Culture and Psychological Responses to Environmental Shocks: Cultural Ecology of Sidama Impulsivity and Niche Construction in Southwest Ethiopia

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DOI: 10.1086/688213
Sidama people occupy a subsistence niche partitioned between traditional enset agropastoralism and transitional maize farming. Enset production is low risk and requires multiple years for cultivation and processing. Maize farming is high risk and high yield, requiring one growing season from planting to harvest. Contrasting enset and maize farming, we examine effects of crop loss and social shocks on Sidama impulsivity. We argue that impulsivity is a psychological process that is differentially activated by environmental shocks in the stable, traditional enset regime and unstable, transitional maize regime. Using a robust psychometric model derived from Barratt impulsiveness scale items, we demonstrate two dimensions of Sidama impulsivity: careful control (CC) and acts without thinking (AWT). Both dimensions are associated with environmental shocks, but the associations are moderated by social-ecological regimes. In the enset regime, effects of shocks on impulsivity are muted. However, increased impulsivity is significantly associated with shocks in the global market–dependent maize regime. Effects on CC were significant for social shocks but not crop loss, while AWT was associated with crop loss and social shocks. Results may indicate domain-specific aspects of impulsivity in response to environmental perturbation. Impulsivity may be adaptive in the context bidirectional predictive processing in active cultural niche construction.
Culture and Psychological Responses
to Environmental Shocks
Cultural Ecology of Sidama Impulsivity and Niche Construction
in Southwest Ethiopia
by Robert J. Quinlan, Samuel Jilo Dira, Mark Caudell,
and Marsha B. Quinlan
Sidama people occupy a subsistence niche partitioned between traditional enset agropastoralism and transitional
maize farming. Enset production is low risk and requires multiple years for cultivation and processing. Maize
farming is high risk and high yield, requiring one growing season from planting to harvest. Contrasting enset and
maize farming, we examine effects of crop loss and social shocks on Sidama impulsivity. We argue that impulsivity is
a psychological process that is differentially activated by environmental shocks in the stable, traditional enset regime
and unstable, transitional maize regime. Using a robust psychometric model derived from Barratt impulsiveness
scale items, we demonstrate two dimensions of Sidama impulsivity: careful control (CC) and acts without thinking
(AWT). Both dimensions are associated with environmental shocks, but the associations are moderated by social-
ecological regimes. In the enset regime, effects of shocks on impulsivity are muted. However, increased impulsivity is
signicantly associated with shocks in the global marketdependent maize regime. Effects on CC were signicant for
social shocks but not crop loss, while AWT was associated with crop loss and social shocks. Results may indicate
domain-specic aspects of impulsivity in response to environmental perturbation. Impulsivity may be adaptive in the
context bidirectional predictive processing in active cultural niche construction.
Human thought is cultural (Bloch 2012; DAndrade 1995;
Sperber and Hirchfeld 2004; Strauss and Quinn 1997). Fa-
miliar and shared ways of thinking that worked for extended
periods of timeoften generationsgive people reliable
mental models for action: How shall I greet a person of equal
status? What is the appropriate response to an insult? These
mental models inform predictable outcomes inferred through
regular interaction with people and environments in pat-
terned practices (Roepstorff et al. 2010). But how do people
react when favored habits and familiar actions result in un-
expected or undesirable outcomes? Culture change is an in-
trapsychic phenomenon when old perceptions of normality
are replaced by new ones. We wonder, what psychological
processes facilitate culture change, and when are they acti-
vated? We draw on insights from social-ecological systems,
niche construction, cognitive science, psychometrics, and cul-
tural ecology to examine impulsivity among Sidama people
occupying a fragmented subsistence niche at the intersection
of traditional enset and transitional maize production.
Recent developments in Sidama subsistence provide a case
study in culture change. Most Sidama are agropastoral farmers
living in the highlands to Rift Valley lowlands in Southwest
Ethiopia. People have grown enset (Ensete ventricosum [Welw.]
Cheesman), a root and stem staple crop, in this region since
prehistoric times (Brandt 1984, 1996). The Sidama are one of
the two most enset-reliant societies of the enset complex
(Brandt et al. 1997; Quinlan et al. 2014; see also Shack 1963).
Meanwhile, maize (Zea mays subsp. mays L.) is newer to the
Sidama Zone, recently expanding into Southwest Ethiopia
(McCann 2001). Maize has advantages relevant to local cli-
mate change (UNCCD 2014; WMO 2013): maize grows bet-
Robert J. Quinlan is an Associate Professor in the Department of
Anthropology at Washington State University (Pullman, Washington
99164, USA []). Samuel Jilo Dira is a Doctoral
Graduate in the Department of Anthropology at Washington State
University (Pullman, Washington 99164, USA) and a Former Lecturer
of Sociology and Anthropology in the Department of Behavioral Sci-
ence at Hawassa University (Hawassa, Ethiopia). Mark Caudell is a
Doctoral Graduate in the Department of Anthropology at Washington
State University (Pullman, Washington 99164, USA) and a Postdoc-
toral Researcher at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health,
Washington State University (Pullman, Washington 99164, USA).
Marsha B. Quinlan is an Associate Professor in the Department of
Anthropology at Washington State University (Pullman, Washington
99164, USA). This paper was submitted 10 XI 14, accepted 26 VII 15,
and electronically published 24 VIII 16.
q2016 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. All rights reserved. 0011-3204/2016/5705-00XX$10.00. DOI: 10.1086/688213
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ter than enset in drier weather, matures faster than enset, and
recovers quickly after crop loss (Quinlan et al. 2015). Still,
enset remains central to Sidama culture and identity.
We are interested in the ways social-ecological systems and
psychological processes shapeand are shaped bypresent-
day Sidama transformations. We contrast enset and maize
farming regimes as the focus of our analysis. We argue that
impulsiveness is a psychological process differentially acti-
vated in response to environmental shocks in the stable,
traditional enset regime compared with the unstable, transi-
tional maize regime. We use a robust psychometric model
derived from Barratt impulsiveness scale (BIS) items (Morean
et al. 2014) tailored for use in the Sidama Zone. We dem-
onstrate that two dimensions of Sidama impulsivity (careful
control [CC] and acts without thinking [AWT]) are associ-
ated with social shocks (death or serious illness in the family)
and crop loss. Social-ecological regimes moderate the asso-
ciations: in the traditional closed systemthe low-risk, slow-
recovery enset regimethe effect of crop loss on impulsivity
was muted. In contrast, impulsivity increased in response to
social shocks in both regimes, but the effect was enhanced in
the transitional, cross-scale, high-risk, fast-recovery maize farm-
ing regime. Two impulsivity dimensions (CC and AWT) re-
sponded differently to crop loss and social shocks: effects on CC
were signicant for social shocks and marginally signicant for
crop loss, while AWT was associated with crop loss and social
shocks. These results may indicate domain-specic aspects of
impulsivity responding to environmental perturbation. Impul-
construction (e.g., Kendal et al. 2011; Laland and Brown 2006;
OBrian and Laland 2012; Rowley-Conwy and Layton 2011).
Ethiopian agricultural traditions are ancient: domestication
occurred about 4,700 years ago for plants and 4,000 years ago
for livestock (Harrower et al. 2010; Hildebrand et al. 2010).
The East African cattle complex (Herskovitz 1926) appears
across the Horn of Africa and intersects with two main Ethi-
opian farming traditions. Crops coexist with the cattle complex
in a continuum of agropastoralism with a major role in shap-
ing African history and culture (Murdock 1959). In northern
Ethiopia, plow cultures dominate. These descendants of an-
cient civilizations (Pankhurst 2001) farm cerealsprimarily
teff but also wheat, barley, maize, sorghum, and millet. In
the south, hoe cultures are common, planting enset and root
cropspotatoes, sweet potatoes, yams (Westphal and Westphal-
Stevels 1975). Among Ethiopian hoe cultures, enset is by far
the most important staple, widely distributed throughout the
montane area of Southwest Ethiopia (Murdock 1959:42). South-
ern enset farming predates northern cereal domestication
(Hildebrand et al. 2010). Sidama farmers thus have deep his-
toric ethnobotanical knowledge about enset (Brandt et al. 1997;
Hildebrand 2009). Maize farming (detailed below) is a relative
newcomer to Ethiopia, especially in the south, where we ex-
amine transitions from enset to maize in social-ecological and
psychological perspectives.
Culture, Predictive Perception, and Systemic Shocks
An earlier generation of anthropologists (Hallowell 1941; Wal-
lace 1957a, 1957b) suggested that culture change is a psycho-
logical reorientation in response to perturbation: Wallace
(1957b) described maze way reorganization as a process re-
conguring culture in response to catastrophic shocks. Radi-
cally transformed social, economic, and physical environments
obliterate old habits and ways of thinking. The new normal, or
revitalized models, offer an updated adaptive strategy, where
old modes of living no longer meet expectations. Wallace uses a
mazeway metaphor with two components: (1) the maze is the
pattern of the world that maze runners must learn to survive
and succeed; (2) the way is the psychological representation
of the maze in the maze runners mind. Severe shocks cause a
radical change in the maze, requiring a rapid response from the
maze runner, who undergoes mazeway reorganization to learn
the new or deteriorated maze. We attempt to update this mid-
level theory and bring contemporary analysis to bear on pro-
cesses of culture change. Our approach shares similarities with
cultural consonance theory in a broad ecological and cognitive
context (e.g., Dressler 2012): when cultural consonance (the t
between cultural representations and lived experience) is weak,
impulsivity intervenes to reorient action.
Current theory in cognitive sciences (Clark 2013) suggests to
us that Wallaceswayrefers to top-down cognitive models
constructed through bottom-up sensory experience. Here cul-
tural perception involves a set of top-down models of expected
environments (mazes or regimes) that are t to bottom-up data
coming from the regime in a bidirectional action-oriented pre-
dictive process(Clark 2013:56). A persons internal state is a
kind of conversation between representations and sensory in-
formation interacting in a hierarchical structure to make sense of
the world. By acting on the external world, people generate new
information they can use to adjust higher level representations
(Clark 2013). Repeated interactions with social, economic, and
political aspects of the local environment result in patterned
practice shaping attention and expected environments in bidi-
rectional processes (Roepstorff et al. 2010). Patterned practice
accounts for the simultaneously phenotypic and environmental
aspects of culture that inuence each other through reciprocal
feedback (Flinn and Alexander 1982). This feedback suggests
both niche construction (e.g., Laland and Brown 2006) and
social-ecological systems models (e.g., Folke 2006; Folke et al.
2010; Oishi and Graham 2010; Walker et al. 2004). But here is
the rub: cultureperceptual and environmental components
is comfortable, resilient, and conservative, and people often
greet challenges to established habits with moral suspicion.
Despite cultural inertia, there must be a point at which we ask,
how much do we endure maladaptive habits before we aban-
don them? How do we abandon them? What psychological
mechanisms help us respond adaptively to unfullling culture?
Sensory data come from local environments. The world side
of patterned practices (the maze) has its own dynamics that
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are inuenced by and shape human perception and agency
(Davidson 2010; Oishi and Graham 2010; see also Kendal et al.
2011; Laland and Brown 2006). Social-ecological dynamics
involve basins of attraction that sometimes behave like local
equilibria and sometimes do not (Folke et al. 2010; Walker
et al. 2004). For people, attraction is not merely a mathemat-
ical property of an ecological system but a thing they can feel,
like gravity. Stability landscapes include multiple possible re-
gimes, congurations, or basins of attraction with properties
including stability, transformability, resilience, latitude, and so
on; these properties determine thresholds between alternative
regimes (Folke et al. 2010; Walker et al. 2004). Here, a social-
ecological regime is a collection of variables that respond sys-
tematically to perturbations. In response to perturbations,
social-ecological systems exhibit adaptive cycles with periods
of expansion, reorganization, and transformation that re-
spond to internal (local) and external (global) shocks (Folke
2006). An expansive r phase of the cycle may precede a con-
servative, stable K phase (Folke 2006; Walker et al. 2004). But
human agency is a missing element in social-ecological sys-
tems analysis (Davidson 2010). We are interested in analysis
that can bridge the divide: Our presumption, then [is] not
that values, attitudes and personality attributes [are] epiphe-
nomena . . . but rather that they [are] part and parcel of the
system itself (Edgerton 1971:24).
