Boys’ maladaptive social information processing,
family emotional climate, and pathways to early conduct problems
Johns Hopkins University
Daniel S. Shaw
University of Pittsburgh
RUNNING HEAD: Boys’ maladaptive SIP
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Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health
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Maladaptive social information processing characterizes many children with behavioral adjustment difficulties. Yet, we know little about the antecedents of maladaptive social information processing. The present study examined the relations between early family risk and later maladaptive social information processing and conduct problems in a sample of 178 economically-disadvantaged boys. Early childhood assessments of socioeconomic disadvantage (low SES, single parent status, low maternal education) and maternal depression predicted boys’ maladaptive response generation and conduct problems at age 10, accounting for 6% and 14% of the variances, respectively, but not hostile attribution bias. Maladaptive response generation also fit a model of significant partial mediation of the effects of socioeconomic disadvantage on conduct problems. Results suggest the importance of the family’s emotional climate during children’s early development for their later adjustment.
KEYWORDS: SOCIAL INFORMATION PROCESSING, CONDUCT PROBLEMS, RISK, MATERNAL DEPRESSION, SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS
Acknowledgements: We wish to thank the National Institutes of Mental Health for supporting this research through grants awarded to the second author (MH 50907 & MH 01666). We also and especially wish to thank the families who have taken the time to participate in the Project over the past decade.
Boys’ maladaptive social information processing,
family emotional climate, and pathways to early conduct problems
The social information processing model has generated a great amount of research that documents specific social-cognitive tendencies and skill deficits characteristic of children with behavior problems, especially aggressive tendencies (for a review, see Crick & Dodge, 1994). For example, aggressive children tend to perceive others as angry and hostile (Barth & Bastiani, 1997; Crick & Dodge, 1996; Dodge & Price, 1994; Dodge, Price, Bachorowski, & Newman, 1990; Dodge & Somberg, 1987; Lochman & Dodge, 1994; Quiggle, Garber, Panak, & Dodge, 1992; Schultz, Izard, & Ackerman, 2000) and access maladaptive social response options from memory (Dodge, Pettit, McClaskey, & Brown, 1986; Pettit, Dodge, & Brown, 1988; Quiggle et al., 1992). Yet, we know little about how these social-cognitive tendencies develop. Many theorists suggest that family environments characterized by high levels of negative emotion expression place children at risk for developing maladaptive social information processing (SIP) styles and subsequent conduct problems (Cicchetti, Ackerman, & Izard, 1995; Izard & Harris, 1995). The present study examines the association between two early risk factors that correspond with negative emotional experiences in the home, sociodemographic disadvantage (i.e., low SES, low maternal education, single parent status) and maternal depression, and children’s later maladaptive social information processing and conduct problems. In addition, we tested mediational models that assessed whether or not children’s SIP might mediate the relationship between these early risk factors and children’s conduct problems in middle childhood.
Social information processing
The present study examined two aspects of SIP that researchers have repeatedly shown to relate to children’s behavioral adjustment problems: 1) hostile attribution bias, and 2) maladaptive response generation. A hostile attribution bias reflects a tendency to view others’ intentions as mean, especially within ambiguous social situations with negative outcomes (e.g., a child is hit by a ball but doesn’t know why). Although some results have been inconsistent (Dodge, Laird, Lochman, & Zelli, 2002; Pettit et al., 1988; Weiss et al., 1992), a large body of research shows that many aggressive children display hostile attribution biases (Crick & Dodge, 1992; Dodge & Coie, 1987; Dodge & Frame, 1982; Dodge, Pettit, Bates, & Valente, 1995; Dodge et al., 1990; Guerra & Slaby, 1989; Lochman & Dodge, 1994; Quiggle et al., 1992; Steinberg & Dodge, 1983; for a review, see Orobio, Veerman, Koops, Bosch, & Monshouwer, 2002).
Maladaptive response generation reflects children’s memory access tendencies. When presented with conflict or a negative social outcome such as previously described, some children will tend to generate aggressive response solutions and fail to generate other, more socially competent response options (e.g., assertive verbal engagement with the peer provocateur, prosocial behavior). Several studies find aggressive children tend to generate maladaptive response options to conflictual social situations (Dodge et al., 2002; Dodge et al., 1995; Dodge et al., 1986; Pettit et al., 1986; Quiggle et al., 1992; Richard & Dodge, 1982).
