Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Differential susceptibility to the environment: An evolutionary–neurodevelopmental theory

  • Bruce J. Ellis (a1), W. Thomas Boyce (a2), Jay Belsky (a3), Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg (a4) and Marinus H. van Ijzendoorn (a4)...

Two extant evolutionary models, biological sensitivity to context theory (BSCT) and differential susceptibility theory (DST), converge on the hypothesis that some individuals are more susceptible than others to both negative (risk-promoting) and positive (development-enhancing) environmental conditions. These models contrast with the currently dominant perspective on personal vulnerability and environmental risk: diathesis stress/dual risk. We review challenges to this perspective based on emerging theory and data from the evolutionary, developmental, and health sciences. These challenges signify the need for a paradigm shift in conceptualizing Person × Environment interactions in development. In this context we advance an evolutionary–neurodevelopmental theory, based on DST and BSCT, of the role of neurobiological susceptibility to the environment in regulating environmental effects on adaptation, development, and health. We then outline current thinking about neurogenomic and endophenotypic mechanisms that may underpin neurobiological susceptibility, summarize extant empirical research on differential susceptibility, and evaluate the evolutionary bases and implications of BSCT and DST. Finally, we discuss applied issues including methodological and statistical considerations in conducting differential susceptibility research; issues of ecological, cultural, and racial–ethnic variation in neurobiological susceptibility; and implications of differential susceptibility for designing social programs. We conclude that the differential susceptibility paradigm has far-reaching implications for understanding whether and how much child and adult development responds, for better and for worse, to the gamut of species-typical environmental conditions.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Bruce J. Ellis, John and Doris Norton School of Family and Consumer Sciences, University of Arizona, McClelland Park, 650 North Park Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85721-0078; E-mail:
Linked references
Hide All

This list contains references from the content that can be linked to their source. For a full set of references and notes please see the PDF or HTML where available.

J. Belsky (2000). Conditional and alternative reproductive strategies: Individual differences in susceptibility to rearing experience. In J. Rodgers , D. Rowe , & W. Miller (Eds.), Genetic influences on human fertility and sexuality: Theoretical and empirical contributions from the biological and behavioral sciences (pp. 127146). Boston: Kluwer.

J. S. Chisholm (1999). Death, hope and sex: Steps to an evolutionary ecology of mind and morality. New York: Cambridge University Press.

M. W. Devries (1984). Temperament and infant-mortality among the Masai of East-Africa. American Journal of Psychiatry, 141, 11891194.

S. B. Hrdy (1999). Mother nature: A history of mothers, infants and natural selection. New York: Pantheon.

J. Kagan , J. S. Reznick , & N. Snidman (1988). Biological bases of childhood shyness. Science, 240, 167171.

A. Sadeh , H. Guterman , M. Gersani , & O. Ovadia (2009). Plastic bet-hedging in an amphicarpic annual: An integrated strategy under variable conditions. Evolutionary Ecology, 23, 373388.

D. S. Wilson , & J. Yoshimura (1994). On the coexistence of specialists and generalists. American Naturalist, 144, 692707.

M. Zuckerman (1999). Vulnerability to psychopathology: A biosocial model. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

M. H. Van IJzendoorn , M. P. C. M. Luijk , & F. Juffer (2008). IQ of children growing up in children's homes: A meta-analysis on IQ delays in orphanages. Merrill–Palmer Quarterly, 54, 341366.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 71
Total number of PDF views: 846 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 2009 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 23rd September 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.