When a shock is substantial, adaptive perception may vault
thresholds between alternative congurations to facilitate maze-
way reorganization. Locally tuned personality may reduce the at-
traction of regimes encoded in cultural models. In part, thought
shaped by labile personality (even perceived pathological di-
mensions of personality) could drive people away from locally
maladaptive culture toward new possibilities. If traditional cul-
tural models do not work well, then one should stop thinking
with them.
Impulsivity is an aspect of personality that may facilitate
transition to new regimes by altering the balance of sensory
input and cultural models. Impulsivity, among other things,
is characterized by lack of premeditation, the tendency to
act without thinking, delay discounting, and sensation seeking
(Sharma et al. 2014; Stanford et al. 2009). We suggest a path-
way whereby unstable environments result in psychological
responsesincluding impulsivenessas a means of generat-
ing adaptive action.
We conceive of impulsivity as a context-dependent state
(Hamaker et al. 2007; Lewis 2001). We acknowledge that there
may be developmental stability in impulsivity (Boyce and Ellis
2005; Pepper and Nettle 2013; see also Nettle and Bateson
2015). However, key features of human responses to envi-
ronmental risk, though inuenced by developmental canali-
zation, show situational sensitivity statistically independent of
early development (Placek and Quinlan 2012; Quinlan 2010).
And impulsivity, specically, shows context dependence in
psychological experiments (Hinson et al. 2003; Sharma et al.
2014). Though the BIS, used here, was conceptualized for trait
measurement, factors for self-control and motor impulsiv-
ityincluding our CC and AWT items, respectivelyshow
1-month test-retest reliabilities (Spearmansr) of 0.67 for
motor and 0.73 for self-control (Stanford et al. 2009:387). BIS
motor and self-control scores account for about 45%53% of
variance in scores 1 month later. If we assume that none of the
1-month test-retest correlation is due to environmental con-
tinuity, there is still a large proportion of variance sensitive to
context. We suggest that Western personality psychologysem-
phasis on individual stability (and endogenous inuences) re-
ects Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic (WEIRD)
patterned practice (Henrich et al. 2010). We return to WEIRD
and variation in self-constructs in the discussion.
If cultural models shape thought, then we expect psycho-
logical mechanisms for turning off thought to be activated
when cultural models fail to provide desired (predicted) re-
sults. In this sense, culture is a set of mental representations of
the world that provide model goal statesand locally relevant
prior probabilities for thinking about achieving a goal (Clark
2013:6). Hence, people deploy a probabilistic or predictive
mind in planning action (Tousant 2009). The ow of infer-
ence respects Bayesian principles that balance prior expecta-
tions against new sensory evidencein bidirectionalprocess-
ing (Clark 2013:8). When new sensory evidence conicts with
culturally encoded prior expectations, then generating adaptive
action becomes a problem requiring a solution. When expec-
tations fail to t incoming information, then a bidirectional
predictive mind may activate impulsive behavior to generate
new input to reorganize top-down perception to t the new
Impulsivity is associated with multiple risk-taking behav-
iors (Lejuez et al. 2005; Robbins and Bryan 2004; Sharma
et al. 2014), suggesting its behavioral role in risky environ-
ments (Boyce and Ellis 2005; Chisholm 1999; Pepper and
Nettle 2013). Experimental manipulation shows that cognitive
noiseinterfering with inferential processesgenerates im-
pulsive immediate action, resulting in signicantly discounted
delayed rewards (Hinson et al. 2003). In these experiments,
cognitive noise may have effects similar to ecologically mis-
matched cultural modelsexperimentally manipulated cog-
nitive load and mismatched cultural models are impediments
to useful probabilistic inference for the task at hand. Impul-
sivity turns down higher-order predictive models that do not
work (fail to predict bottom-up signals) and simultaneously
turns up sensory input (like the gain stage in an amplier) to
arrive at new, better-tting cultural representations. Impul-
sivity generates exploratory behavior that provides new sen-
sory input to help derive new patterned practices. Our hy-
pothesis is that impulsiveness is an adaptation to unstable or
transitional environments, implying that once the transition
is complete, new models provide reliable predictions for ac-
tion, and impulsiveness is deactivated awaiting some future
where the old/new representations no longer yield useful pre-
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Sidama Subsistence Schema and Social-Ecological
The Sidama niche is partitioned into traditional enset and tran-
sitional maize farming (Quinlan et al. 2015). These two niches
involve well-elaborated, easily expressed cognitive schema or
cultural theories of agricultural production. Enset farming is a
relatively stable closed system with deep roots in time (Quinlan
et al. 2014): livestock provide fertilizer for enset and milk for
humans, and enset provides fodder for cattle and starch for
humans. Enset is drought resistant and has a relatively low
risk of crop loss, though recovery times are long (Quinlan et al.
2015). Enset farmers are in the K (stable conservative) stage.
Maize farming, recently introduced (ca. 1950), is unstable and
exposed to global shocks: risk of crop loss is high, given sen-
sitivity to seasonal variation in rainfall. Maize also requires
commercial fertilizer for adequate production, which is subject
to substantial global price uctuations. However, maize farms
show better engineering resilience (time to recovery [Pimm
1991]) than do enset farms. Maize farmers are in the r (or ex-
pansion) stage of the adaptive cycle (Quinlan et al. 2015).
Farming in Ethiopia is a high-risk endeavor. Nearly 40% of
Sidama farmers report losing half or more of their food crops
in recent years, and crop loss leads to large decits in per
capita caloric production (Quinlan et al. 2015). Other cash
crops may offset food crop losses. Coffee and chat (a mild stim-
ulant sometimes called khat in Kenya, Somalia, and Yemen) are
present in a small proportion of Sidama farms, and almost no
Sidama reported either as their primary crop. Less than 7% of
our sample grew any coffee or chat. The low frequency of these
cash crops does not allow us to adequately assess their effect on
risk, though preliminary analyses indicated that cash crops ef-
fects varied locally and did not substantially alter the analyses
presented below. Future work requires larger samples to iden-
tify emerging factors in Sidama vulnerability and resilience. We
include controls for more common assets to assess effects on
risk buffering.
Enset farming has a clear, time-tested cultural model of pro-
duction and diet (Quinlan et al. 2014, 2015). Sidama people
readily talk about this enset-livestock complex as a system,
the parts of which they understand well. Enset ethnobio-
logical classication is highly elaborated, indicating sub-
stantial time depth for the Sidama-enset relationship (Quinlan
et al. 2014). Indeed, traditional Sidama mine (house/yard) and
gate (gardens) comprise compounds structured around enset
production (Quinlan et al. 2015). Above an elevation of 1,400 m
with sufcient rainfall, the Sidama cultural theory of enset
production works perfectly as described, and we have empiri-
cally veried multivariate production results (Quinlan et al.
2015). Enset and waasa, the processed food it provides, are
cherished commodities. But Sidama report a decline in the
predictability and amount of rainfall since the mid-1970s. En-
set does not provide adequate caloric returns in some areas
where it once thrived (Quinlan et al. 2015).
Maize farming expanded and matured in Southwest Ethiopia
recently from 1950 to 1975 (McCann 2001). In areas where a
signicant proportion of smallholders now grow maize, Si-
dama note that their parents hardly knew of it. In other Sidama
districts, maize replaced enset as the primary crop (Quinlan
et al. 2015). Traditionally, maize is a less preferredfood to enset,
and Sidama express little attachment to or identity drawn from
maize production. In some areas, however, maize is gaining
appeal as the preferred food, especially among younger people.
A cultural schema or theory of maize production is evident and
includes use of chemical fertilizer that is very sensitive to price
uctuations and global shocks distant from the everyday life
of Sidama people (detailed later). During the late 1970s and
1980s, in an attempt to address food insecurity and land
shortage, the communist Derg regime subsidized maize pro-
duction, providing hybrid seeds and fertilizer. Neoliberalism
introduced after the fall of the Derg regime in the 1990s, com-
mon throughout sub-Saharan Africa (Little 2014), left maize
adopters more vulnerable to global uctuations in prices for
maize inputs and surplus sales than was experienced with gov-
ernment subsidies.
Although maize often provides large yields, it is sensitive to
annual variations in rainfall. Maize farms have high crop loss
rates, twice that of enset farms, but they recover quickly from
shocks: nearly 100% of Sidama maize farmers reported
household recovery after 4 years of crop failure, compared
with 50% of enset farmers reporting recovery in 6 years
(Quinlan et al. 2015).
We compare the psychological response of Sidama farmers
to crop loss and social shocks in the traditional, lower-risk,
long-recovery enset regime and the transitional, high-risk,
short-recovery maize regime. These regimes have biological,
ecological, and social structural properties evident in different
Sidama environments. And these structural characteristics
inform and are transformed by Sidama cultural perceptions
of subsistence, market potential, and expected environments.
Field and Analytical Methods
Qualitative data were collected via key informant interviews
and focus groups to establish recent local history of environ-
mental perturbations, individual accounts of salient events,
cultural models of production, and the range of traditional and
transitional values in Sidama Zone. Our work was guided by
principles of collaborative ethnography (Lassiter 2005) de-
tailed elsewhere (Quinlan et al. 2015). Qualitative interviews
and focus groups were translated from Sidama to English by
senior project personnel Amalo Sooge and Samuel Jilo Dira
during the course of the interviews. Other senior personnel
(Robert J. Quinlan, Marsha B. Quinlan, Mark Caudell, and
Awoke Assoma) took notes during interviews, which we rou-
tinely transcribed within 24 hours and shared with senior Sidama
personnel who cross-checked the notes for accuracy while the
interviews were still fresh.
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Quantitative data were collected by oral self-report ques-
tionnaires concerning household demography, health, impul-
sivity, and production. The instrument included more than
200 items covering topics yielding data for comparison with
other social and economic studies in Africa. Interviewers were
ve native Sidama, trilingual (Sidama, Amharic, and English)
research assistantsfour with university degrees and three
with prior survey research experience. The research assistants
initially received the instrument in English and Amharic, and
then research assistants and senior personnel developed ap-
propriate Sidama translations together. Senior personnel eld-
tested the Sidama language instrument. Then, Sidama research
assistants received 1 week of training in instrument adminis-
tration. During the rst week of data collection, Sidama as-
sistants worked in teams of two supervised by senior personnel
to ensure uniformity in instrument administration. Surveys
took 3090 minutes to complete. Subsequent quality control
checks indicated that one interviewer had substantial difculty
with psychological portions of the interview. Data for this
interviewer were excluded from analyses below.
Selecting an impulsivity scale required close attention to
linguistic properties of the instrument, number of items, and
the cultural relevance of impulsiveness items. Prior pilot re-
search on personality measures indicated that the short form
of the BIS (BIS 15; Spinella 2007) was the best mix of language
with simple grammatical structures, relatively few culture-
bound items (questions about skydiving or driving fast), and a
well-documented short scale for inclusion in a longer instru-
ment without substantially contributing to informant fatigue.
In general, the BIS shows convergent validity in neuroimaging
studies of impulsiveness in clinical populations and reliability
and validity that is useful in normative populations (Spinella
2007). However, the BIS-15 required minor modication for a
subsistence population with low literacy rates (51% of our sam-
ple was illiterate, and 67% did not complete primary school).
