Conceptualizing the role of early experience: Lessons from the Minnesota longitudinal study

L. Alan Sroufe, Brianna Coffino, Elizabeth A. Carlson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

93 Scopus citations


We draw upon data from a prospective, longitudinal study to evaluate the role of typically occurring variations in early experience on development from birth to adulthood. Such an evaluation is complex for both methodological and conceptual reasons. Methodological issues include the need to control for both later experience and potentially confounding third variables, such as IQ or temperament. Conceptual complexity derives from the fact that the effects of early experience can be both direct and indirect, can interact with other factors, and because whether an effect is found depends on what early experience and what outcomes are assessed. Even direct effects are probabilistic and are more in evidence with cumulative than with single measures. Often early experience has its effect indirectly by initiating a chain of events, by altering the organism in some way, and/or by promoting the impact of later experience. We provide examples where early experience is moderated and mediated by other factors and where it shows latent effects following developmental change. We illustrate developmental processes through which early experience has its effect and conclude that despite the complexity of development variations in early experience retain a vital place in the study of development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)36-51
Number of pages16
JournalDevelopmental Review
Issue number1
StatePublished - Mar 2010

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Preparation of this work and the research described therein were supported by a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant ( HD054850-01 ; Collins, PI) to the first and third authors and a National Institute of Mental Health training grant ( MH015755-28 ) to the second author.


  • Developmental process
  • Early experience


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