Effortful Control Development in the Face of Harshness and Unpredictability

Shannon M. Warren, Melissa A. Barnett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Using psychosocial acceleration theory, this multimethod, multi-reporter study examines how early adversity adaptively shapes the development of a self-regulation construct: effortful control. Investigation of links between early life harshness and unpredictability and the development of effortful control could facilitate a nuanced understanding of early environmental effects on cognitive and social development. Using the Building Strong Families national longitudinal data set, aspects of early environmental harshness and early environmental unpredictability were tested as unique predictors of effortful control at age 3 using multiple regression. Early harshness variables were financial harshness, mothers’ and fathers’ observed parenting, mothers’ and fathers’ reported use of harsh discipline, and harsh neighborhood conditions. Early unpredictability was measured by number of paternal transitions. Cues of harshness, specifically observed unresponsive parenting, observed harsh parenting, and neighborhood harshness, did significantly negatively predict effortful control. Paternal transitions also significantly predicted effortful control, but in the opposite (i.e., positive) direction. The results corroborate previous research linking quality of parenting to the development of children’s effortful control and place it within an evolutionary-developmental theoretical framework. Further, the results suggest that neighborhood harshness may also direct developmental trajectories of effortful control in young children, though the mechanisms through which this occurs are still unclear. This is the first study to explicitly investigate effortful control development in early childhood within the harshness and unpredictability framework.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)68-87
Number of pages20
JournalHuman Nature
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 1 2020


  • Early childhood
  • Effortful control
  • Harshness
  • Life history strategies
  • Psychosocial acceleration theory
  • Unpredictability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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