Modications included removing items referring to attention
in a lecture setting and one item about complex problems that
proved difcult to translate. We detail factor structure for BIS
items below.
We created a judgment sample of four districts (woreda)
representing a range of ecological and economic variation in the
Sidama Zone. Each Sidama assistant was randomly assigned a
different kebele (neighborhood) within the district. Within the
kebele, assistants obtained a convenience sample, recruiting par-
ticipants as they encountered adults while walking main neigh-
borhood footpaths. We set a target sample size of 100 for each
woreda. When we reached that target, we moved on to the next
woreda. This sampling strategy balanced representative sam-
pling and research efciency. Random sampling of households
would have dramatically increased research time and expenses
beyond our budget constraints. We did not achieve the target
sample in the Lokka Abaya district. Heightened ethnic tension
and potential for violent conict between Sidama and neigh-
boring Wolayta people posed an unacceptable risk for the re-
search team, so we terminated data collection after interviewing
72 Lokka Abaya households. Because we employed multiple
interviewers and neighborhoods were randomly assigned, we do
not believe our sampling method introduced systematic bias.
We do not claim that our analyses represent precise population
estimates; however, these data are suitable for generating ac-
curate statistical associations to examine effects on production,
risk, and resilience in the Sidama Zone.
Our interest is the environmental activation of impulsive-
ness in the context of high-risk cultural subsistence regimes
versus low-risk regimes. We examine two dimensions of im-
pulsiveness: CC and AWT (described below). Environmental
risk is appraised by loss of half or more of crops in the past
5 years as a proxy for economic shocks and by death or serious
illness of a household member in the past 5 years as a proxy of
social shocks. Alternate cultural ecological regimes for sub-
sistence are indicated by enset or maize as the primary crop
(enset p1, maize p0), that is, the rst crop listed in a mini
free list task, followed by self-report ranking of crops by im-
portance. Land, tropical livestock units (TLUs) are the main
and most reliable indicators of Sidama assets, which may
buffer the effects of shocks on impulsivity. Food aid (1 p
received food aid, 0pdid not) and distance from the admin-
istrative/market center (minutes on foot) were included as
potential buffers of shocks in subsequent analyses. Age, sex,
and woreda are controls. In three separate models (discussed
below), we examine psychological response to environmental
risk with interaction terms for crop loss #regime and social
shock #regime. We use a mixed-effects model to adjust for
random interviewer effects. Most basic demographic and eco-
nomic data do not show interviewer effects (nor does ours);
however, we have found that psychological and attitudinal data
often exhibit signicant interviewer effects (Aunger 2004). We
treat randomintercepts for interviewers as a nuisance parameter
in these analyses. Yet translation and interviewer effects in
cross-cultural psychological instrumentation are topics worthy
of expansion (Gurven et al. 2013; Henrich et al. 2010).
Sidama Farming and Risk
The Sidama are a Cushitic-speaking people inhabiting areas
between the Rift Valley lakes of Awassa and Abaya in south-
western Ethiopia (Hamer 1987; see g. 1). Most Sidama reside
in the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and PeoplesRegion
(SNNPR), the most rural of the nine states in the Federal
Democratic Republic of Ethiopia (g. 1; CSAE 2013). The
SNNPR contains 18 zones and special districts, with bound-
aries demarcated along ethnic lines; hence, most Sidama live
in the Sidama Zone (Aalen 2011; CSAE 2013). Census gures
estimate 3 million Sidama, the fth largest ethnic group in
Ethiopia (CSAE 2013) in a country with more than 80 distinct
ethnicities (Levine 2000).
Sidama say that their ancestors were pastoralists and enset
farmers who formed two kinship groups, Bushe and Maldeha,
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subdivided into patrilineal, patrilocal, exogamous clans (Hailu
and Regassa 2007; Hamer 1987). Traditionally, the economy
revolved around subsistence agriculture and barter-based ex-
change. Sidama traded iron widely and used iron for bride-
wealth. Since the 1890s, Sidama increasingly incorporated
foreign currencies into their economy (Hamer 2009). Esti-
mates from our unpublished data indicate polygyny for 13%
of married men (for similar estimates, see Hailu and Regassa
2007). Polygyny is declining with the spread of Christianity,
human immunodeciency virus (HIV)/acquired immune de-
ciency syndrome, increases in educational expenses for chil-
dren, and decreases in wealth (Hailu and Regassa 2007). Around
90% of Sidama identify as Christians, while 6% are Muslim and
3% retain traditional beliefs (CSAE 2013). More than 50% of
our sample was illiterate, and 33% had nished primary school.
Sidama are generally poor by international standards: they
have few consumer items, average landholding is less than 2 ha,
average household TLUs is less than 2, and few households
earn wages or have cash savings. Fertility is high: women over
42 years of age have 5.8 surviving children on average (Rob-
ert J. Quinlan, unpublished data). Given high fertility and mi-
nimal land, the subsistence system seems unsustainable with-
out radical changes.
Rural Sidama are generally subsistence agropastoralists
(Asfaw and Ågren 2007; CSAE 2013; Hamer 1987). Enset, the
main and preferred food in much of the zone, provides more
calories per unit area than do most cereals, and it is drought
resistant. These characteristics of enset are especially impor-
tant in southern Ethiopia, given dramatic increases in popu-
lation density and frequency of droughts in the past 30 years
(Asfaw and Ågren 2007). Cattle play an important role in
Sidama subsistence and culture (Hamer 1987). Sidama raise
zebu cattle, Bos primigenius indicus, which they primarily use
for dairy and fertilizer. They usually limit beef consumption
to ceremonies (e.g., marriage, funeral) or natural death of the
animal. Cattle are the main form of household savings, and
informal insurance networks depend on connections among
cattle owners (Caudell et al. 2015). Sidama also keep goats
(arsi-bale Rift Vally goat, Capra aegagrus hircus), sheep (Ethi-
opian menz and horro breeds, Ovis aries), and chickens (Gallus
gallus domesticus) forconsumption and sale (Asfawand Ågren
2007). Sidama generally convert and save cash in the form of
livestock (Yilma 2001).
Maize, in contrast to enset, is a newcomer to Ethiopia. First
documented in 1623 and accurately identied in 1810, maize
was not widespread in Southwest Ethiopia until the mid-
Figure 1. Southern Nations, Nationalities, and PeoplesRegion, Ethiopia, andSidama studyarea. A color version of this gure is available
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1970s (McCann 2001). Several features contribute to maizes
spread: it needs only one plowing before planting (other
cereals require up to four plowings), available varieties re-
quire relatively little weeding, maize has a higher caloric re-
turn per kilogram than enset, and it provides a high yield in a
short time. However, farmers relying on maize gambled that
the rains would come on time(McCann 2001:265). Maize is
also subject to global-scale market processes: Sidama people
say maize productivity can be increased by as much 100% by
using chemical fertilizer, and 50 kg of chemical fertilizer can
double the output of a half-hectare of maize. An empirical
study of maize production in the Sidama Zone indicates a
76% increase in maize production per hectare with 50 kg of
fertilizer (Quinlan et al. 2015). Sidama farmers said the cost
of fertilizer was an important constraint on maize produc-
tivity. One bag of fertilizer was approximately 60 Ethiopian
Birr (!US$3) in the year 2000 but increased dramatically to
800 Birr (US$40) by 2012. Price hikes put chemical fertilizer
out of reach for most Sidama farmers. Variation in maize
productivity and fertilizer costs also contributed to economic
insecurity, exacerbating the 2003 famine in Boricha District.
Sidama farmers described a bumper 2001 maize crop causing
a severe maize price decline, and maize became a less attrac-
tive crop in subsequent years. Following the MultiNational
Force Iraq War, nitrogenous fertilizer price increased as oil
price increased (Wright 2011). Increased fertilizer cost and
declines in maize prices set the scene for food insecurity. By
2012, average expense for chemical fertilizer in our samples
most maize-dependent district (Hawassa Zuria) was 382 Birr
(Quinlan et al. 2015), not enough to fertilize a quarter hectare
of maize.
Our analysis depends on four Sidama communities repre-
senting a range of Sidama ecological and geographic varia-
tion: Arbegona in the Sidama highlands, Boricha straddling
the midlands and lowlands, Lokka Abaya in the lowlands,
and Hawassa Zuria in the peri-urban zone of Hawassa city,
the capital of the SNNPR. For more detailed site descriptions,
see Quinlan et al. (2015).
Arbegona woreda (home to the Harbee and Harbagona
clans) is about 74 km from Hawassa city in the highland east
of Sidama Zone, bordering Oromia state. The majority of the
population practices mixed subsistence agriculture. Arbegona
receives substantial rainfall (up to 2,500 mm in long rainy
seasons from June to September). At an elevation of approxi-
mately 2,600 m, Arbegona is wet and cool. Highland climate
buffered Arbegona from drought experienced elsewhere in the
Sidama Zone in recent history. However, Arbegona was at the
center of armed conict through much of the 1980s. Many
consider Arbegona and other highland areas the archetypical
landscape of the Sidama Zone. Arbegona people are almost
exclusively enset farmers, and there is a very low risk of crop
loss (!3% over 5 years; Quinlan et al. 2015).
Boricha (Yanese clan homeland) is a densely populated
woreda in the center of the Sidama Zone, about 39 km south
of Hawassa. Elevation ranges between 560 and 1,700 m. Bo-
richa receives bimodal rainfall, ranging from 56 mm during
March through May to 180 mm from June through October.
Boricha had a recent history of periodic drought leading to
famine in 19981999, 2001, 2003, and 2008. The woreda was
the site of intense relief efforts, including food and development
aid in recent years. Enset is the primary crop for most Yanese,
but they also grow maize as a secondary crop (Quinlan et al.
2015). Five-year crop loss rates are high (47%; Quinlan et al.
Lokka Abaya woreda is at the western border of the
Sidama Zone, located about 50 km southwest of Hawassa.
The topography is at, with a downhill gradient from east to
west toward Bilate River, with an elevation of 5601,700 m.
This is a low-precipitation area with erratic rainfall during two
rainy seasons, the belg rains (FebruaryApril) and the kiremt
rains (July to early October). This districts recent drought
history is similar to Boricha. In addition to occasional drought
and famine, the Sidama people of Lokka Abaya experience
periodic armed conict with the neighboring Wolayta people
(Aalen 2011). Enset is the primary crop for most people in
Lokka Abaya, but they also grow maize as a secondary crop,
and 5-year crop loss is high (51%; Quinlan et al. 2015).
Hawassa Zuria woreda is along the shores of Lake Hawassa
within a less than 1-hour bus commute to Hawassa city, capital
of the SNNPR. Average elevation is 1,700 m, with mean an-
nual rainfall ranging from 900 to 1400 mm. Hawassa Zuria is
dependent on maize as the primary crop, and 5-year crop loss
risk is highest of all four woreda at 57% (Quinlan et al. 2015).
Oral History of Sidama Systemic Shocks
Drying climate and related food insecurities destabilize com-
munities. The vast majority of the worlds armed conicts occur
in vulnerable dry ecosystems (UNCCD 2014), compounding
other regional shocks. Our interviews with Sidama elders re-
veal a recent history replete with a series of major shocks, in-
cluding war, drought, famine, disease, and disintegration of
traditional regulatory and cooperative institutions. The follow-
ing are edited excerpts from eld notes indicating the typical
range of environmental and social shocks experienced over the
past half century in the Sidama Zone.
Drought, Crop Loss, and Famine
Gobaro and Sarmiso, elderly men in the Boricha woreda, shared
their memories about the climate with us. Gobaro said that he
was 120 years old, then he pointed to his 12-year-old grandson,
indicating that he was about that age at the beginning of the
Italian occupation, making Gobaro approximately 90 years old.