Antecedents of social information processing
Many theorists posit that children’s early emotional experiences will partially organize patterns of social-cognitive development (Cicchetti, Ackerman, & Izard, 1995; Izard & Harris, 1995; Lewis, 1995). Arousal of discrete emotions motivates particular attentional, cognitive, and behavioral activities (Damasio, 2000; Isen, 1999; Izard, 1991). Recurrent and consistent patterns of emotion experiences over time will motivate the development of particular social-cognitive tendencies. Consistent with these predictions, children who live under extreme environmental circumstances such as abuse and frequent exposure to community violence demonstrate maladaptive SIP. For example, several studies find abused children to exhibit an interpretational bias toward perceiving others as “angry” (Pollak, Cicchetti, Hornung, & Reed, 2000; Pollak, Cicchetti, Klorman, & Brumaghim, 1997). In an attempt to avoid the highly negative emotion experiences of fear and pain that accompany incidents of abuse, many abused children seem to develop highly sensitive yet not particularly specific attentional and interpretational biases toward anger. Other studies find physical abuse or harsh physical discipline to be associated with other individual facets of SIP, including hostile attribution bias and maladaptive response generation, as well as latent variable constructs of SIP (Camras, Sachs-Alter, & Ribordy, 1996; Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1990; Dodge et al., 1995; Smetana & Kelly, 1989; Spacarelli, Coatsworth, & Bowden, 1995; Weiss et al., 1992; cf. Downey & Walker, 1989). Further, recent evidence suggests that exposure to community and marital violence relates to specific types of SIP, including hostile attribution bias (Schwartz & Proctor, 2000; Shahinfar et al., 2001; Weiss et al., 1992).
Many family environments are characterized by frequent expressions and experiences of negative emotions such as anger and sadness/distress but not necessarily by more traumatic experiences such as abuse or exposure to violence. In the present study, we sought to assess the impact of these types of environments upon children’s SIP using a sample of boys from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds. In particular, we examined the impact of early sociodemographic disadvantage (i.e., low SES, low maternal education, single parent status) and maternal depression. Research suggests these risk factors place children at risk both for the heightened experience of negative emotions (e.g., witnessing anger expression) and the emergence of conduct problems (Ackerman, Schoff, Levinson, Youngstrom, & Izard, 1999; Cummings & Davies, 1994; Goodman & Gotlib, 1999; Leventhal & Brooks-Gunn, 2000).
The facets of sociodemographic disadvantage used in the present study–low socioeconomic status (Evans & English, 2002), low maternal education (Querido, Warner, & Eyberg, 2002), and single parent status (McLanahan, 1999; Shaw, Winslow, & Flanagan, 1999)–each place children at risk for conduct problems. Emotional processes undoubtedly play a significant role in the mechanisms that account for these associations. Many studies, for example, show children’s behavior problems to correspond with family adversity and stress (Campbell, 1994; Campbell, Pierce, Moore, Marakovitz, & Newby, 1996; Dodge et al., 1994; McGee, Silva, & Williams, 1984; Richman, Stevenson, & Graham, 1982; Shaw, Keenan, Vondra, Delliquadri, & Giovannelli, 1997; Tremblay, Loeber, Gagnon, & Charlebois, 1991). Sociodemographic disadvantage is associated with having a greater number of stressful events and fewer coping resources (e.g., social support) to handle the stress than individuals in more advantaged homes. For example, single parent status may indicate not only greater responsibility for caregiving practices but also less social support to buffer the stresses that come with the added responsibilities. Wahler and Dumas (1989) suggest that stress leaves caregivers with less of the emotional resources to respond positively, patiently, and sympathetically to their children and often leads to greater incidences of yelling and other types of anger expression directed at children.
Three studies provide empirical support for the relationship between individual facets of sociodemographic disadvantage and maladaptive SIP. In one, socioeconomic status predicted components of SIP, including hostile attribution biases and maladaptive response generation (Weiss et al., 1992). In two additional studies that utilized an emotion recognition procedure, single parent status (Reichenbach & Masters, 1983) and family instability (Schultz et al., 2000) have been associated with children’s anger attribution bias. The preceding theoretical and empirical support motivated us to expect that sociodemographic disadvantage assessed in early childhood would predict maladaptive components of SIP and conduct problems at school-age.
Maternal depression places children at risk not only for internalizing symptoms (Downey & Coyne, 1990; Weissman, Warner, Wickramaratne, Moreau, & Olfson, 1997) but also for conduct problems (Shaw, Keenan, & Vondra, 1994; Shaw & Vondra, 1995; Zahn-Waxler, Iannotti, Cummings, & Denham, 1990; for a review, see Cummings & Davies, 1994). Yet, we know little about the mechanisms by which maternal depression influences children’s behavioral and social difficulties (Goodman & Gotlib, 1999). Again, emotional processes likely play a significant role in mediating the relation between maternal depression and child conduct problems. For example, although heightened experiences and expressions of sadness and withdrawal are key markers of depression, compared to nondepressed individuals, depressed children and adults also feel and express more anger (Blumberg & Izard, 1985; Moreno, Fuhriman, & Selby, 1993; Weissman & Paykel, 1974). Among depressed caregivers, this anger often gets expressed toward their children. Compared to nondepressed controls, depressed caregivers tend to criticize their children more frequently and engage in coercive control cycles with them (Burbach & Borduin, 1986; Conrad & Hammen, 1989; Cox, Puckering, Pound, and Mills, 1987; Dumas & Serketich, 1994; Panaccione & Wahler, 1986; Webster-Stratton & Hammond, 1988).
