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 journalArticlepeer-review

38 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

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Research reported in this publication was supported by the National Institute of Mental Health under Award Number R01MH071256 and by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development under Award Number F31HD086941. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. The authors thank the families for their participation, and the staff and students who assisted on this project. The authors have declared that they have no competing or potential conflicts of interest in relation to this article.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.


  • Human ecology
  • adversity
  • cognitive development
  • temperament


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