Gobaro stated that until about 40 years ago, Boricha was green
and there was plenty of rain. There was enough rain for people,
crops, and cattle. Sarmiso, who is about 80 years old, recounted
that years ago, though their community in Boricha had no
river, water was not a problem. There was rain, and they had
enough water. People came together to help each other dig big
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catchment holes to collect rain water for people and cattle:
During the rainy season, the holes would ll up and provide
enough water for the entire year.Sarmiso added, Every year,
just at the end of the dry season, people cleaned out the holes in
preparation for the next rainy season. There was plenty of water
then.These catchment holes have since fallen into disrepair,
and weeds have taken over.
Gobaro emphasized that the weather became dry, as it is
now, beginning in the 1970s, near the end of Haile Selassies
reign. Despite our prompts, neither he nor his adult sons,
who joined us, were able to identify a specic drought until
1985. In 1985, Boricha was hard hit by the Great Ethiopian
Famine of the mid-1980s, the result of drought and war. Sarmiso
and his son recalled that the dry period did not start all at once,
but gradually over time, each year had a little less rain, until
nally in 1985 there was a serious drought. Sarmiso said that
after the 1985 drought, the rains returned, and slowly his farm
began to produce again, but it never returned to the productiv-
ity he had before that drought.
Gobaro and his sons indicated that recent droughts in 2003
and 2009 had not been as serious as in 1985 but were more
like this year [2012]. Normally, the rainy season begins in
January . . . but this year [as in 20082009] the rain did not
come until much later. When the rains are late, crops suffer,
and sometimes the late rains are not enough. Now they have
to bring in water from other places and pay as much as 10 Birr
for one jerrycan.Sidama repeatedly told us that the rain is
not reliablelike it used to be. In some dry years, we dont
even try to harvest maize, but just leave it in the eld for cattle
to graze.
Idalya, an elderly woman from Boricha, told us, In the old
days, only 4 months were dry, and what we grew during the
rainy season we used to eat for a long time.She explained
that the harvest is in September, and there was always plenty
to eat: We used to have enough food to last the whole year,
and even had food left from the previous year when the harvest
came in. But in recent decades, it is not like this. It has been
dry. There have been droughts and crop failures. There is not
enough to eat.
In contrast, highland Sidama in Arbegona are not rain stressed.
The highlands tend to be very wet in all but one 3-month sea-
son. It was a coincidence that during the Great Famine of 1983
1985, some highland enset areas suffered a bacterial wilt dis-
ease (Xanthomonas campestras pv. musacearum;seeAshagari
1985), while drought wiped out crops at lower elevations.
Most highland Sidama remained unaffected by drought.
When we asked 60-year-old Ishine about the 2003 and 2009
droughts, he said, I heard about it. There was even drought
in [neighboring] Bensa. It was hard on most of Sidamaland,
but not in Arbegona. There was really no problem here. Things
were as they are now.
Among Sidama agropastoralists, drought devastates not
just crops but the entire balance of the system. We asked one
middle-aged man how drought affected his cattle, and he
replied sympathetically, It is difcult to say, but cattle suf-
fered just as the people did.He noted that people traded
cattle for grain to eat during hard times, leaving them no way
to recover their investment: In the old days, a high-status
person might have 20 cattle. Now, a high-status person has
maybe ve cattle.Another man of 60 years added, In the
past . . . they had large corrals. They had more variety of
breeds. . . . Back then, the price of cattle was very low. Now
one cow will bring a high price. The prices have gone way
up.Similarly, Sarmiso, a Boricha elder, explained:
Cattle and especially milk cows are important for food and
status. During the drought, people would sell their only
milk cow to buy maize to eat. They would sell one milk cow
for 1 quintal (100-kg bag) of maize. Before the drought,
1 quintal cost 35 Birr. By the time the drought was severe,
1 quintal was up to 100 Birr. I had saved up 8 quintals of
maize that I sold in Hawassa at the height of the drought.
I had so much money, I had no idea where to put it. During
those years [mid-1980s], people here sold off so many cattle
that the cattle population never recovered.
Multiple Sidama told us that nowadays they need com-
mercial fertilizer to be nearly as productive as in the old days,
but price increases put fertilizer out of reach for many Sidama
farmers. They explained to us that one-half hectare of maize,
fertilized, yields 6 or 7 quintals (bags) of corn. Without fertil-
izer, that same one-half hectare yields about 3 quintalsmuch
less if it is a dry year. They said that they began using fertilizer
during the Derg regime years, when seeds and fertilizer were
subsidized; before that, there was no chemical fertilizer.
In highland Arbegona, enset remains the primary and al-
most exclusive staple crop, but even there they farm less of it
than in the past. Sixty-year-old Ishine said, We used to pro-
duce a lot more [enset], but now we have less land and produce
less. Now land is relatively scarcepopulation growth has
made it scarce. There is also less variety of crops.
People said that they value enset for its hardiness. Enset is
generally drought resistant for short periods (Brandt et al. 1997;
Mohammed et al. 2013). In 1985, Gobaro lost all of his maize
and everything else except enset.Gobaro and his sons em-
phasized that enset is the only crop that survives drought, and
that without it they could not continue here (in Boricha).
Gobaro and his sons mentioned repeatedly that enset is very
important for living here in this dry area. People and cattle rely
on it, because it is the only drought-resistant crop they have.
Gobaro motioned toward the cattle eating enset leaf stalks.
Warfare and Violence
Ethiopia had a long imperial period from approximately 1137
CE until 1974, when Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed.
There was tribal conict within the empire, including among
Sidama. For example, Ishine, a Sidama man of about 60 years,
recounted a war between the Sidama and the Oromo when he
was a young boy around 1960:
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There was a war, an ethnic conict between the Sidama and
the Oromo. People ran away from their farms. Men aban-
doned their farms to go become heroes in the war. No one
was working the farms, and so there was no food. People
had no food, and they ate grass. Many people died. The
women and children had to move to escape the ghting. My
family ran away to Aleta. There was ghting with the Amhara
[majority ethnic group] too because the Amhara [i.e., Amhara
government troops] came to control the conict between the
Sidama and the Oromo.
In 1974, the communist Derg regime overthrew Emperor
Haile Selassie in a coup detat. Thereafter, opposition to the
Derg reign caused the Ethiopian Civil War, which was brutal
on both sides, including executions, torture, imprisonment
without trial, and the loss of 1.4 million lives (Valentino 2004;
Young 1997). Many Sidama were killed during the Civil War.
In Sidamaland, the Derg redistributed rural land from no-
bility and landlords; however, excessive socialization mea-
sures such as nationalization of land and resettlement curtailed
smallholders hope of autonomy and self-rule (Kinkino 2013).
After the 1974 Derg coup, the Sidama split into two fac-
tions: Derg supporters and the guerilla Sidama Liberation
Front (SLF; Kinkino 2013). Warfare escalated in 1981 when
the antigovernment SLF movement stepped up its activities
(Hamer 1996).
Tona, a 65-year-old man, explained that after the Derg
came to power, the ghting over borderlands continued be-
tween the Sidama and Oromo. Tona was a Sidama ofcer
(called meto alike, chief of 100 men, in Amharic), and he would
stay away from home, ghting for 2 months at a time, while his
wife and children took care of his farm and armed guards
protected the village against Oromo raiders. After those con-
icts, there was peace for a few years until about 1981, when
the Sidama rebellion began.
Koroso and Lencha, friends and elderly men, were em-
phatic that the hardest time the Sidama ever endured was
during the Sidama Rebellion, when some Sidama (SLF) were
ghting against the Derg and their Sidama militia allies. They
explained that some men went off to the forest to train with
the SLF. When those men returned, They targeted only Am-
hara [government outsiders] at rst, but soon they were kill-
ing everyone.Koroso and Lencha corroborated what several
others had shared, that the SLF came through the Arbegona
highlands, took all of the cattle, abducted many women, and
killed many men. Koroso and Lencha noted that some men tried
to join the SLF in hopes of getting their cattle and women back.
They followed the SLF back into their forest hideout. Sometimes
the Derg troops would catch the men following the SLF and
kill them. During the dry season, forest foliage was less dense,
and the Derg army sent helicopters to nd the SLF camps, drive
away, and kill the SLF. Some Sidama moved back to their homes
during the dry season, when the SLF were suppressed. But in
the rainy season when the forest was lush, the helicopters could
not nd the SLF in the forest, and they resumed raiding the local
farms. Many local farmers ran away from their woreda and the
Tona, the chief of 100 men in the pro-Derg militia, ex-
plained that most people lost cattle to the SLF. During the
rebellion, we could hear gun re in the distance,he said.
When he heard that, he arranged to move his cattle to a safe
place. First, he moved them to his dry season place and then
later to another area. While Tonas uncle was attempting
to drive a combined herd of Tonas and his uncles cattle to
safety, the rebel SLF killed his uncle. It happened just down
there by the river,Tona said, gesturing to the river, about
150 m away. For safety from the SLF, Tona moved his family
from the countryside to the town of Yaye, where men were
posted to defend the town. The rebels burned one end of the
town, but they never captured the whole town.
After the war, it took Tona about 3 years to recover his
farm. He was fortunate not to lose cattle or crops to the SLF.
In his abandoned elds, he lost manyespecially smaller
enset plants to pests, but with cattle intact, he recovered. Tona
says it took other Derg supporting families longer, maybe 5
or 6 years, to recover. Families of SLF members took the
longest to recover: When someone went with the rebels, the
Derg forces would destroy his house and crops, and he would
have to start again from nothing after the war.Tona said that
it took those families a long time, more than 6 or 7 years, to
recover. Others told us that many families never recovered
from the war.
Violent conicts occasionally still occur in the Sidama Zone.
Long-standing tensions between Sidama and neighboring Wo-
layta in Lokka Abaya woreda ared over control of the re-
gional capital of Hawassa during our visit in 2012.
Disease and Epidemics
The most devastating human disease that Sidama mentioned
was a smallpox epidemic during the mid-1950s. Many people
were affected, young and old alike. An Arbegona man re-
called that there was a kind of stigma attached to smallpox.
Healthy people would not get close to sick people. They would
bring food to the sick people, leave it by their door, and run
away. Many people died. The epidemic lasted for about 3 years.
The outbreaks were kind of isolated, and it did not affect ev-
eryone in a village because people would stay away. Then there
would be another case in another village. He said that small-
pox had affected subsistence during those years because some
people could not work while they were sick and some people
died. But the livelihood rebounded shortly after the epidemic
Several Sidama indicated that the human disease called ajiite
was a serious periodic problem. The worst outbreak of it hap-
pened during the reign of Haile Selassie. There was no treat-
ment for it then, but the Derg introduced effective treatment.
Ajiite includes a bad headache, fever, and bloody nose. People
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lose all appetite. The disease comes at the end of the rainy
season, and outbreaks last for about 3 months. A single out-
break used to kill many people. In theworst cases, people would
get sick and die within about 15 days.
Another human disease, xanne (typhus), causes bloody
diarrhea, severe stomachache, and loss of appetite, and it kills
many people. This epidemic came about 40 years ago and is
better treated now, though people still get it sometimes.
The 2004 HIV prevalence rate for rural Ethiopia, including
Sidamaland, was estimated at around 3% (SNNPR Regional
Health Bureau and AIDS Secretariat 2003; UNAIDS and WHO
2004). Awareness of the disease changes traditional behaviors,
such as nursing another mothers child. One mother explained,
You cant let another woman, even your sister, feedyour baby
anymore because you cant know a persons health status.
Institutional Shocks
Ishine, a 60-year-old man, explained that when he was young,
the elders had a lot of power, and they decided how to live.