In addition to increasing anger expression toward children, maternal depression can affect children indirectly by changing the emotional climate of the family. Maternal depression often co-occurs with marital conflict and distress (Fendrich, Warner, & Weissman, 1990; Hay, Zahn-Waxler, Cummings, & Iannotti, 1992; Rutter & Quinton, 1984). Children’s observations of marital conflict, especially unresolved conflict, can lead to deleterious effects for children, including an increased sensitivity to anger cues (Cummings & Zahn-Waxler, 1992; Davies & Cummings, 1995; El-Sheikh & Cummings, 1995; El-Sheikh, Cummings, & Reiter, 1996). These findings and others suggest that maternal depression can affect the family environment pervasively, leading to greater anger and anger expression among family members.
Most empirical investigations assessing the social-cognitive patterns of children with depressed mothers have focused on children’s self-attributions rather than information processing about social situations. Children of depressed mothers tend to blame themselves for negative outcomes and have lower evaluations of self-competence (Garber & Robinson, 1997; Jaenicke, Hammen, Zupan, Hiroto, Gordon, Adrian, & Burge, 1987). In one study, however, higher levels of maternal depressive symptomatology of preschool children predicted greater anger attribution biases (Schultz et al., 2000). The preceding theoretical and empirical support motivated us to expect maternal depression in early childhood to predict maladaptive SIP and conduct problems at school-age.
Mediational role of social information processing
In addition to examining the direct paths leading from early family risk factors to SIP and conduct problems, we also tested the theory that SIP might mediate the link between early family risk and behavioral outcomes. As stated previously, although many researchers find children’s adjustment difficulties to correspond with sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression, researchers have only recently tested mediational models that account for mechanisms underlying relations between these risk factors and children’s adjustment.
Several theorists posit that children's perceptions and interpretations of their social worlds at least in part mediate relations between their family environments and social adjustment (Crittendon & Ainsworth, 1989; Cummings & Davies, 1994; Dodge et al., 1995). For example, whereas developing a hostile attribution bias may help children successfully adapt to often angry and threatening family environments, children’s hostile attribution biases may prove less adaptive in school settings when interacting with peers and teachers. By over-attributing hostility to peers, children may tend to avoid them or react angrily and aggressively to them (Crick & Dodge, 1992; Dodge & Coie, 1987; Dodge & Frame, 1982; Dodge et al., 1990; Guerra & Slaby, 1989; Lochman & Dodge, 1994; Quiggle et al., 1992; Steinberg & Dodge, 1983). Some evidence supports a causal role for SIP in children’s social adjustment. For example, manipulation of children’s expectations of peers’ intentions prior to entry to a new peer group predicted their subsequent acceptance within that group (Rabiner & Coie, 1989). Children with hostile attribution biases also may elicit negative reactions from teachers, who may become frustrated by these children’s angry and defensive reactions to classroom events.
Initial findings regarding the mediational role of SIP have been inconsistent. Multiple studies focused on physical abuse and exposure to community violence provide correlational data that support the mediating role of children’s SIP in relation to conduct problems (Dodge et al., 1990; Dodge et al., 1995; Schwartz & Proctor, 2000; Weiss et al., 1992). In one of these studies, SIP variables accounted for 33% of the variance between abuse and later conduct problems (Dodge et al., 1995). Other studies that have focused on parental psychopathology and family instability, however, have failed to find that SIP plays a significant mediational role in the prediction of children’s social maladjustment (Downey & Walker, 1989; Schultz et al., 2000).
We designed the present study to help fill the previously identified gaps in the SIP literature. Whereas multiple studies demonstrate that severe environmental circumstances (e.g., physical abuse, exposure to violence) predict maladaptive SIP, we know little about whether or not other facets of children’s family environments predict their information processing patterns. Additionally, despite compelling theory that maladaptive SIP in part accounts for relations between family risk factors and the emergence of conduct problems, the initial empirical evidence has been inconsistent. The present study addresses these issues.
Participants were recruited from Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Nutritional Supplement Program Clinic in Allegheny County, PA (Shaw, Bell, & Gilliom, 2000). WIC provides nutritional aid for income-eligible families in the United States. Over the course of two years, 421 mothers and their male infants were approached at WIC clinics. Fourteen families (3%) declined participation initially. Another 97 (23%) agreed to participate, but failed to attend the first assessment. The remaining 310 families (74%) participated in the initial assessment when their children were 1.5 years old. Of these 310 families, data are available for 306 families (98.7%) at the age 2 assessment, 291 families (93.9%) at the age 3.5 assessment, 282 families (91%) at the age 5 assessment, and 255 families (82.3%) at the age 10 assessment.
The original investigation was designed to identify the developmental precursors of conduct problems. Because boys have greater risk for conduct problems than girls, we limited recruitment to boys. To increase the incidence of overcrowding–another risk factor for conduct problems –families were required to have a second child living in the home.
At the initial assessments, mothers ranged in age from 17 to 43 years with a mean age of 28 years. Sixty-three percent of the mothers were married or living with a partner, 28% had always been single, 8% were divorced, and 1% were other (e.g., widowed, single when the child was born but living together with new partner). Families had a mean per capita income of $242 per month ($2,892 per year, and $11,616 for a family of four) and Hollingshead SES score of 24.5, indicating a working class sample. Fifty-four percent of the target children were Caucasian, 40% were African-American, and 6% were other (e.g., Hispanic American, Asian American, or biracial).
