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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)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 24 January 2011

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.

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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:
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Development and Psychopathology
  • ISSN: 0954-5794
  • EISSN: 1469-2198
  • URL: /core/journals/development-and-psychopathology
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