A life history approach to delineating how harsh environments and hawk temperament traits differentially shape children's problem-solving skills

Jennifer H. Suor, Melissa L. Sturge-Apple, Patrick T. Davies, Dante Cicchetti

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

9 Scopus citations


Background: Harsh environments are known to predict deficits in children's cognitive abilities. Life history theory approaches challenge this interpretation, proposing stressed children's cognition becomes specialized to solve problems in fitness-enhancing ways. The goal of this study was to examine associations between early environmental harshness and children's problem-solving outcomes across tasks varying in ecological relevance. In addition, we utilize an evolutionary model of temperament toward further specifying whether hawk temperament traits moderate these associations. Methods: Two hundred and one mother–child dyads participated in a prospective multimethod study when children were 2 and 4 years old. At age 2, environmental harshness was assessed via maternal report of earned income and observations of maternal disengagement during a parent–child interaction task. Children's hawk temperament traits were assessed from a series of unfamiliar episodes. At age 4, children's reward-oriented and visual problem-solving were measured. Results: Path analyses revealed early environmental harshness and children's hawk temperament traits predicted worse visual problem-solving. Results showed a significant two-way interaction between children's hawk temperament traits and environmental harshness on reward-oriented problem-solving. Simple slope analyses revealed the effect of environmental harshness on reward-oriented problem-solving was specific to children with higher levels of hawk traits. Conclusions: Results suggest early experiences of environmental harshness and child hawk temperament traits shape children's trajectories of problem-solving in an environment-fitting manner.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)902-909
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2017



  • Human ecology
  • adversity
  • cognitive development
  • temperament

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