One-hundred seventy-eight boys and their families had a complete set of measures for the present study. These 178 boys and families did not differ significantly on all study variables from the other 132 other boys and families who participated at earlier stages of the study or had incomplete data on the following measures: sociodemographic disadvantage, maternal depression, hostile attribution bias, maladaptive response generation, and conduct problems.
Mothers and their target child were seen at the laboratory for two-hour visits when their children were 1.5 and 3.5 years old. During those visits, mothers and sons participated in a number of parent-child interaction tasks and mothers completed a series of questionnaires about their child’s behavior, their own adjustment, and their family functioning. A similar lab visit was conducted at age 2 but preceded on the same day by a home visit. The home visit provided the opportunity to observe the quality of the home environment and neighborhood and informal parent-child interaction. At ages 5 and 10, comparable visits were conducted at the home. Participants were reimbursed for their time after each assessment.
Sociodemographic disadvantage. We assessed sociodemographic disadvantage through mother interviews. Sociodemographic disadvantage scores ranged from 0 to 3 depending upon how many of the following risk factors were present: 1) low family income, 2) low maternal education, and 3) single parent status. We assessed sociodemographic disadvantage when boys were aged 2 and 5, reflecting the 1.5 - 2 year range and 3.5 - 5 year range, respectively. These two indices correlated highly, r = .77, p < .01. They were averaged to produce a single index reflecting early sociodemographic disadvantage (x = 1.01, sd = 0.85).
Maternal Depression. Maternal depressive symptomatology was assessed using the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI; Ward, Mendelon, Mock, & Erbaugh, 1961). The BDI contains 21 self-reported items measured on scales from 0 to 3 intended to measure adult’s levels of depressive symptomatology. In order to make BDI scores indicate more trait-like tendencies, the directions for the BDI were modified to have mothers’ report depressive symptoms experienced in the past six months rather than the past week. The BDI is reliable and valid (Beck, Steer, & Garbin, 1988), and both researchers and clinicians use it widely. We used the total score on the BDI to measure the level of maternal depression at boys’ ages of 1.5 years (x = 8.98, sd= 6.59), 2 years (x = 8.08, sd = 6.45), 3.5 years (x = 6.86, sd = 6.44), and 5 years (x = 7.72, sd = 6.35). Maternal depression scores at these four time points correlated highly (Pearson r’s ranging between .52 and .70, p’s < .01). Scores were then averaged across the four time points to form a single index reflecting early maternal depressive symptomatology (x = 7.91, sd = 5.43).
Hostile Attribution Bias. We assesed hostile attribution bias at age 10 with a procedure developed by Dodge (Dodge et al., 1990; Dodge & Somberg, 1987). In this procedure interviewers orally present target children 8 social vignettes and accompanying pictures. In each vignette the behavior of another boy leads to a negative outcome for the target child (e.g., exclusion from an activity, being bumped), and the vignettes leave the reasons for the other boy’s behavior ambiguous. Following each vignette, interviewers ask target children first to assess the intent of the boy and then to state how they would respond to the situation. We coded boy’s attributions of intent as “hostile” if participants stated that the boy in the vignette performed the action on purpose. Inter-rater agreement was high (5 = .92). The hostile attribution bias score reflected the number of vignettes to which participants attributed hostile intent to the boy (x = 4.71, sd = 1.86). The 8 hostile attribution bias items cohered moderately well (Cronbach’s V = .59) but less strongly than in previous reports (e.g., Cronbach’s V = .71; Dodge et al., 1995).
Maladaptive response generation. The Dodge procedure was also used to generate an index of maladaptive response generation. Previous researchers (Dodge et al., 1995) have coded responses as aggressive, passive-inept, or assertively competent and developed an aggregated score based simply on aggressive responses across stimuli. We based our coding scheme on this work but modified it to include all responses to produce a single index of the adaptiveness of a child’s response tendency across stimuli. We theorized that responses of physical or verbal retaliation represent the least socially competent responses, likely to escalate the situation. Alternatively, verbally engaging and assertive responses (e.g., asking why the behavior occurred, asking for permission again) most clearly represent socially competent responses and are postulated to de-escalate the situation. Children’s responses to each vignette were coded as either retaliatory (i.e., acts or threats of physical or verbal aggression), verbally engaging, or ambiguous in their adaptive value (e.g., doing nothing, making commands, telling the teacher). Inter-rater agreement was high (5 = .92). On average boys used an escalating strategy of retaliation 0.76 times out of the 8 vignettes (sd = 1.37) and a de-escalating strategy of non-threatening verbal engagement 2.44 times (sd = 2.19).
