The Value of Dimensional Models of Early Experience: Thinking Clearly About Concepts and Categories

Katie A. McLaughlin, Margaret A. Sheridan, Kathryn L. Humphreys, Jay Belsky, Bruce J. Ellis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

123 Scopus citations


We review the three prevailing approaches—specificity, cumulative risk, and dimensional models—to conceptualizing the developmental consequences of early-life adversity and address fundamental problems with the characterization of these frameworks in a recent Perspectives on Psychological Science piece by Smith and Pollak. We respond to concerns raised by Smith and Pollak about dimensional models of early experience and highlight the value of these models for studying the developmental consequences of early-life adversity. Basic dimensions of adversity proposed in existing models include threat/harshness, deprivation, and unpredictability. These models identify core dimensions of early experience that cut across the categorical exposures that have been the focus of specificity and cumulative risk approaches (e.g., abuse, institutional rearing, chronic poverty); delineate aspects of early experience that are likely to influence brain and behavioral development; afford hypotheses about adaptive and maladaptive responses to different dimensions of adversity; and articulate specific mechanisms through which these dimensions exert their influences, conceptualizing experience-driven plasticity within an evolutionary-developmental framework. In doing so, dimensional models advance specific falsifiable hypotheses, grounded in neurodevelopmental and evolutionary principles, that are supported by accumulating evidence and provide fertile ground for empirical studies on early-life adversity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1463-1472
Number of pages10
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Issue number6
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • adversity
  • deprivation
  • early-life stress
  • experience-driven plasticity
  • harshness
  • threat
  • unpredictability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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