Skip to Content

Differential Susceptibility Hypothesis & Effects of Parenting

What is differential susceptibility | Diathesis stress model | Developmental theories | Differential susceptibility markers | Differential susceptibility and parenting

What is Differential Susceptibility

Differential susceptibility to environmental influence summarizes the observations that some individuals are disproportionately more susceptible to both negative and positive environmental conditions. It explains why people react differently to apparently the same environment​1​.

Children react to environmental effects, such as parenting style, differently​2​. Recent studies have found that some children are affected more than others by environmental factors right from the start. They are more vulnerable to both positive and negative environments. This differential effect is summarized in the Differential Susceptibility Hypothesis.

According to the Differential Susceptibility Hypothesis, individuals with heightened susceptibility are more plastic or malleable. They are more sensitive to both beneficial and adverse experiences, especially in early childhood​3​. This enhanced sensitivity can result in enduring changes in youth development​4​.

This vulnerability is rooted in the biology of the nervous system. But besides neurobiology, experiences during the early years (e.g. early child care) also play an important role​5​.

father and son imitate the airplane to contrast externalizing behavior in Differential Susceptibility (psychology definition)

Diathesis Stress Model vs Differential Susceptibility Hypothesis

The Differential-Susceptibility Hypothesis differs from the Diathesis-Stress Model in how susceptible individuals are not just more vulnerable to negative environmental influence but to both positive and negative environments.

A number of studies demonstrate that exposure to negative developmental experiences, such as child maltreatment, unsupportive parenting, or negative life events, places children at elevated risk for developing antisocial behavior and psychopathology​6​.

However, not all children would develop negative child outcomes under those conditions, and this is addressed by the Diathesis Stress Model.

Diathesis Stress Model (also known as the Dual Risk Model) states that children with difficult temperaments or those who carry certain risk alleles (e.g. the s allele) are more likely to have maladaptive outcomes when subjected to certain stressors. They are predisposed or more vulnerable to certain health problems or psychological disorders than others.

The model, first proposed in the 1970s, serves to explain why some children are vulnerable to the negative effects of adversity while others remain unaffected​7​.

But psychologists have found that this model is largely incomplete. It doesn’t lend itself to a convincing explanation as to why this is a desirable human trait.

The Differential Susceptibility Model addresses exactly this shortcoming.

This model states that some individuals are more susceptible to both positive and negative conditions, in a for-better-and-for-worse manner. Hence, susceptible characteristics are not liabilities, but plasticity traits​8​. Given supportive and social environmental exposures, these children can reap the most benefit.

mom watches while daughter and dad hug differential susceptibility hypothesis

The Origin of Developmental Theories

Both supportive and adverse childhood environments have been part of human experience throughout our history. From an evolutionary perspective, differential susceptibility allows the human species to adapt to both kinds of contexts​9​.

Differential-Susceptibility Theory (DST)

Two different hypotheses have emerged to interpret the existence of differential susceptibility. One possible explanation comes from the Differential-Susceptibility Theory.

DST, proposed by Jay Belsky at the University of California, Davis, suggests that developmental plasticity is based on evolutionary biology and natural selection.

Evolutionarily, it is advantageous for children to vary their sensitivity to the main effects of rearing, especially within a family, because parents could not be sure what environment could maximize children’s chances of survival.

This property becomes a bet-hedging strategy in human evolution.

On one hand, the less susceptible child will be less affected by environmental adversity. On the other hand, the more malleable offspring will benefit more from a positive environment.

This genetic variation allows the genes proven adaptable to the specific environment to pass on. As a result, humans, unlike other animals, can adapt to drastically different climates all across the world​10,11​.

Biological Sensitivity to Context Thesis (BSCT)

An alternative explanation is the Biological Sensitivity to Context Thesis. BSCT, proposed by Boyce from the University of California, Berkeley, and Ellis from the University of Arizona, suggests that natural selection allows a child’s stress reactivity to develop adaptive outcomes according to their rearing environment​12,13​.

In stressful environments, children’s chances of survival and eventual reproduction are enhanced if they develop heightened sensitivity and vigilance to threats. The adaptation to adversity “makes the best of a bad situation”​14​.

In supportive and enriched environments, reactive children adapt optimally in growth, status, fertility, and offspring quality.

Under the BSCT regime, differential susceptibility is the result of the stress-response system adapting to the environment in early life. Accordingly, the susceptibility factor is more of a developmentally-regulating strategy than a vulnerability or risk factor, even though those strategies may be detrimental to the long-term welfare of an individual or society as a whole under normal circumstances.