Our aim was to create a single index of maladaptive response generation that contained some clinical meaningfulness. A categorization scheme was developed to place children’s response tendencies on a scale ranging from retaliatory to socially competent. As children’s retaliation responses were distributed non-normally (skewness = 1.92, se = 0.18; kurtosis = 3.00; se = .36), with 68.0% of boys producing no retaliatory response to any of the 8 vignettes, the data supported the use of such a categorical method. We required production of 2 or more retaliatory or 2 or more verbally engaging response options across the 8 vignettes to categorize a child as having that response tendency. This criterion of 2 (of 8) led to limited overlap between the retaliatory and verbal engagement categorizations and a satisfactory distribution of children between the three groups (i.e., retaliatory, ambiguous, or verbally engaging). Ninety-three boys (52.2% of the sample) stated that they would engage the provocateur verbally in response to at least 2 of the 8 vignettes and received the lowest score of 0. Forty-eight boys (27.0%) produced neither verbally engaging nor retaliatory strategies 2 or more times across the 8 vignettes and received a score of 1. Thirty-seven boys (20.8%) stated that they would retaliate against the provocateur in response to at least 2 of the 8 vignettes and received the highest score of 2. Twelve of these 37 boys (32.4%) produced both 2 or more retaliatory strategies and 2 or more verbally engaging strategies across the 8 vignettes. Because retaliatory strategies reflect less common and highly provocative tendencies, these boys received categorization as “retaliatory” and scores of 2. Higher maladaptive response generation scores reflected retaliatory response tendencies, and lower scores reflected more adaptive tendencies. This limited range scale had good distributional qualities (x = 0.69, sd = 0.80; Skewness = 0.63, se = 0.18; Kurtosis = -1.14; se = .36).
Child Conduct problems. We assessed children’s conduct problems with the Self-report of Delinquency Questionnaire (SRD; Elliot, Huizinga, & Ageton, 1985). The SRD is a semi-structured interview that contains 33 items that assess the frequency with which an individual has engaged in aggressive and delinquent behavior, alcohol and drug use, and related offenses (Elliott et al., 1985). Using a 3-point rating scale (1 = “never”, 2 = “once/twice”, 3 = “more often”), children rate the extent to which they engaged in different types of conduct problems (e.g., stealing, throwing rocks at people, being sent home from school for misbehavior). The overall score on the SRD exhibited good reliability (Cronbach’s V = .78) and indexed children’s conduct problems (x = 3.39, sd = 3.72).
Table 1 presents inter-correlations between study variables. Early sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression correlated significantly; higher levels of sociodemographic disadvantage correlated with greater levels of maternal depression. Both sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression significantly predicted boys’ age 10 maladaptive response generation and self-report of conduct problems. Higher levels of early sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression correlated with more aggressive and escalating response tendencies and higher levels of conduct problems. Neither sociodemographic disadvantage nor maternal depression predicted hostile attribution bias significantly. Boys with greater hostile attribution bias generated more maladaptive responses to the social vignettes. Boys maladaptive response generation but not hostile attribution bias significantly predicted their conduct problems.
To understand the relationship between attributions of hostile intent and maladaptive response generation, we calculated the contingencies between these two responses across the eight vignettes. Table 2 presents these frequencies. Compared to when they attributed nonhostile intent, when participant boys made an attribution of hostile intent to the boy in the vignette they were approximately three times as likely to generate an escalating response of retaliation (4.6% vs. 13.0%) and only half as likely to generate a socially competent response of verbal engagement (40.2% vs. 23.8% of the time).
Antecedents of social information processing
We next examined the combined contribution of the early emotional environment variables to children’s SIP at age 10. Two hierarchical multiple regressions were computed with sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression entered on the first steps, the interaction between disadvantage and depression entered on the second steps, and hostile attribution bias and maladaptive response generation as dependent variables in their respective equations. The interaction term represented the cross-product of the standardized variables. The results of these equations are presented in Table 3. On the first steps, the block of early emotional environment variables significantly predicted maladaptive response generation, accounting for 6% of the variance. Sociodemographic disadvantage but not maternal depression contributed unique variance to the prediction. The block of variables did not predict hostile attribution bias significantly. On the second steps the interaction between sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression did not predict either SIP variable significantly. The final equation functioned as a significant predictor of maladaptive response generation, accounting for 6% of the variance, but not hostile attribution bias.
Prediction of conduct problems
We next examined the combined contribution of the early emotional environment variables and SIP to the prediction of children’s self-reported conduct problems. We entered the early emotional environment variables on the first step, the interaction between these variables on the second step, and the SIP variables on the third step (Table 4). On the first step the early emotional environment variables significantly predicted conduct problems, accounting for 8% of the variance. Both sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression contributed unique variance. Greater sociodemographic disadvantage and higher levels of maternal depression early in the child’s life correlated with more frequent conduct problems at age 10. On the second step the interaction between sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression also functioned as a significant predictor of conduct problems, accounting for 3% additional variance. On the last step, the block of SIP variables approached significant prediction of conduct problems (p < .06). Although this block was not significant, maladaptive response generation contributed significant unique variance to the prediction of conduct problems on this step. The final equation significantly predicted conduct problems, accounting for 14% of the variance.
