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Attention bias to reward predicts behavioral problems and moderates early risk to externalizing and attention problems

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 March 2019

Santiago Morales*
Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA
Natalie V. Miller
Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA
Sonya V. Troller-Renfree
Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA
Lauren K. White
Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Kathryn A. Degnan
Department of Psychology, Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, USA
Heather A. Henderson
Department of Psychology, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada
Nathan A. Fox
Department of Human Development and Quantitative Methodology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA
Author for correspondence: Santiago Morales, 3942 Benjamin Building, Campus Dr., College Park, MD20742; Email:


The current study had three goals. First, we replicated recent evidence that suggests a concurrent relation between attention bias to reward and externalizing and attention problems at age 7. Second, we extended these findings by examining the relations between attention and behavioral measures of early exuberance (3 years), early effortful control (4 years), and concurrent effortful control (7 years), as well as later behavioral problems (9 years). Third, we evaluated the role of attention to reward in the longitudinal pathways between early exuberance and early effortful control to predict externalizing and attention problems. Results revealed that attention bias to reward was associated concurrently and longitudinally with behavioral problems. Moreover, greater reward bias was concurrently associated with lower levels of parent-reported effortful control. Finally, attention bias to reward moderated the longitudinal relations between early risk factors for behavioral problems (gender, exuberance, and effortful control) and later externalizing and attention problems, such that these early risk factors were most predictive of behavioral problems for males with a large attention bias to reward. These findings suggest that attention bias to reward may act as a moderator of early risk, aiding the identification of children at the highest risk for later behavioral problems.

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