While DST addresses the role of nature in natural selection, BSCT addresses the role of nurture. Although these two theories are unique, they do not exclude each other. In fact, they converge on the fact that susceptibility to rearing influence is a desirable evolutionary neurodevelopmental phenomenon in human development.

Differential Susceptibility Markers

The differential susceptibility hypothesis has shed immense light on why children react differently to the same environment or parenting style.

Researchers have identified several potential differential susceptibility factors, called plasticity markers. These markers predict the differential susceptibility nature when interacting with the environment​15​.

There are three types of plasticity markers:

  • phenotypic (genetic factors you can “see”)
  • endophenotypic (genetic factors “inside”)
  • gene environment interaction

Here are some examples of these markers and the effects of their Parenting x Environment interaction.

Difficult Temperament

Difficult temperament, defined as low inhibitory control, high dispositional frustration, high activity level, and low soothability, is a phenotypic factor.

In one recent study, researchers tracked the levels of externalizing behavior problems in a group of 16 to 19-month-old boys with difficult temperaments. After 6 months, the boys who had mothers with high parental sensitivity and infrequent use of negative control had the least increase in problem behavior. Those with highly insensitive mothers who relied heavily on negative control had the largest increase in behavioral issues. This effect was only found in the boys with difficult temperaments​16​.

Every parent dreams of having a baby with an easy temperament. These babies sleep better, eat better, tantrum less, and listen more. While having a difficult temperament predicts worse outcomes if the child is exposed to bad parenting​17​, it also predicts more positive outcomes if the child is raised with good parenting practice​18​.

Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia & Cortisol Level

Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia (RSA) & Cortisol reactivity are both endophenotypic factors (factor “inside”) of differential susceptibility.

RSA is related to an individual’s capacity to regulate stress while cortisol is linked to impulsivity, poor self-control, peer rejection, and aggression. These two markers are a gauge of stress reactivity, which in turn measures biological sensitivity to the environment.

In a study of 338 children the age 5 to 6, researchers have found that children with high biological sensitivity, as measured by RSA and cortisol levels, showed the highest levels of conduct problems in a negative family environment, but the highest levels of competence in positive family environment​19​.

5-HTTLPR

5-HTTLPR is a genotype factor in the gene-environment interaction effects (denoted as GxE interactions). It is a polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene area.

Neuroscientists have found that positive emotion was protective against psychiatric disorders. Children who have high levels of positive emotion are more resilient and have better self-regulation. Those who have low levels have a more negative affect. They are linked to more depression and other psychological disorders.

Neurodevelopment study also finds that young people who carry two functional copies of the S’S’ 5-HTTLPR allele are more genetically susceptible to the quality of parenting. They have significantly more positive emotions when reared in supportive parenting environments and significantly lower levels of positive emotions in unsupportive environments.

But those with at least one copy of the L 5-HTTLPR allele showed relatively consistent levels of positive emotion across both the supportive and unsupportive parenting environments. These findings are consistent with the differential susceptibility hypothesis​20​.

10 year olds girl is sad and hugs mom differential susceptibility psychology model in development and psychopathology

Differential Susceptibility and Parenting

Whether, how, and to what extent parenting affects a child’s development has been a longstanding interest to developmental psychologists, child psychology researchers, parents, and educators. The discovery of neurobiologically susceptibility has provided a much-needed additional perspective on this “does parenting matter” question.

A shared childhood environment can provide similar experiences, but it can affect different children to different degrees, including some not at all due to individual differences in genetic sensitivity.

Therefore, the influence of life stress on children’s development is neither as straightforward as earlier researchers suggested nor as insubstantial as behavior-genetics researchers suggest​21​.

As parents, while we cannot change our biological makeup, we can make the rearing environments safe and supportive for even the most sensitive children to thrive.