To understand the significant interaction between sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression, we first conducted a median split of the sociodemographic disadvantage variable to form groups of boys and families “low” and “high” on this variable. We then examined the regression slopes of early maternal depression on later conduct problems for each level of sociodemographic disadvantage. Figure 1 presents the scatterplots and slopes for these regressions. When early sociodemographic disadvantage was low, little association was found between early maternal depression and conduct problems at age 10 (R2 = .01). When early sociodemographic disadvantage was high, however, early maternal depression predicted age 10 conduct problems (R2 = .06).
The final hypothesis was that SIP would at least partially mediate the effect of the early emotional environment on later conduct problems. Baron & Kenny (1986) outline three preliminary requirements to support mediation: 1) the independent variable (i.e., early emotional environment variables) must predict the mediator (i.e., SIP variables), 2) the independent variable must predict the dependent variable (i.e., conduct problems), and 3) the mediator must predict the dependent variable. As seen in the correlation matrix in Table 1, sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression both predicted maladaptive response generation but not hostile attribution biases significantly. Socioeconomic disadvantage, maternal depression, and maladaptive response generation also all predicted the dependent variable, conduct problems, so these sets of variables met Baron & Kenny’s (1986) initial requirements for testing mediation.
We tested whether or not boys’ maladaptive response generation might mediate between early sociodemographic disadvantage, maternal depression, and conduct problems by conducting path analyses using the LISREL software program (Joreskog & Sorbom, 1993). The test of mediation involves evaluation of two models. First, we tested models that only included direct effects between the early family risk variables (i.e., either sociodemographic disadvantage or maternal depression) and conduct problems. Second, models were computed that included both these direct effects but also an indirect effect through maladaptive response generation. Sobel’s (1982) product of coefficients was used to determine if the indirect pathway was significant.
Models involving sociodemographic disadvantage were computed first. Figure 2 presents the path coefficients for these models. Consistent with the preceding analyses, in the first model the direct path from sociodemographic disadvantage to conduct problems was significant. We then tested the model that included a mediating pathway through maladaptive response generation. As expected, each individual path was significant. Because this model is saturated (i.e., all possible paths were fixed), fit indices were perfect. The indirect effect of sociodemographic disadvantage on conduct problems via maladaptive response generation was significant, t(178) = 1.98, p < .05. Whereas in the initial model the direct effect from sociodemographic disadvantage to conduct problems was .23, in the second model that included an indirect path through maladaptive social information processing, the direct effect was reduced to .19. Maladaptive response generation therefore fit a model of significant partial mediation of the effects of early sociodemographic disadvantage and later conduct problems, accounting for 17.4% [i.e., (.23 - .19) / .23] of the shared variance between these variables.
We then tested models involving maternal depression. Figure 3 presents the path coefficients for these models. Consistent with the preceding analyses, in the first model the direct path from maternal depression to conduct problems was significant. We then tested the model that included a mediating pathway through maladaptive response generation. As expected, each individual path was significant. However, the indirect effect of maternal depression on conduct problems via maladaptive response generation was nonsignificant, t(178) = 1.73, p = n.s.
In the present study early family risk factors predicted maladaptive SIP. Early emotional environment variables predicted maladaptive response generation, accounting for 6% of the variance, but not hostile attribution bias. These two early emotional environment variables also accounted for significant amounts of variance, 11%, in children’s later conduct problems. Additionally, the present study found some, but inconsistent and weak, support for the role of SIP as a partial mediator of the relation between early family risk and children’s later conduct problems. Maladaptive response generation fit a model of significant partial mediation of the effect of early socioeconomic disadvantage on later conduct problems. These findings add to a small but growing literature that suggests that the emergence of maladaptive SIP may help explain how environmental risk impacts children’s social and behavioral adjustment. These findings also suggest, however, that other mediating mechanisms need to be considered to account more fully for the emergence of conduct problems.
Antecedents of social information processing and conduct problems
Early family emotional environment variables significantly predicted boys’ maladaptive response generation. Discrete emotion experiences tend to motivate the retrieval of cognitions consistent with the function of the emotion experienced (Izard, 2001). For example, fear heightens people’s sensitivity to threatening stimuli (Dodge & Somberg, 1987). The present findings are consistent with this premise. Socioeconomic disadvantage and maternal depressive symptomatology may increase levels of negative emotion experiences for caregivers and leave them more often verbalizing and enacting less socially competent responses to social situations, such as angry and aggressive ones. These caregivers may model maladaptive responses and response generation to their boys. Additionally, boys within these families may experience heightened levels of negative emotions such as anger and fear themselves. These emotion experiences may motivate them to produce these types of responses and, over time, develop tendencies to access these types of responses.
