The Value of Dimensional Models of Early Experience: Thinking Clearly About Concepts and Categories


McLaughlin, K. A., Sheridan, M. A., Humphreys, K. L., Belsky, J., & Ellis, B. J. (2021). The Value of Dimensional Models of Early Experience: Thinking Clearly About Concepts and Categories. Perspectives on Psychological Science.


We review the three prevailing approaches—specificity, cumulative risk, and dimensional models—to conceptualizing the developmental consequences of early-life adversity and address fundamental problems with the characterization of these frameworks in a recent Perspectives on Psychological Science piece by Smith and Pollak. We respond to concerns raised by Smith and Pollak about dimensional models of early experience and highlight the value of these models for studying the developmental consequences of early-life adversity. Basic dimensions of adversity proposed in existing models include threat/harshness, deprivation, and unpredictability. These models identify core dimensions of early experience that cut across the categorical exposures that have been the focus of specificity and cumulative risk approaches (e.g., abuse, institutional rearing, chronic poverty); delineate aspects of early experience that are likely to influence brain and behavioral development; afford hypotheses about adaptive and maladaptive responses to different dimensions of adversity; and articulate specific mechanisms through which these dimensions exert their influences, conceptualizing experience-driven plasticity within an evolutionary-developmental framework. In doing so, dimensional models advance specific falsifiable hypotheses, grounded in neurodevelopmental and evolutionary principles, that are supported by accumulating evidence and provide fertile ground for empirical studies on early-life adversity.

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Last updated on 10/20/2021