Everyone listened to them. They would solve conicts and or-
ganize cooperation. The coming of Christianity changed things
a lot. Christianity made people more individualistic, but con-
ict was reduced a lot, and people became more peaceful. Now
the government, rather than elders, solves conicts between
people. Other Sidama indicated that the Derg regime targeted
the traditional generational luwa system, whereby male elders
coordinate collective action and resolve disputes. Young (col-
lege student) Derg organizers stripped the elders of their tra-
ditional power, even forcing respected elders to pick up cow
shit,as they reorganized Sidama cooperation into neighbor-
hood self-help cells.
Some people said that the newly individualistic Sidama are
not as collaborative as the Sidama were in the past. See Ellison
(2006) and Watson (2006) for parallel increases in individu-
ality among nearby Konso people in response to market lib-
eralization (Little 2014). For example, when we asked Gobaro
and his sons what they think caused the change in the weather
40 years ago, they responded that only God knows, adding that
in the old days, people would come together to pray for God to
send rain: Today there is a breakdown of society, and there is
no respect for such traditions. People do not come together like
they used to, but they pray on their own for rain.
Dimensions of Sidama Impulsiveness
Sidama language has no word for impulsiveness. Baashicha
comes close. Baashicha derives from baashe, a term meaning
decient used to describe undesirable resource availability or
scarcity in the midst of plenty. Baashe is a state in which
people may farm a large piece of land but earn less yield,
where there are much higher food prices than expected, and
where costs of basic needs are more than the value of basic
commodities. In a baashe world, established norms erode, re-
spect for elders is not observed, and traditional cooperative
networks become dysfunctional. People can be baashicha when
they seem to have a lot but are unable to save, they spend their
wealth on trivial things, and they are careless with their pos-
sessions. A baashicha person is cavalier, behaving outside of es-
tablished cultural models. They are disobedient children, youths
disrespectful to their elders, and spendthrifts.
We used the BIS with Sidama people. Through exploratory
factor analysis, we developed two scales of impulsiveness ap-
proximating self-regulation and impulsive behavior (Morean
et al. 2014). We started with eight BIS items, following Morean
et al. (2014). We set the minimum criteria for the scale as
follows: (1) each item must load F0.5Fon one factor, (2) each
factor must have at least three items, and (3) cross-loadings
must be !0.32 (Morean et al. 2014) The eight-item factor so-
lution using varimax rotation gave two factors (not shown),
with two items loading !0.5: I concentrate easilyloaded at
20.26 on the second factor, and I act on impulseloaded at
0.42 on the second factor. I act on impulsewas a replacement
for I act on the spur of the moment,for which we could not
develop an acceptable Sidama translation. Act on impulse
and act on the spur of the momentcome from the same
packet of BIS items (Morean et al. 2014). We removed the two
items with low loadings and repeated the analysis, yielding the
factor solution in table 1 comparing Sidama factors with item
loadings reported for a US population (Morean et al. 2014).
We labeled the rst factor CC, with positive loadings for I
plan tasks carefully,”“I am self-controlled,and I am a careful
thinker(table 1). Cronbach alpha for items loading on CC was
0.68, indicating useful reliability. We labeled the second factor
AWT, which had positive loadings for I say things without
thinking,”“I do things without thinking,and Idont pay at-
tention.Cronbach alpha for items loading on AWT was 0.61,
indicating minimally useful reliability.
Effect of Shocks on Impulsivity in Traditional
and Transitional Regimes
Descriptive statistics are shown in table 2. About 77% of our
sample indicated that they were primarily enset farmers; 35%
experienced crop loss in the past 5 years, and 26% experi-
enced social shocks.
Model 1 (table 3) shows that experience of social shocks
was associated with decreased CC by about 60% of 1 SD (Pp
.004). Crop loss also showed a marginally signicant associ-
ation with reduced CC (Pp.055). The interaction between
farming regime and social shock was associated with in-
creased CC (Pp.066) of 42% of 1 SD, but again Pvalues
were high. This trend suggests that effects of social shocks on
CC are moderated by enset farming: enset farmers show little
change in CC in response to social shocks, while transitional
maize farmers showed decreased CC in response to social
shocks (g. 2).
Model 2 (table 3) showed an interesting pattern of asso-
ciations relative to model 1: crop loss was associated with
signicantly increased AWT (Pp.023) of 49% of 1 SD.
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Social shocks were also signicantly associated with higher
AWT (Pp.036). The interaction between crop loss and
enset farming was associated with decreased AWT (Pp
.034), similar to the interaction effect of social shock and
enset on CC. This suggests that effects of crop loss on AWT
are moderated by enset farming: Enset farmers show little
change in AWT in response to crop loss, while transitional
maize farmers showed increased AWT in response to recent
crop loss (g. 3). Social shocks were associated with increased
AWT for both subsistence regimes.
AWT also showed signicant variability across the four
woreda. Lokka Abaya (mixed enset and maize with recent
interethnic conict) and Hawassa Zuria (predominantly maize
farmers in the regional capital peri-urban zone) showed higher
levels of AWT by 0.760.87 SDs compared with Arbegona
(highland wet enset) and Boricha (mixed crops and recent
intensive nongovernmental organization activity). This nd-
ing supports the context dependence of impulsivity: Sidama
practice local (clan) exogamy, and Lokka Abaya is only about
10 km from Boricha, suggesting a lack of genetic effects.
We tested for mediating effects of food aid and distance
from the administrative center. Neither was a signicant
predictor of CC or AWT, nor was the pattern of associations
changed compared with models 1 and 2 (analysis not shown).
Model Pvalues were slightly higher, as one would expect. We
also tested moderating effects of assets, TLUs, and land. In-
teractions were not signicant, nor were other associations
appreciably altered.
Results thus far show a potentially interesting pattern;
however, the question remains whether impulsiveness results
from shocks or causes shocks. It is possible that people scoring
higher on AWT and lower on CC could increase their prob-
ability of crop loss (or possibly social shock) by careless man-
agement of resources (resourcelessness in Sharma et al. 2014:
380). If so, then we expect AWT and CC to be associated with
agricultural productivity, geographically adjusted for soil qual-
ity and rainfall. Simply, if crop loss is induced by poor farm-
ing practices among impulsive people, then impulsive people
should show evidence of lower production in years without a
crop loss. We used kilograms produced per hectare as a mea-
sure of efciency, controlling for geography. The distribution of
kilograms produced per hectare was skewed toward the high
end, with several farms showing extraordinary production per
hectare. We Winsorized the top 10% of farm production per
hectare to adjust for the skew. We then examined associations
between CC and AWT and farm productivity, controlling for
age, sex, TLUs, fertilizer expense, and woreda. Table 4 shows
that neither CC nor AWT is associated with farm produc-
tivity, suggesting that impulsiveness does not cause crop loss
through resourcelessness.
Discussion and Conclusions
This study demonstrates that two psychometrically robust
dimensions of impulsivitymapping onto self-regulation and
impulsive behavior (Morean et al. 2014)are differentially
Table 2. Descriptive statistics for predictor and control variables
Variable NMean SD Minimum Maximum
Age 331 39.272 16.989 12 100
Tropical livestock units 331 1.933 2.485 0 26.6
Land (ha) 331 2.000 1.784 0 10
Minutes from administrative center 331 26.159 22.719 0 240
Sex 331 .568 0 1
Received food aid 331 .293 0 1
Arbegona 330 .264 0 1
Boricha 330 .258 0 1
Lokka Abaya 330 .188 0 1
Hawassa Zuria 330 .291 0 1
Crop loss in past 5 years 331 .350 0 1
Social shock in past 5 years 331 .263 0 1
Enset primary crop 328 .765 0 1
Table 1. Factors of Sidama impulsiveness compared with a US sample
Item Careful control Act without thinking Self-regulation
Impulsive behavior
I plan tasks carefully .65 2.22 .62
I am self-controlled .60 2.12 .66
I am a careful thinker .53 2.12 .65
I say things without thinking 2.15 .57 .54
I do things without thinking 2.12 .54 .73
I do not pay attention 2.30 .51 .53
Note. Boldface indicates factor loadings 10.5.
Factor loadings reported for US Center for the Translational Neuroscience of Alcoholism data by Morean et al. (2014).
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activated in response to social and economic shocks in tran-
sitional and traditional Sidama subsistence regimes. We dis-
cuss the studys limitations before turning to a radical proposal
for the role of impulsivity in human agency and niche con-
Limitations and Future Prospects
If it were easy to demonstrate ecological validity of psycho-
logical constructs in cultural context, then there would be
hundreds of studies doing so, but there are few (e.g., von
Rueden et al. 2015). Problems arise in the construction and
translation of methods and concepts for use in tribal popu-
lations (Henrich et al. 2010). The nature of self-concepts and
ways of thinking and talking about thinking vary from people
to people and place to place (Bloch 2012). Translating
instruments and eld experiments is not merely translitera-
tion but a problem of identifying what makes sense to peo-
ple who may be very different from the observer. Instrument
items concerning concentration, paying attention, and thinking
about complex problems (all included in the BIS-11 [Spinella
2007]) are, we think, items that tap patterned practice for
classroom environments targeting skills development in in-
dustrial regimes. They may make little sense to the people
outside education-based labor markets (Kaplan 1996). At min-
imum, careful attention to language for cross-cultural psycho-
metrics is indispensable.
Administration of these instruments depends on item in-
terpretations from self-constructs potentially very different
from constructs assumed by instrument developers. Strawson
(2005) distinguishes diachronic and episodic personality styles.
A diachronic person is one [who] naturally gures oneself,
considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further)
past and will be there in the (further) futuresomething that
has relatively long-term . . . continuity, something that persists
over a long stretch of time, perhaps for life.An episodic or (we
prefer) synchronic person is one [who] does not gure oneself,
considered as a self, as something that was there in the (further)
past and will be there in the (further) future(Strawson
Table 3. Mixed-effects models showing effects of social shocks and crop loss on careful control
(CC) and acts without thinking (AWT)
Model 1 (z-CC, Pp.009) Model 2 (z-AWT, P!.001)
Age 2.001 .757 2.003 .387
Sex (1 pmale, 0 pfemale) 2.038 .683 .113 .301
2.005 .874 .067 .703
Loka Abaya
.027 .165 .764 .000
Hawassa Zuria
2.181 .235 .871 .000
Land 2.110 .471 .027 .488
Tropical livestock units 2.138 .431 .006 .790
Crop loss (1 pyes, 0 pno) 2.359 .055 .495 .023
Enset primary (1 pyes, 0 pno) 2.093 .617 .163 .450
Crop loss #enset primary .189 .401 2.554 .034
Social shock (1 pyes, 0 pno) 2.608 .004 .508 .036
Social shock #enset primary .423 .066 2.234 .380
Constant .386 .309 2.826 .010
Variance(constant) .580 .300
Variance(residual) .758 .882
N318 318
No. groups 4 4
Note. z-CC and z-AWT are standardized factor scores. A 1-unit change in predictor and control variables is associated
with a bchange in the standard deviation of the criterion variable. Variance(constant) and variance(residual) indicate
the random interviewer effects. Boldface indicates P!0.05; italics indicate P!0.10.
Indicates that Arbegona was the reference population.
Figure 2. Interaction effect of social shocks on careful control.
Enset indicates enset farms that experienced social shocks; maize
indicates maize farms that experienced social shocks.
000 Current Anthropology Volume 57, Number 5, October 2016
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2005:430). We concur with Bloch (2011) that diachronic self-
constructions may be more common in Western résumé or
curriculum vitae regimes. How one responds to Likert options
rarely/never,”“sometimes,”“often,and almost always(in
the BIS) depends on whether one taps diachronic or synchronic
self-constructs. Likewise, whether one considers 50% of unex-
plained variance in 1-month test-retest correlations (Stanford
et al. 2009) as evidence of stability depends on ones enthusiasm
for universal diachronic self-constructs. We predict that mea-
sures of diachronic self-constructs are positively associated with
test-retest correlations in other personality dimensions.