These two early family risk factors also accounted for a significant amount of the variance, 11%, in children’s conduct problems. The strength of this association is particularly noteworthy because of the time period between assessments, with family risk variables assessed between 1.5 to 5 years of age and maladaptive response generation and conduct problems assessed at the age of 10, an average of over 6 years between assessments. Many theorists posit that maternal depression that occurs early in children’s development may impact children’s functioning more strongly than maternal depression with later onset (Goodman & Gotlib, 1999). During the first several years of life, children’s cortical synapse generation and development may be particularly susceptible to environmental stress and influence (Dawson, Ashman, & Carver, 2000). In unreported analyses with the present study’s data, we found maternal reports of depression when boys were two years old to predict both maladaptive response generation and conduct problems more strongly than the two later reports used in the present study (i.e., 3.5 and 5 years). Although the present study did not test the differential impact of early vs. later onset of family risk, it certainly supports the idea that early sociodemographic disadvantage and maternal depression can have a substantial effect on boys’ later functioning.
In addition to the main effects for early family risk factors, sociodemographic disadvantage interacted with maternal depression to predict children’s conduct problems. Experiencing one of these risk factors alone did not place children at significantly increased risk to experience conduct problems. Rather, when both risk factors occurred, children exhibited heightened levels of later conduct problems. This finding is consistent with a line of research that shows multiple indicators of family adversity typically predict children’s adjustment much more strongly than single indicators (Ackerman et al., 1999; Rutter, Yule, Quinton, Rowlands, Yule, & Berger, 1975; Barocas, Sameroff, & Seifer, 1985; Shaw, Winslow, Owens, & Hood, 1998). Many depressed mothers can remain relatively sensitive and responsive caregivers (Radke-Yarrow & Nottelman, 1989). The results of the present study suggest that the stress of low income, single parent status, coupled with low educational attainment, my hinder depressed mothers’ attempts to remain sensitive and responsive caregivers, resulting in many children with elevated rates of behavioral difficulties.
Despite these positive findings, the specific processes that account for the relationships between early risk and later maladaptive SIP were left unstudied. Socioeconomic disadvantage and maternal depression are environmental risk factors that co-occur with multiple dynamic processes in many families and neighborhoods (e.g., marital conflict, coercive discipline encounters, stressed family interactions). We believe that processes that expose children to increased anger expression may have the strongest and most deleterious effect upon children’s developing SIP, but the present study’s data do not address this question. Which specific processes might most strongly influence the development of maladaptive SIP remains an important question for future research.
We found partial support for our hypothesis that SIP plays a mediational role between early family risk and children’s conduct problems. In particular, maladaptive response generation fit a model of significant partial mediation of the effect of socioeconomic disadvantage on conduct problems. This finding adds to a small but growing body of empirical demonstrations that the development of maladaptive SIP patterns may be an important mechanism by which family and community risk shapes the emergence of conduct problems in some children (Dodge et al., 1990; Dodge et al., 1995; Schwartz & Proctor, 2000; Weiss et al., 1992).
The support for the mediating effect of SIP, however, was inconsistent. The model that included maternal depression and maladaptive response generation failed to support a mediational role for SIP, and hostile attribution bias failed to relate to family risk factors. One major limitation of the present study was the small number of SIP components assessed. Children’s behavioral responses to social situations are often determined by multiple social-cognitive tasks (e.g., interpreting how others’ feel, deciding one’s goal within the situation, generating response options). Because of this, individual facets of information processing rarely account for more than moderate amounts of variance in children’s adjustment variables (Dodge & Price, 1994; Schultz, Izard, Ackerman, & Youngstrom, 2001). Whereas studies that have tested the mediational role of individual components of SIP have found weak or little support for mediation (Downey & Walker, 1989; Schultz et al., 2000), others that have used latent constructs or risk indices based on multiple facets of SIP have found substantial support (Dodge et al., 1990; Dodge et al., 1995; Schultz, Izard, & Bear, manuscript under review; Schwartz & Proctor, 2000; Weiss et al., 1992). A recent study that utilized a latent construct of three facets of SIP, for example, accounted for 40% of the variance between witnessed community violence and children’s aggression (Schwartz & Proctor, 2000). Future research should include multiple and varied assessments of SIP to represent this multidimensional construct more fully.
One of the two facets of SIP assessed in the present study, hostile attribution bias, failed to relate either to early family risk factors or children’s behavioral adjustment. Although an abundance of evidence relates hostile attribution biases to children’s adjustment difficulties (Crick & Dodge, 1992; Dodge & Coie, 1987; Dodge & Frame, 1982; Dodge et al., 1995; Dodge et al., 1990; Guerra & Slaby, 1989; Lochman & Dodge, 1994; Quiggle et al., 1992; Steinberg & Dodge, 1983), researchers have not always validated this association (Dodge & Price, 1994; Dodge et al., 2002; Lochman & Dodge, 1994; Pettit et al., 1988; Weiss et al., 1992). We are unsure why hostile attribution bias did not relate to antecedents or influence children’s functioning more strongly in our sample. One possibility is that our methodology did not adequately assess non-normative hostile attributions for the present study’s sample. Similar to other samples using the same methodology (Dodge et al., 2002), in the present sample children on average attributed hostility to a majority of the peer provocateurs (x = 4.79 out of 8). The attribution of hostility was not only common but a normative tendency within our sample, perhaps reflecting the degree to which these children are confronted with threatening situations in their daily lives (e.g., parental anger expression, neighborhood violence). As such, identification of boys with aberrant hostile attributions or abnormally high levels was difficult to gauge.
