Beyond Diathesis Stress: Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Influences

Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues, Birkbeck University of London, 7 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3RA, United Kingdom.
Psychological Bulletin (Impact Factor: 14.76). 11/2009; 135(6):885-908. DOI: 10.1037/a0017376
Source: PubMed


Evolutionary-biological reasoning suggests that individuals should be differentially susceptible to environmental influences, with some people being not just more vulnerable than others to the negative effects of adversity, as the prevailing diathesis-stress view of psychopathology (and of many environmental influences) maintains, but also disproportionately susceptible to the beneficial effects of supportive and enriching experiences (or just the absence of adversity). Evidence consistent with the proposition that individuals differ in plasticity is reviewed. The authors document multiple instances in which (a) phenotypic temperamental characteristics, (b) endophenotypic attributes, and (c) specific genes function less like "vulnerability factors" and more like "plasticity factors," thereby rendering some individuals more malleable or susceptible than others to both negative and positive environmental influences. Discussion focuses upon limits of the evidence, statistical criteria for distinguishing differential susceptibility from diathesis stress, potential mechanisms of influence, and unknowns in the differential-susceptibility equation.

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    • "However, the authors failed to assess any positive outcomes that could have differentiated high and low SPS individuals under positive experiences. This is a major flaw in the literature, which has not provided a balanced view of positive and negative outcomes and biases certain traits as being risk factors rather than potential plasticity factors (Belsky & Pleuss, 2009; Manuck, 2010). Another potential reason that SPS has been associated with negative outcomes is that the HSPS may be primarily measuring negative reactivity in response to overstimulation (Aron et al., 2012). "
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    ABSTRACT: There are few studies testing the differential susceptibility hypothesis (DSH: hypothesizing that some individuals are more responsive to both positive and negative experiences) with adult personality traits. The current study examined the DSH by investigating the moderating effect of sensory-processing sensitivity (SPS) on childhood experiences and life satisfaction. A total of 185 adults completed measures of SPS, positive/negative childhood experiences and life satisfaction. SPS did moderate the association between childhood experiences and life satisfaction. Simple slopes analysis compared those reporting high and low SPS (+/−1 SD) and revealed that the difference was observed only for those who reported negative childhood experiences; with the high SPS group reporting lower life satisfaction. There was no difference observed in those reporting positive childhood experiences, which supported a diathesis-stress model rather than the DSH.
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    • "Although some children thrive when exposed to supportive parenting, these same children may struggle when exposed to negative parenting (Belsky & Pluess, 2009; Bradley & Corwyn, 2008). Identifying child characteristics that affect children's sensitivity to specific parenting behaviors provides important information about risky pathways for the development of early behavior problems (Belsky & Pluess, 2009). "
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    • "Although a detailed review of this literature is beyond the scope of this article, overall, children's frustration, low effortful control or self-regulation, and high impulsivity increase children's risk for externalizing behavior problems, particularly in the face of negative parenting or inappropriate control (Bates et al. 2014; Kiff et al. 2011). Several models have been posited to describe how children's temperamental characteristics lead to variation in sensitivity to rearing behaviors (i.e., vulnerability model, biological sensitivity to context, differential susceptibility; Belsky and Pluess 2009; Boyce and Ellis 2005). Rather than adopting a particular model for examining the associations between parenting, temperament, and child adjustment, we chose to examine more generally how individual differences in children's effortful control might moderate the effects of warm parenting on child externalizing problems. "
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