Stressful environments have a profound impact on children. The prevailing view is that adverse experiences in childhood impairs the mind and derails development. In contrast, the current research draws on the specialization hypothesis, which proposes that children should develop specialized cognitive abilities that are adapted to adverse environments. This view focuses on the strengths of people who have experienced adversity instead of exclusively on their weaknesses. In this dissertation, I test how different learning abilities might be enhanced by exposure to early adversity. I conducted four experimental tests of this hypothesis in relation to reversal learning performance, examining how growing up in unpredictable versus predictable environments are associated with different learning strategies. I hypothesize that growing up in a more predictable environment should be associated with the use of learning strategies that integrate information over longer periods of time, whereas growing up in a more unpredictable environment should be associated with learning strategies that rely on recent information. Furthermore, based on previous studies, I hypothesize that such learning strategies should be activated by the threat of uncertainty in the current environment. Across 4 experiments, I tested how exposure to childhood unpredictability impacts both overall reversal learning performance and trial-by-trial learning styles and tested whether current, experimentally manipulated cues of economic uncertainty modulated reversal learning outcomes. Findings were mixed and inconsistent. On average, overall indicators of reversal learning performance seem to be impaired by exposure to greater childhood unpredictability. For trial-by-trial learning performance, there were some main effects of childhood unpredictability, but they were inconsistent across experiments. Finally, for all outcomes and experiments, the current context did not moderate the effect of early childhood. I discuss possible explanations for these inconsistent findings and lay out new avenues for future research. Despite these inconsistent findings, this research remains important because it could help to identify the types of learning strategies that are most effective for success among people from disadvantaged backgrounds.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. July 2019. Major: Psychology. Advisor: Jeffry Simpson. 1 computer file (PDF); vii, 71 pages.
The Cognitive Consequences of Childhood Adversity: An Investigation of Feedback Learning Strategies and the Sensitized-Specialization Hypothesis.
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