Despite the nonsignificant associations with expected antecedents and outcomes, hostile attribution bias did function as a significant predictor of maladaptive response generation. When boys attributed hostility to peer provocateurs, they were nearly three times as likely to access and produce retaliatory response options to peers than when they attributed nonhostile intent. Dodge and Schwartz (1997) suggest that hostile attribution bias may reflect a global orientation toward others. A recent study finds that children’s hostile attribution biases exhibit greater coherence across social contexts than other facets of SIP, suggesting that it reflects a more global construct than other SIP facets (Dodge et al., 2002). Additionally, a developing and related line of research finds that many young children generally tend to perceive others as “angry” (Barth & Bastiani, 1997; Pollak et al., 2000; Pollak et al., 1997; Schultz et al., 2000). Although the different steps of SIP often occur in parallel (Crick & Dodge, 1994), children’s attributions of anger and hostility to others may often play a causal role in tending to motivate a particular set of social-cognitive goals, response options, etc. within social situations, as suggested by the present study’s results.
Three limitations to the study should be noted. First, because boys and mothers in the present study were primarily from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the results may have limited generalizability to other populations. A higher level of socioeconomic status may alleviate some of the deleterious effects of single parent status and maternal depression on family functioning and child adjustment, such as increasing access to social supports for mothers and quality child care for children. Second, our data are correlational, and assessments of SIP and conduct problems occurred simultaneously. Although we believe early family risk to influence the development of maladaptive SIP and conduct problems, causal interpretations are not warranted. Reciprocal processes also likely occur between constructs. For example, conduct disordered boys tend to associate with other delinquent and aggressive children. In these peer groups boys may learn, or at least consolidate, maladaptive social-cognitive patterns. In unreported analyses utilizing a subset of the present study’s boys for whom we had available data on preschool externalizing behaviors, however, we found that early externalizing did not predict age 10 maladaptive response generation. Additionally, to some extent children’s conduct problems may precede, or at least exacerbate, their mothers’ depressive symptomatology. Third, the present study examined a limited list of risk factors and did not consider the relationship of them to other established antecedents of conduct problems. For example, many studies find children’s intellectual abilities to correlate with conduct problems (for a review, see Hinshaw, 1992), and controlling for intellectual abilities often produces weakened associations between SIP and behavioral adjustment variables (Orobio et al., 2002). The inter-relationship between environmental risk variables and other antecedents of conduct problems remains an important avenue for future research.
The present study adds important findings to a growing literature on the antecedents of SIP. The early emotional climate of the family predicted SIP tendencies in later childhood, and some evidence was found that these tendencies partially mediated the relationship between family risk and conduct problems. Future research with more robust and earlier measurement of SIP is needed to examine further how early many children develop maladaptive SIP patterns that place them at risk for behavioral difficulties and how strongly specific processes within the family emotional environment influence this development.
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Table 1. Inter-correlations between study variables.
1 2 3 4
Early Emotional Environment
1. Sociodemographic Disadvantage
2. Maternal Depression (BDI) .20**
Child Functioning at Age 10
3. Hostile Attribution Bias .06 -.06
4. Response Generation Tendencies .20** .16* .15*
5. Conduct problems (SRD) .23** .20** .04 .24**
** p < .01; * p < .05.
n = 178.
Table 2. Influence of intent attribution upon response generation.
Total Verbal Neutral/ Retaliatory/
Responses Engagement Ambiguous Aggressive
Non-hostile attribution 585 235 323 27
40.2% 55.2% 4.6%
Hostile attribution 839 200 530 109
23.8% 63.2% 13.0%
1424 435 853 136
30.5% 59.9% 9.6%
n = 178.
Note. The 1424 total responses reflect 178 boys responding to 8 social vignettes each.
Table 3. Hierarchical linear regression predicting social information processing variables.
Hostile Attribution Bias Response Generation
) R2 B SE $ ) R2 B SE $
1. Early Emotional Environment .01 .06**
Sociodemographic Disadvantage .17 .17 .08 .16 .07 .18*
Maternal Depression - .03 .03 -.07 .02 .01 .12
2. Interaction between Disadvantage X Depression .00 -.02 .13 -.00 .00 .04 .06 .06
F (3, 174) = 0.55, p = ns F (3, 174) = 3.54*
Total R2 = .01 Total R2 = .06
** p < .01; * p < .05.
Table 4. Linear regression predicting self-reported conduct problems.
) R2 B SE $
1. Early Emotional Environment .08**
Sociodemographic Disadvantage .89 .32 .20**
Maternal Depression .11 .05 .15*
2. Interaction between Disadvantage X Depression .03** .63 .25 .20*
3. Social Information Processing .03a
Hostile Attribution Bias .02 .14 .01
Response Generation Tendencies .81 .35 .17*
F (5, 172) = 5.49**, Total R2 = .14
** p < .01; * p < .05; a p < .06.
Figure 1. Regression of early maternal depression on later conduct problems as a function of early sociodemographic disadvantage.