found that fast life-history strategies, measured long before the COVID pandemic, predicted a COVID-related increase in externalizing behavior. In addition, childhood environmental adversity predicted the development of faster life history strategies during adolescence, which in turn predicted an increase in externalizing behavior during the pandemic.

The cognitive and behavioral aspects of slow life-history strategies that involve planning, insight, and control are especially suited to handling infectious diseases, which are an evolutionarily recurrent mortality threat. Fast life history strategies involve taking risks rather than allocating energy to attempt to seize control of a precarious situation. Life history strategies prior to the pandemic influenced the ways young people coped with the pandemic and its preventive control measures. Youth on the slower end of the fast-slow life-history continuum were relatively more ready and determined to fight the pandemic, more willing to assume responsibilities, and more vigilant about taking precautionary measures such as mask-wearing, hand washing, and social distancing. Youth at the slower end also had fewer adjustment problems than those at the faster end, who are more likely to behave antagonistically when faced with adversities.

These findings suggest that the childhood environment shapes life-history strategies, which in turn redirect children into two distinguishable developmental pathways: one in which the negative impacts of childhood stress intensify and continue into the adulthood of fast life history strategists and the other that is followed by slow life history strategists who may resist and even reverse the detriments of childhood adversity.

Intensified and brought to the limelight by the COVID pandemic, this fast-slow contrast has manifested throughout the pandemic. Unprecedented public health measures have been implemented at local and national scales. Together with these behavioral control efforts were heightened conscientiousness, compliance and cooperation, compassion for fellow citizens, and respect for authority, all of which are manifestations of slow life-history strategies. Thus, environmental adversities during childhood and life history strategies during adolescence set the stage for how young people later coped with and responded to the COVID pandemic. For adults trying to help adolescents cope with and avoid risky behavior during the pandemic, these findings suggest the importance of tailoring public health messages in ways that are sensitive to earlier adversities adolescents may have experienced and to ways that individual adolescents respond to risks.

Citation to full research article:

Chang, L., Liu, Y. Y., Lu, H. J., Lansford, J. E., Bornstein, M. H., Steinberg, L., Deater-Deckard, K., Rothenberg, W. A., Skinner, A. T., & Dodge, K. A. (in press). Slow life history strategies and increases in externalizing and internalizing problems during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Research on Adolescence.


Jennifer E. Lansford is a Research Professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy and Faculty Fellow of the Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University, USA. She earned her PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Lansford leads the Parenting Across Cultures Project, a longitudinal study of children, mothers, and fathers from nine countries. She has consulted for UNICEF on evaluations of parenting programs and on the development of a set of international standards for parenting programs.

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