By Matt Wood
More than 1.25 million children in the United States, or one in every 58, suffered some kind of neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse in 2005-2006. Such maltreatment interferes with normal development and can lead to a host of psychological disorders and behavioral problems as they become adults, particularly aggression.
A new study by researchers from the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago takes that understanding a step further by examining the pattern of interaction between childhood maltreatment and “social information processing,” or the set of cognitive and emotional processes that control how people interpret social cues and determine the appropriate response. To help think about how social information processing works in everyday life, imagine if another driver cuts you off in traffic. Do you assume he did it on purpose, or just wasn’t paying attention? Do you get angry and honk your horn, or tap the brakes and let him pass?
Current research on the links between childhood maltreatment and aggression focuses mostly on how abuse or neglect affects the development of social information processing skills. Experiencing abuse or neglect during childhood is associated with increased deficits in the social information processing skills needed to handle potentially hostile situations like this, which in turn leads to higher levels of aggression in adolescence or adulthood. This is the “cycle of violence” that can lead children who were maltreated to become violent as adults.
The new study examines whether abuse or neglect actually amplifies the risk effects of biased social information processing on adult aggression. Pan Chen, a post-doctoral researcher and first author on the study, said, “Basically we expected to find evidence that biased social information processing is more likely to lead to aggressive behavior among people who were exposed to childhood maltreatment in comparison to those who were not.”
To test this hypothesis, Chen and her post-doctoral adviser, Kristen Jacobson, surveyed about 2,700 adults from the Penn Twin Cohort, a population-based sample of twins born in Pennsylvania between 1959 and 1978 (twin studies are often used in this type of research because of the known genetic links and shared family history of the subjects). They asked respondents questions about their history of childhood abuse and neglect, and then presented them a series of vignettes about ambiguous social situations to assess their reactions. Specifically, two components of social information processing were assessed: a cognitive part called hostile attribution bias that determines how a person interprets someone else’s intentions, and an emotional part dealing with negative emotional responses such as anger or sadness.
For example, one vignette might describe a soccer game in which one player tripped another. The respondents were asked questions about the hostile intent of the first player. Did he trip the other player on purpose, or was it an accident? Then the respondents answered questions about how that situation made them feel. Did it make them angry? Sad? Embarrassed? Chen and her colleagues then ran regression analyses of these responses along with the respondents’ history of childhood maltreatment and aggression as adults.
What the researchers found made sense: People who were abused or neglected as children were more likely to exhibit aggression as adults. The data also showed that childhood maltreatment predicts aggression even when controlling for patterns of social information processing. That is, given two people who have the same social information processing skills, the one who was abused or neglected as a child is much more likely to be aggressive. Jacobson, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience, put it another way. “If you’ve been exposed to childhood maltreatment, all those other little things that you need to do to kind of keep your behavior under control go out the window,” she said.
More importantly, they also found that negative emotional responses had a stronger risk effect than hostile attribution bias on adult aggression for people who experienced higher levels of childhood maltreatment.
“The latter is different from what we expected,” Chen said. “And one of the reasons we’re thinking about that is probably the maltreatment has an impact on your brain structure which leads to increased levels of impulsivity. People who are more impulsive are less likely to depend on their cognitive process to make decisions.”
Jacobson said that the stronger tie between emotional response and aggression doesn’t leave room for people who were maltreated to think before they act. “What seems to matter is how you’re interpreting the situation,” she said. “It doesn’t matter whether you think it was intentional or you think it was hostile. What really matters in terms of your response is, how did it make you feel?”
Chen said that their findings emphasize the need for early intervention. “Early prevention of the aggressive behavior is very important for people who were exposed to childhood maltreatment,” she said. Specifically, such treatment should focus on tempering negative emotions. “We can teach them how to think more before they react, instead of acting impulsively,” she said.
For their next study, Chen and Jacobson are narrowing their focus on impulsive behavior. Jacobson said she hopes their work untangling the complex interactions of environment, cognitive skills, emotional responses, and aggression will lead to better understanding of how to help children and adults who have suffered childhood maltreatment, a problem that won’t go away. “It would be wonderful if we could just say let’s get rid of maltreatment, poverty, stress, whatever, but that’s never going to happen,” she said.
Chen P, Coccaro EF, Lee R, & Jacobson KC (2011). Moderating effects of childhood maltreatment on associations between social information processing and adult aggression. Psychological medicine, 1-12 PMID: 22008562