Methodologically, these problems seem peculiar to attitu-
dinal and psychological questions as opposed to economic or
demographic items. WEIRD translations arise repeatedly with
multiple interviewers for data collection in our experience (see
Aunger 2004) and, at minimum, require statistical control. The
issue is akin to cultural consensus (Weller 2007). Not a mere
methodological nuisance, the question is at the heart of culture
theory. Future developments in ethnographic science can sub-
stantially contribute to robust, eclectic, and relevant culture
theory by expanding multilevel analytical frameworks to
include properties of observers as key variables in analyses
(Aunger 2004).
A Radical Proposal for Impulsivity in Human Agency
and Niche Construction
At rst glance, cognitive science and social-ecological systems
have little in common. Beneath the surface there is a useful
synthesis: cognitive science imagines mechanisms from which
agency may emerge (Clark 2013), and social-ecological systems
theory searches for agency in analyses relevant to human eco-
logical behavior (Davidson 2010). Both are aware that sur-
prise is important (Clark 2013; Folke 2006; Walker et al.
2004). Agency and surprise are intimately intertwined, and we
contend that impulsivity promotes agency in the face of big
In bidirectional predictive perception, linked mental rep-
resentations of the world predict personal experiences in
specic contexts. A good match between representations and
recurring experiences produces little surprise, so a person can
behave accordingly: just keep doing what the top-down
model suggests. When people seek environments that match
their predictive models, minimizing surprise becomes a focus
of attention and action (Clark 2013). This process of allo-
cating attention is, we think, the psychological property of an
ecological basin of attraction in stable equilibrium. Agency is
activated in response to surprise to move the individual to a
position in the stability landscape that matches her cultural
Surprise is huge when catastrophic system failure makes
top-down models useless for action. Then, agency does not
seek out a better t with existing models but reorganizes by
seeking new experience to generate and test hypotheses about
the unpredictable environment (Friston et al. 2012). Impul-
sivitylack of premeditation, sensation seeking, poor self-
regulation, delay discounting, and so onis a cluster of
psychological mechanisms responding to surprise by shutting
up chatter from higher-order cultural representations that fail
to predict sensory input and by turning up sensory input
through more intense interaction with the external world. Im-
pulsivity encourages exploration of new environments and
discourages the inuence of traditional attractions. The goal
of impulsivity, then, is active niche construction.
Figure 3. Interaction effect of crop loss on acts without thinking.
Enset indicates enset farms that experienced crop loss; maize
indicates maize farms that experienced crop loss.
Table 4. Mixed-effects models showing effects of careful
control (CC) and acts without thinking (AWT) on farming
efciency (kg/ha) for farms that did not experience crop loss
in the most recent year
Winsorized kg/ha bP
Age .953 .455
Sex 25.757 .889
Land 264.269 .000
Winsorized tropical livestock units 15.940 .196
Fertilizer expense .221 .002
2227.644 .000
Lokka Abaya
2250.246 .000
Hawassa Zuria
258.131 .405
Enset primary 2158.851 .016
z-CC 22.372 .369
z-AWT 10.763 .616
Constant 751.242 .000
Variance(constant) 125.388
Variance(residual) 294.096
No. groups 4
Note. See also Quinlan et al. (2015). Boldface indicates factor loadings 10.5.
Indicates Arbegona as the reference population.
Quinlan et al. Culture and Psychological Responses to Environmental Shocks 000
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Research was funded by a Washington State University (WSU)
Initiative for Global Innovation Studies (IGIS) grant and Berry
Family Fellowship to Robert J. Quinlan and Thomas Rotolo.
Thanks to our Sidama participants for their good humor and
hospitality. Thanks to Alissa Miller, Amalo Sooge, Awoke Assoma,
Mulye Tadesse, and interviewers Isreal, Solomon, Muluken,
Sissay, and Temesken for invaluable help with eld work. Thanks
to Andrew Duff, Paul Whitney, and the IGIS executive com-
mittee for project support during writing and analysis. Dr. David
Marcus and Dr. Craig Parks offered very helpful comments
on early drafts. Thanks to the WSU graduate seminar in social-
ecological systems and human behavioral ecology for rehears-
ing these ideas.
Willem E. Frankenhuis and Jennifer Sheehy-Skefngton
Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud University Nijmegen,
Montessorilaan 3, PO Box 9104, 6500 HE, Nijmegen, The
Netherlands ( of Social
Psychology, London School of Economics and Political Science,
Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, United Kingdom ( j.a.sheehy 20 IV 16
Psychological Responses to Fluctuating
Much research has focused on the social systems and insti-
tutions that develop in response to unpredictable uctuations
in resources. For example, societies might buffer against short-
fall by storing or diversifying resources or by sharing them
within and between communities (Winterhalder 2007). By con-
trast, Quinlan et al. focus on individual-level psychological re-
sponses to uctuating resources.
Quinlan et al. propose that exposure to unpredictable uc-
tuations in resources increases impulsivity. The logic of the
hypothesis is that when environmental conditions are different
than they were before, individuals experience a discrepancy
between their current mental models of the world and their
incoming sensory input. Individuals seek to resolve this dis-
crepancy (not necessarily consciously) by collecting informa-
tion about the current conditions. Spawning novel behaviors
facilitates this discovery process: current conditions will dif-
ferentially reinforce behaviors, enabling individuals to select
the high-performing ones. Impulsivity, according to Quinlan
et al., is the psychological generator of novel behaviors: it al-
lows individuals to depart from their present mental models
and learn about current conditions. This hypothesis is, to our
knowledge, original.
Quinlan et al. test their hypothesis in a study of the Sidama
people of Ethiopia. Some Sidama groups earn their living by
traditional enset agropastoralism and others by transitional
maize farming. Enset production is low risk and low yield,
and it recovers slowly after crop loss. Maize production is high
risk and high yield, and it recovers quickly after crop loss.
Quinlan et al. examine whether the association between im-
pulsivity (two types: careful control and acts without think-
ing) and environmental risk (two types: economic shocks and
social shocks) differs between these subsistence regimes. Their
results are complex but overall suggest that the impulsivity
levels of maize farmers, who experience greater uctuations in
resources compared with enset farmers, are more responsive to
environmental risk. This result seems to be consistent with the
impulsivity as exploration hypothesis.
Exploration in Response to Fluctuation
One assumption of Quinlan et al.s argument is that it is adap-
tive to spawn novel behaviors and select high-performing ones
in uctuating environments. Whether this is true depends
on several factors (Frank 1997). For example, it might not be
adaptive to try out behaviors if the costs of maladaptive be-
havior are extremely high, as they might be in the case of
learning about dangerous predators (Barrett, Peterson, and
Frankenhuis 2016). However, in many conditions, reinforce-
ment learning does provide a versatile mode of adaptation, as
evidenced by mathematical modeling (Sutton and Barto 1998)
as well as its ubiquity in the natural world (Snell-Rood 2012).
Empirically, it would be interesting to examine whether in
uctuating environments, humans are indeed more likely to
explore novel behaviors. A future study could investigate this
question by comparing the range of the behaviors that Sidama
maize and enset farmers use for the production of their crops
and by tracking whether the frequency of novel behaviors
among maize farmers increases after changes in environmental
conditions more than among enset farmers.
Impulsivity as Exploration of New Cultural Frames
A separate question is whether impulsivity is the right process
for generating novel behaviors. Quinlan et al. do not dene
impulsivity but rather describe it as a cluster of psychological
tendencies that includes a lack of premeditation, sensation
seeking, little self-regulation, and discounting of future over
immediate rewards. Most psychologists agree that there are
different subtypes of impulsivity, although opinions differ over
which subtypes exist. One distinction is that between temporal
impulsivity (a preference for immediate rewards) and reec-
tion impulsivity (acting without gathering or evaluating in-
formation; Caswell et al. 2015).
Because temporal impulsivity entails action aimed at im-
mediate rewards, it will also involve a focus on the present over
the future (Fujita 2011). A challenge to the linking of temporal
impulsivity with exploration is the robust set of ndings from
psychology that attention toward temporal proximity is as-
000 Current Anthropology Volume 57, Number 5, October 2016
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sociated with attention toward spatial proximity: if one is
focused on the now, one is also likely focused on the here, a
state unconducive to exploration of elsewhere (Trope and Li-
berman 2010). Thus, any exploration resulting from impul-
sive behaviors would be local.
A challenge to the linking of reection impulsivity with
exploration is that acting without gathering information
seems incompatible with impulsivity as information seeking.
One might reconcile these notions, however, with the ob-
servation that reection impulsivity concerns (little) infor-
mation gathering before acting, and Quinlan et al.s notion
concerns information gathering after acting, on the basis of
the consequences of ones actions. If so, the authors might
expand their proposed behavioral response to environmental
uctuation from that of dont think, actto act rst, then
watch to see what happens.A second concern about rec-
onciling reection impulsivity with cultural exploration is
that impulsive behaviors do not necessarily involve rejection
of a cultural pattern: in fact, some impulsive behaviors in-
volve mindlessly going along with a cultural ritual or norm
(such as a dance or an eating habit), for the sake of imme-
diate rewards; conversely, culturally anomalous behaviors
(such as refraining from procreation) may result from re-
ective, self-controlled information processing.
Impulsivity as an Adaptive Focus on the Present
We suggest that impulsivity be construed in line with the ap-
proach of life-history theory, namely, as an adaptive regulatory
shift toward the present in response to shocks (whether so-
cial or crop related) received in unpredictable environments
(Belsky, Steinberg, and Draper 1991; Ellis et al. 2009; Fran-
kenhuis, Panchanathan, and Nettle 2016), the latter arguably
characterizing the life of the maize farmer. A version of this
explanation would t well with Quinlan et al.s evidence of
greater regulatory shifts in response to environmental shocks
in Sidama maize than enset farmersevidence that makes a
solid contribution to a growing literature on the evolution of
plasticity in readiness for the uctuations of life.
Elliot Fratkin
Department of Anthropology, Smith College, Northampton,
Massachusetts 01063, USA ( 9 XI 15
This article presents the ndings of an extensive study of
decision-making in response to shocks among Sidama farmers
in southwestern Ethiopia. This research draws on a variety
of theoretical approaches, including social-ecological systems,
niche construction, cognitive science, psychometrics, and cul-
tural ecology. The authors compare two types of impulsivity,
dened as behavioral responses that lack premeditation and
that can help deal with environmental, social, and economic
shocks: We suggest a pathway whereby unstable environ-
ments result in psychological responsesincluding impul-
sivenessas a means to generating adaptive action.
Nearly all agrarian societies must face adjustments to their
farming regimes because of climate change and socioeco-
nomic challenges, including increased drought (sometimes
combined with torrential rainfall) and uctuations in the
market economy affecting both costs and prices. The Ethiopian
Sidama have an ancient adaptation to their tropical highland
environment through their farming of enset (false banana), a
hardy and drought-resistant food crop. But as the authors
show, its slow growth and long food preparation have led to the
adoption of maize farming by certain Sidama communities.
Maize has been present in Africa since the seventeenth century
and provides the main source of calories through its high
productivity and capacity for storage of grain. Yet maize is a
risky crop, thirsty in normal times and particularly vulnerable
to drought.
The authors pose a very interesting question: how does the
psychological process of impulsivity work in a long-term
agrarian society that must reckon with environmental shocks
in terms of choosing between the stable, traditional enset re-
gime and unstable, transitional maize regime? The authors ask,
What psychological processes facilitate culture change, and
when are they activated?In gathering their evidence, the
authors try to reduce Western bias by situating behaviors in
their cultural context, utilizing a team including Ethiopian
anthropologists employing a variety of methods, including
psychosocial measurements, economic surveys, qualitative
interviews, and focus groups among 372 individuals living in a
variety of settings. In this way the authors build a compre-
hensive inventory of risk aversion strategies based on political,
cultural, economic, and environmental factors, andthey identify
impulsivity as an adaptive strategy in risky environments.
