Differential susceptibility theory (DST) posits that individuals differ in their developmental plasticity: some children are highly responsive to both environmental adversity and support, while others are less affected. According to this theory, plasticity genes that confer risk for psychopathology in adverse environments may promote superior functioning in supportive environments. We tested DST using a broad measure of child genetic liability (based on birth parent psychopathology), adoptive home environmental variables (e.g., marital warmth, parenting stress, and internalizing symptoms), and measures of child externalizing problems (n = 337) and social competence (n = 330) in 54-month-old adopted children from the Early Growth and Development Study. This adoption design is useful for examining DST because children are placed at birth or shortly thereafter with nongenetically related adoptive parents, naturally disentangling heritable and postnatal environmental effects. We conducted a series of multivariable regression analyses that included Gene × Environment interaction terms and found little evidence of DST; rather, interactions varied depending on the environmental factor of interest, in both significance and shape. Our mixed findings suggest further investigation of DST is warranted before tailoring screening and intervention recommendations to children based on their genetic liability or sensitivity.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Developmental and Educational Psychology
- Psychiatry and Mental health