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Why and how does early adversity influence development? Toward an integrated model of dimensions of environmental experience
Development and Psychopathology  (IF4.151),  Pub Date : 2022-03-14, DOI: 10.1017/s0954579421001838
Bruce J. Ellis, Margaret A. Sheridan, Jay Belsky, Katie A. McLaughlin

Two extant frameworks – the harshness-unpredictability model and the threat-deprivation model – attempt to explain which dimensions of adversity have distinct influences on development. These models address, respectively, why, based on a history of natural selection, development operates the way it does across a range of environmental contexts, and how the neural mechanisms that underlie plasticity and learning in response to environmental experiences influence brain development. Building on these frameworks, we advance an integrated model of dimensions of environmental experience, focusing on threat-based forms of harshness, deprivation-based forms of harshness, and environmental unpredictability. This integrated model makes clear that the why and the how of development are inextricable and, together, essential to understanding which dimensions of the environment matter. Core integrative concepts include the directedness of learning, multiple levels of developmental adaptation to the environment, and tradeoffs between adaptive and maladaptive developmental responses to adversity. The integrated model proposes that proximal and distal cues to threat-based and deprivation-based forms of harshness, as well as unpredictability in those cues, calibrate development to both immediate rearing environments and broader ecological contexts, current and future. We highlight actionable directions for research needed to investigate the integrated model and advance understanding of dimensions of environmental experience.