By integrating concepts of cognitive science with environ-
mental studies and particularly ecological systems theory, the
authors have applied an imaginative and useful basis to com-
pare economic strategies. The authors write, Cognitive science
imagines mechanisms from which agency may emerge . . . and
social-ecologicalsystems theory searches foragency in analyses
relevant to human ecological behavior. . . . Both are aware that
surprise is important. . . . Agency and surprise are intimately
intertwined, and we contend that impulsivity promotes agency
in the face of big surprises.
This is a handsome piece of work, one that hypothesis-
testing anthropologists could put to use in other contexts. It
would be interesting to expand this study of impulsivity to
livestock production, which the authors note is important to
the Sidama. Pastoralism also requires strategizing and im-
pulsive decision-making, such as when to cull the herd or de-
velop specialized herds of small stock and large stock, strategies
found among more fully livestock-dependent pastoralists, such
as the Borena in southern Ethiopia. In conclusion, I nd this an
original and innovative study that combines ecological, psy-
Quinlan et al. Culture and Psychological Responses to Environmental Shocks 000
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chological, economic, and political factors important in un-
derstanding human behavior coping with risk and shocks, in-
cluding drought, war, and global market forces.
J. Terrence McCabe
Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder,
Colorado 80309, USA ( 23 XI 15
I have experience with the cultivation systems of bothenset and
maize and with the concepts of resilience, adaptive cycles, and
social-ecological systems. However, I do not have any experi-
ence with or knowledge of cognitive science, so my comments
may not be as informed as others who have reviewed the paper.
I found the idea of linking psychology, social-ecological systems,
and cultural change intriguing but somewhat hard to follow.
The authors argue that impulsive behavior is activated by social
and economic shocks and that acting without thinking is acti-
vated to a greater degree in Sidama communities that are more
dependent on maize. My rst comment is, are the authors ar-
guing for causation or correlation of particular psychological
traits with different cultivation systems? I am not really sure
what activating impulsiveness really means.
I think that it is interesting but not surprising that enset
farmers are impacted less (as measured by careful control) by
social shocks than maize farmers. The enset system has been
preserved through many social shocks, while maize cultiva-
tion is relatively new. I also nd the idea of acting without
thinking a difcult and, at least to me, confusing concept to
apply to Ethiopian farmers.
The authors mention the adaptive cycle and that the enset
system is in the K phase of the adaptive cycle while the maize
farmers are in the r phase, but they never really do anything
with this. I think one could argue that the enset system is
closeif not already inthe release or collapse phase, since
the authors state that with population growth, among other
things, the enset system is not sustainable. The authors
mention that the success of enset depends on manure for
fertilizer but do not discuss the dependence of the livestock
system to access to common grazing and that these areas are
being privatized and cultivated as population increases. This
is important in that there is considerable risk to the viability
of the enset system. Landholdings are also becoming smaller
and may not be sufcient to supply a family with enough
food for the year. Thus, this system could be in transition as
well as the maize cultivation system.
I am also a bit confused by the issue of surprises, especially
with those communities cultivating maize. Are the surprises
crop failures? And if so, if they occur with some regularity, are
they really surprises? I think it is also worth mentioning that
development agencies, especially the United States Agency for
International Development, have increasing maize cultivation
in southern Ethiopia as one of their development priorities.
I like the idea that values, attitudes, and personality are not
exogenous to the social-ecological system but are part and
parcel of the system(Edgerton 1971:24). I believe this is an
important contribution to the literature of social-ecological
Brandon W. Ng and Shigehiro Oishi
Department of Psychology, University of Virginia, PO Box 400400,
485 McCormick Road, Charlottesville, Virginia 22904, USA
( 13 XI 15
Bringing Socioecological Psychology to the
Forefront: Dynamic Variation in the Relationship
between Environmental Shock and Impulsivity as a
Function of Subsistence Regime
Socioecological psychology is an area within psychology that
investigates how mind and behavior are shaped in part by their
natural and social habitats (social ecology) and how natural
and social habitats are in turn shaped partly by mind and
behavior(Oishi 2014:582). Although socioecological psy-
chology is experiencing a resurgence, few studies have ex-
plored how specic, objective factors in ones physical or social
environment may impact the mind and behavior, and vice
versa (Ng, Morris, and Oishi 2013). Even fewer studies have
explored socioecological variables outside of Western, edu-
cated, industrial, rich, democratic populations (Henrich, Heine,
and Norenzayan 2010; for an exception, see Talhelm et al. 2014;
Uskul, Kitayama, and Nisbett 2008). In light of these predom-
inant issues, Quinlan et al.s investigation is all the more im-
pressive because they focus on the relationship between im-
pulsivity and the agricultural practices of the Sidama, a severely
understudied population. Specically, they investigate how im-
pulsivity may emerge as an adaptive psychological trait in re-
sponse to environmental shocks and, more importantly, show
that such emergence is moderated by socioecological context
in this case, enset versus maize farming.
As Quinlan et al. argue, enset is a stable crop that is relatively
drought resistant and less susceptible to crop loss, though it
also recovers slowly. Maize, conversely, is an unstable crop.
It has a higher caloric yield and recovers more quickly than
enset, but maize is also more dependent on rainfall and fer-
tilizer price. In short, the world of enset farmers is relatively
predictable: they can do what they have always done and ex-
pect the same returns. In contrast, for maize farmers, though
maize promises the potential of more reward, it also entails
increased risk, mandating heightened vigilance to environ-
mental constraints. In this way, Quinlan et al. argue that im-
pulsivity may be an adaptive trait in response to shocks in
more unstable socioecological contexts. Indeed, while envi-
ronmental shocks were relatively unrelated to impulsivity for
enset farmers, for maize farmers, environmental shocks were
associated with increases in impulsivity.
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Quinlan et al. contribute immensely to research on self-
control and the nature of impulsivity. Existing literature por-
trays the ability to exert self-control in an almost exclusively
positive light. Self-control (which includes qualities like pon-
dering ones actions carefully and delaying short-term grati-
cation in light of more important goal pursuit) has been
posited to be one of the most important qualities for a suc-
cessful life (Mischel, Shoda, and Rodriguez 1989). Very few
studies praise impulsivity, and it is normally understood as an
unavoidable evil to be overcome. Quinlan et al., however,
demonstrate that the nature of impulsivity may be more nu-
anced. Far from being a universal evil, it may be adaptive and
benecial in certain socioecological contexts.
That being said, the study does have limitations. Quinlan
et al. assert that impulsivity is adaptive for cultural change.
However, because the data presented were cross-sectional,
taken at one point in time, we do not know for certain
whether maize farmersheightened impulsivity in response to
shock actually leads to adaptive behaviors and better t with
their environment over time. Furthermore, selection bias is
another concern as people self-selected to farm one form of
crop over the other (thus, the observed differences could be
due to factors other than the form of farming). Longitudinal
data examining whether impulsivity is associated with future
behaviors and outcomessuch as increased crop yields or
greater feelings of certainty and cultural consonancewould
be benecial. Furthermore, because the reported data were all
associative, longitudinal data would also lend credence to the
causal nature of impulsivity in niche construction.
Second, Quinlan et al. mention an array of environmental
shockssuch as rainfall variability, fertilizer price, drought,
famine, and warfareyet they operationalize environmental
shocks only as the presence of crop loss and death or illness
in the family. We encourage future research to assess the
effects of different types of environmental shocks on impul-
sive behavior. For example, impulsivity may be adaptive in
response to crop loss, so that maize farmers can focus on the
immediate, bottom-up environmental constraints. However,
in the case of warfare, it may be more adaptive for a person to
carefully consider how to mobilize and protect ones social
and economic resources from harm.
We also wonder if the rise in impulsivity for maize farmers
in response to shocks represents a broad or more domain-
specic phenomenon. For maize farmers, when an environ-
mental shock occurs (e.g., a severe crop loss), would this induce
farming-specic impulsivity (buying an immense amount of
commercial fertilizer during a temporary drop in price), or
would impulsivity increase for myriad self-regulation behav-
iors (caring for ones children or forgoing selsh impulses to
help others in need)? If shocks increase general impulsivity,
although it may be adaptive in the socioecologically relevant
domain (maize farming), it may lead to detriments in other
areas, which may lead to less adaptive behaviors overall. It is
impossible from Quinlan et al.s data to answer this question,
for although they assessed their measures of impulsivity with
relatively general items (e.g., I am self-controlled), these ques-
tions may have primed participants to think in a domain-specic
way, if asked in conjunction with other items about farming.
Future research should collect measures across time and in-
clude outcome measures that assess various domains (e.g., crop
yield, subjective well-being), ideally including some behavioral
measures of impulsivity. In addition, the adaptive nature of
impulsivity in this particular context seems to lie in quick as-
sessment of the situation and willingness to switch strategies.
It might be more persuasive to test whether among maize
farmers, environmental shocks predict sensitivity to negative
cues and willingness to switch strategies in experimental games
more strongly than among enset farmers.
Overall, Quinlan et al. lay the foundation for future work
exploring socioecological variation in not only impulsivity
but also an array of underlying personality factors. As they
show, the relationship between environmental constraints
(shock) and psychological traits (impulsivity) is not universal
but rather culturally tuned to ones socioecological context.
We hope that this investigation brings further research ex-
ploring the dynamics of socioecological context to fruition.
We are grateful for the comments we received. We agree with
them all. They are a well-balanced set with two psychologically
oriented comments and two ecological, precisely the trans-
lational position we sought. We set out to explore some ideas
about relationships between environments and human thought
for something like an ethnographic analysis. The comments pick
that present challenges and opportunities for our approach.
Our reply should not detract from other cogent comments, but
space does not permit a point-by-point response.
Ng and Oishi wonder about responses to shocks other than
crop loss and family death, especially warfare, and McCabe
and Fratkin ask specically about livestock loss. We chose the
two most frequently reported shocks in our data set for anal-
ysis. Probability of having lost any livestock in the recent past
ranges from 0.14 in Lokka Abaya (the highest) to 0.02 in
Arbegona (the lowest), with a mean of 0.06. There are not
enough Sidama data for multivariate analyses. In new research,
Jilo Dira (2016) used free lists (Quinlan 2005) to explore
perception of risks in two Sidama communities (table 5).
Armed conict appears low on the list for the most psycho-
logically prominent risks in Boricha and was not among the
top eight risks in Arbegona. Livestock loss appears among only
the most salient risks in Arbegona. Note that baashe itself
appears to be a salient concern in both Sidama communities.
Salience scores (table 5) show differences in risk perception
in high-risk Boricha, where drought and food shortage are
Quinlan et al. Culture and Psychological Responses to Environmental Shocks 000
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followed by much less salient risks, whereas diseases, land
shortage, and money worries are nearly tied, followed by
other moderately salient risks in relatively low-risk Arbegona.
These results give some indication about local attention and
cultural consensus (Ng and Oishi): tracing an imaginary scree
plot from table 5, there appears to be more consensus about
risk in K-cycle Arbegona than in r-cycle Boricha.
