Developmental Adaptation to Stress: An Evolutionary Perspective

Bruce J. Ellis, Marco Del Giudice

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

123 Scopus citations


The assumption that early stress leads to dysregulation and impairment is widespread in developmental science and informs prevailing models (e.g., toxic stress). An alternative evolutionary-developmental approach, which complements the standard emphasis on dysregulation, proposes that early stress may prompt the development of costly but adaptive strategies that promote survival and reproduction under adverse conditions. In this review, we survey this growing theoretical and empirical literature, highlighting recent developments and outstanding questions. We review concepts of adaptive plasticity and conditional adaptation, introduce the life history framework and the adaptive calibration model, and consider how physiological stress response systems and related neuroendocrine processes may function as plasticity mechanisms. We then address the evolution of individual differences in susceptibility to the environment, which engenders systematic person-environment interactions in the effects of stress on development. Finally, we discuss stress-mediated regulation of pubertal development as a case study of how an evolutionary-developmental approach can foster theoretical integration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)111-139
Number of pages29
JournalAnnual review of psychology
StatePublished - Jan 4 2019


  • childhood stress
  • developmental plasticity
  • developmental programming
  • differential susceptibility
  • evolution
  • life history theory
  • puberty
  • stress response systems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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