References

  1. 1.
    Ellis BJ, Boyce WT, Belsky J, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, van Ijzendoorn MH. Differential susceptibility to the environment: An evolutionary–neurodevelopmental theory. Dev Psychopathol. Published online January 24, 2011:7-28. doi:10.1017/s0954579410000611
  2. 2.
    Belsky J. Differential Susceptibility to Rearing Influence: An Evolutionary Hypothesis and Some Evidence. In: Origins of the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Child Development. Guilford Press; 2005:139–163.
  3. 3.
    Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, van IJzendoorn MH. Research Review: Genetic vulnerability or differential susceptibility in child development: the case of attachment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Published online December 2007:1160-1173. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7610.2007.01801.x
  4. 4.
    Boyce WT. Differential Susceptibility of the Developing Brain to Contextual Adversity and Stress. Neuropsychopharmacol. Published online September 22, 2015:142-162. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.294
  5. 5.
    Lutha S, Cicchetti D. The construct of resilience: implications for interventions and social policies. Dev Psychopathol. 2000;12(4):857-885. doi:10.1017/s0954579400004156
  6. 6.
    Shonkoff JP, Boyce WT, McEwen BS. Neuroscience, Molecular Biology, and the Childhood Roots of Health Disparities. JAMA. Published online June 3, 2009:2252. doi:10.1001/jama.2009.754
  7. 7.
    Walker EF, Diforio D. Schizophrenia: A neural diathesis-stress model. Psychological Review. Published online 1997:667-685. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.104.4.667
  8. 8.
    Belsky J, Pluess M. Beyond diathesis stress: Differential susceptibility to environmental influences. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2009:885-908. doi:10.1037/a0017376
  9. 9.
    Belsky J. Variation in Susceptibility to Environmental Influence: An Evolutionary Argument. Psychological Inquiry. Published online July 1997:182-186. doi:10.1207/s15327965pli0803_3
  10. 10.
    Belsky J. Theory Testing, Effect-Size Evaluation, and Differential Susceptibility to Rearing Influence: The Case of Mothering and Attachment. Child Development. Published online August 1997:598. doi:10.2307/1132110
  11. 11.
    Belsky J, Bakermans-Kranenburg MJ, van IJzendoorn MH. For Better and For Worse. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. Published online December 2007:300-304. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2007.00525.x
  12. 12.
    BOYCE WT, ELLIS BJ. Biological sensitivity to context: I. An evolutionary–developmental theory of the origins and functions of stress reactivity. Develop Psychopathol. Published online May 12, 2005. doi:10.1017/s0954579405050145
  13. 13.
    Ellis BJ, Boyce WT. Differential susceptibility to the environment: Toward an understanding of sensitivity to developmental experiences and context. Dev Psychopathol. Published online 2011:1-5. doi:10.1017/s095457941000060x
  14. 14.
    Hinde RA, Stevenson-Hinde J. Attachment: Biological, Cultural and Individual Desiderata. Human Development. Published online 1990:62-72. doi:10.1159/000276503
  15. 15.
    Belsky J, Jonassaint C, Pluess M, Stanton M, Brummett B, Williams R. Vulnerability genes or plasticity genes? Mol Psychiatry. Published online May 19, 2009:746-754. doi:10.1038/mp.2009.44
  16. 16.
    van Aken C, Junger M, Verhoeven M, van Aken MAG, Deković M. The interactive effects of temperament and maternal parenting on toddlers’ externalizing behaviours. Inf Child Develop. Published online 2007:553-572. doi:10.1002/icd.529
  17. 17.
    Morris AS, Silk JS, Steinberg L, Sessa FM, Avenevoli S, Essex MJ. Temperamental Vulnerability and Negative Parenting as Interacting Predictors of Child Adjustment. J Marriage and Family. Published online May 2002:461-471. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2002.00461.x
  18. 18.
    Kochanska G, Aksan N, Joy ME. Children’s fearfulness as a moderator of parenting in early socialization: Two longitudinal studies. Developmental Psychology. Published online 2007:222-237. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.43.1.222
  19. 19.
    Obradović J, Bush NR, Stamperdahl J, Adler NE, Boyce WT. Biological Sensitivity to Context: The Interactive Effects of Stress Reactivity and Family Adversity on Socioemotional Behavior and School Readiness. Child Development. Published online January 2010:270-289. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01394.x
  20. 20.
    Hankin BL, Nederhof E, Oppenheimer CW, et al. Differential susceptibility in youth: evidence that 5-HTTLPR x positive parenting is associated with positive affect ‘for better and worse.’ Transl Psychiatry. Published online October 2011:e44-e44. doi:10.1038/tp.2011.44
  21. 21.
    Collins WA, Maccoby EE, Steinberg L, Hetherington EM, Bornstein MH. Contemporary research on parenting: The case for nature and nurture. American Psychologist. Published online 2000:218-232. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.55.2.218

Was this article helpful?

Disclaimer

* All information on parentingforbrain.com is for educational purposes only. Parenting For Brain does not provide medical advice. If you suspect medical problems or need professional advice, please consult a physician. *