Ng and Oishi as well as McCabe raise concerns we share
about the correlational nature of our data. We suspect that
shocks cause impulsivity, but a longitudinal design is required
to demonstrate the chain. Self-selection is a related problem,
but here our analysis can cast some limited light. It is possible
that impulsivity leads people to grow maize, but the evidence
indicates no difference in impulsivity between maize and enset
farmers except in response to shocks. Enset is rare in Hawassa
Zuria, where it performs poorly, and it is almost universal in
Arbegona, where it produces nearly as well as does maize in
Hawassa Zuria (Quinlan et al. 2015), indicating that ecological
factors are primary considerations for crop choice in some
environments. Whether continuing to rely primarily on enset
in mixed agricultural economies (Boricha and Lokka) is caused
by psychological factors associated with impulsivity is un-
known. If our results are partially explained by self-selection,
then the mechanism involved is more likely psychological
responsiveness or sensitivity to environmental shocks than
impulsivity itself, an intriguing prospect suggesting links to
developmental psychology (Ellis et al. 2011). A longitudinal
design tracking changes in household condition in response to
shocks (e.g., Hadley et al. 2011) might help sort this out.
Questions about the distinction between environmental
predictability and harshness concern us and McCabe. At some
point, if we understand him, crop loss could be so common it is
predictable. We agree that there are solid theoretical grounds
to distinguish environmental harshness and predictability
(Ellis et al. 2009); however, we are less convinced of the eco-
logical validity of the distinction. Knowing that crop loss
occurs at a high rate is very different from knowing at planting
in a specic year whether a crop will survive. Perhaps more
importantly, from an investment standpoint, is whether risk
is extrinsicwhen outcomes cannot be changed much by
planning or effort (Leslie and Winterhalder 2002; Quinlan
2007). Here Frankenhuis and Sheehy-Skefngton correctly
identify links between our study and evolutionary models.
Harshness and predictability may be so highly correlated that
human psychological models treat them as a single environ-
mental signal. This is an area of research where ecological an-
thropology, evolutionary ecology, and social-ecological psy-
chology may fruitfully converge at some future point.
Activation for focusing attention is central to our argu-
ment in that we suspect there is substantial context depen-
dence to what most psychologists perceive as stable pheno-
typic traits. We are not inclined, for purposes of culture
theory, to theorize stable psychological traits until we have
sorted out more about context-dependent states. In a simple
model, activation is a perceptual process in which environ-
mental stimulus triggers patterns of thinking similar to recall-
ing a memory with the associated cascade of perception. For
example, our mention of r and K terminology causes McCabe,
given his prior experience, to reect on integration of r and K
in our analysis. The mental model is activated, and perception
can proceed accordingly. For other readers with different prior
experience, r and K may activate, evolutionary ecological models
concerning fast and slow life histories (Figueredo et al. 2005).
We found it a little surprising (unexpected) that McCabe found
our analytical integration lacking for r and K sensu social-
ecological systems. This point highlights difculties of opera-
tionalizing social-ecological systems theory. We presented two
cultural models of subsistence: one fast cycling, cross-scale
dependent, and high risk; the other slow, relatively closed, and
low risk. Then, we assess their relevance to patterns of self-
perception about impulsive thought and action. We suspect
that impulsivity promotes adaptive (useful, well-being en-
hancing) behavior in some conditions by generating new in-
formation for adaptive problem solving. Effects of impulsive
self-perception on environmental exploration in observed be-
havior are unknown in nonWestern, educated, industrial,
rich, democratic populations (see Frankenhuis and Sheehy-
Skefngton), but it may be a relevant question for development
research. McCabe notes that our argument is sometimes hard
to follow, and we agree that our integration of disparate con-
cepts is coarse, but we think it is worth the effort to revisit a
more psychologically oriented cultural ecology.
Frankenhuis and Sheehy-Skefngton as well as Ng and Oishi
suggest room for more sophisticated psychology for cultural
ecology. We agree. We are constrained, for now, by the nature
of ethnographic eldwork. One of our goals has been to iden-
Table 5. Risk perception from 110 free lists in two Sidama woredas
Rank Boricha risk Salience Arbegona risk Salience
1 Food shortage .75 Diseases .74
2 Drought (rainfall failure) .62 Land shortage .70
3 Baashe .12 Money shortage .69
4 Diseases .10 Death of cattle .32
5 Armed conict .08 Food shortage .26
6 Death of spouses/parents .06 Baashe .25
7 Hikes in food prices .05 Crop loss .24
8 Money shortage .05 Delay in rainfall .09
000 Current Anthropology Volume 57, Number 5, October 2016
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All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (
tify short, simple psychological instruments that could be in-
serted (like a meme) into larger socioeconomic surveys for
reliable and valid cross-cultural comparison. Useful options are
few and far between, given the length and complexity of most
standard instruments. Our prior experience translating com-
mon personality scales even in Dominican English Creole
indicate potentially insurmountable methodological difculties
for cross-cultural comparison using certain scales. In contrast,
the Barratt impulsiveness scale shows some cross-cultural valid-
ity at least for tiny and narrow factors, as McCabe notes. Hence,
our operationalization of impulsivity is constrained to six items.
Quasi-experimental methods would be most welcomed, per-
haps using hypothetical framing, if they can be incorporated
easily in broader development research.
On a related issue, Ng and Oishi wonder, rightly we think,
about priming effects in our self-report data. The survey was
split into two parts: (1) we rst administered an individual ques-
tionnaire covering basic person characteristics, fertility history,
marriage, and so on, including impulsivity items; (2) a house-
hold interview followed the individual interview, concerning
household economics, shocks, and so on.
Like Frankenhuis and Sheehy-Skefngton, we are also con-
cerned that at times culture allows us to act without much
reection, and this may prove to be a fatal aw in our rea-
soning. The point is that cultural models are, theoretically,
only one set of internal representations on which perception
acts. Impulsivity offers the possibility that we might shut up
certain models and still think adaptively. Is impulsivity the
right mechanism? Probably not by itself, but this is our starting
point for integrative theory for culture and ecological change.
We suspect that more attention to bidirectional predictive pro-
cessing may suggest mechanisms for cultural (local and inte-
grated) adaptation.
Fratkin understands our argument and evidence. His com-
ments reect our conversations with him concerning this re-
search, and we are especially grateful for that.
Robert J. Quinlan, Samuel Jilo Dira, Mark Caudell,
and Marsha B. Quinlan
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  • ... Received 1 September 2017Received in revised form 13 January 2018;Accepted 15 January 20182010). Cues of environments characterized by high mortality and morbidity have been linked to more present-oriented time preferences, as short-term fitness considerations may outweigh potential longerterm gains that may never be realized ( Quinlan et al., 2016). A related literature on the psychology of poverty suggests that low income conditions affect decision-making by reducing self-efficacy and sense of personal control, increasing vigilance and impulsivity (Sheehy Skeffington and Haushofer, 2014). ...
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    Indigenous people worldwide suffer from higher rates of morbidity and mortality than neighboring populations. In addition to having limited access to public health infrastructure, indigenous people may also have priorities and health perceptions that deter them from seeking adequate modern healthcare. Here we propose that living in a harsh and unpredictable environment reduces motivation to pursue deliberate, costly action to improve health outcomes. We assess whether variation in Health Locus of Control (HLC), a psychological construct designed to capture self-efficacy with respect to health, explains variation in treatment uptake behavior among Tsimane Amerindians (N = 690; age range: 40-89 years; 55.8% female; data collection: 2008-2012), a high mortality and morbidity indigenous population in the Bolivian Amazon, Beni Department. Comparisons with two industrialized populations in Japan (Miyagi prefecture; e0 = 76.6 years) and the United Kingdom (Caerphilly county borough; e0 = 81.2 years) confirm that Tsimane (e0 = 54.1 years) have a more externalized HLC. Multilevel level models were used to investigate whether HLC predicts treatment uptake, and mediates the relationship between modernization and treatment uptake. External HLC scores were predictive of treatment outcomes: Powerful others scores were positively associated with probability of receiving modern treatment (adjusted odds ratio [OR] = 1.33), while Chance scores were negatively associated with probability of receiving modern treatment (adjusted OR = 0.76). We found no effects, however, of Internal HLC or educational capital on treatment uptake. Overall, our findings indicate that health-related decision-making is influenced more by a psychological orientation affecting self-efficacy, shaped in part by perceptions of environmental unpredictability and harshness, than by limited knowledge, education or other indicators of modernization.
  • ... A small body of work indicates that impulsive behavior may be differentially activated in response to hazards in stable versus unstable environments, suggesting different niche construction motivations. Similar to findings from delay-discounting experi- ments ( Griskevicius et al. 2011b), an observational study indicated that Ethiopian farmers pursuing high-risk nontraditional maize production showed a significant increase in impulsivity in response to household morbidity-mortality and negative income shocks compared with farmers from relatively stable environments who were cultivating traditional drought-resistant crops ( Quinlan et al. 2016). Cultural consonance and niche construction pro- cesses may help explain these differential responses to environ- mental hazards consistent with BCD models. ...
    Pepper & Nettle describe possible processes underlying what they call a behavioral constellation of deprivation (BCD). Although we are certain about the application of evolutionary models to our understanding of poverty, we are less certain about the utility of behavioral constellations. The empirical record on poverty-related behaviors is much more divergent and broad than such constellations suggest.
  • ... A small body of work indicates that impulsive behavior may be differentially activated in response to hazards in stable versus unstable environments, suggesting different niche construction motivations. Similar to findings from delay-discounting experi- ments ( Griskevicius et al. 2011b), an observational study indicated that Ethiopian farmers pursuing high-risk nontraditional maize production showed a significant increase in impulsivity in response to household morbidity-mortality and negative income shocks compared with farmers from relatively stable environments who were cultivating traditional drought-resistant crops ( Quinlan et al. 2016). Cultural consonance and niche construction pro- cesses may help explain these differential responses to environ- mental hazards consistent with BCD models. ...
    Physiology and behavior are best thought of as two aspects of the same biological process, shaped simultaneously by natural selection. Like behavioral strategies, ecological conditions may affect physiological strategies, leading to changes in immunity and hormonal regulation. These alternate strategies help explain the health correlations of deprivation and provide additional pathways for feedback from early-life experiences.
  • ... A small body of work indicates that impulsive behavior may be differentially activated in response to hazards in stable versus unstable environments, suggesting different niche construction motivations. Similar to findings from delay-discounting experi- ments ( Griskevicius et al. 2011b), an observational study indicated that Ethiopian farmers pursuing high-risk nontraditional maize production showed a significant increase in impulsivity in response to household morbidity-mortality and negative income shocks compared with farmers from relatively stable environments who were cultivating traditional drought-resistant crops ( Quinlan et al. 2016). Cultural consonance and niche construction pro- cesses may help explain these differential responses to environ- mental hazards consistent with BCD models. ...
    Although it is a welcome and timely idea, the behavioural constellation of deprivation (BCD) needs to explain how the development of personal control, trust, and perception of future risk is mediated through relationships with parents. Further, prioritising the present over the future may not be the essence of this constellation; perhaps not quite being, either in the present or in the future, is a better depiction.
  • ... A small body of work indicates that impulsive behavior may be differentially activated in response to hazards in stable versus unstable environments, suggesting different niche construction motivations. Similar to findings from delay-discounting experi- ments ( Griskevicius et al. 2011b), an observational study indicated that Ethiopian farmers pursuing high-risk nontraditional maize production showed a significant increase in impulsivity in response to household morbidity-mortality and negative income shocks compared with farmers from relatively stable environments who were cultivating traditional drought-resistant crops ( Quinlan et al. 2016). Cultural consonance and niche construction pro- cesses may help explain these differential responses to environ- mental hazards consistent with BCD models. ...
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    "From perceived control to self-control, the importance of cognitive and emotional resources". Peer commentary on “The behavioural constellation of deprivation: causes and consequences,” by Pepper, G. V., & Nettle, D. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Forthcoming
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    Pepper & Nettle's paper exemplifies an emerging resistance against an exclusive focus on deficits in people who come from harsh environments. We extend their model by arguing for a perspective that includes not only contextually appropriate responses but also strengths – that is, enhanced mental skills and abilities. Such a well-rounded approach can be leveraged in education, jobs, and interventions.
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