A researcher from the University of Pittsburgh has found that when children are abused, an important learning process is impaired when they turn into adolescents. The study also found that this impairment gives rise to misbehavior patterns later in life.
The process by which an individual subconsciously links stimuli and experiences together is called associative learning and this partly explains how people react to various real-world situations in general. In an article published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Jamie L. Hanson, a Pitt Assistant Professor described the connection between instances of early childhood abuse and impaired associative learning capacities. Hanson teaches in Pitt’s Department of Psychology within the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences. He also holds a secondary appointment in the University’s Learning Research and Development Center.
Hanson noted that a poor sense of associative learning influences a child’s behavior patterns negatively during fast-changing or complex situations. He added that knowing this is important for social workers, child psychologists, public policy officials and other professionals who actively work on developing interventions.
Hanson added that although it has been known for a long time that there is a link between behavioral issues in adolescents and various types of adversity in early life, the connection isn’t always straightforward, or even clear. This research makes further insight available into one of the host of factors that determines how this complicated relationship comes into being.
Researchers asked 81 adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 to play computer games to help them uncover these relationships. The participants had to determine which set of visual cues were associated with a reward. Forty-one participants had suffered from physical abuse when they were young, while the remaining 40 were used as a control group. Hanson noted that the most important aspect of the test was that the signals were probabilistic, meaning that the participants did not always receive positive feedback.
The results showed that participants who had been exposed to early childhood abuse were less able to learn which stimuli were likely to result in reward than their peers were. This was the case even after they had received feedback repeatedly. In life we are often given little to no, or mixed feedback from our parents, bosses, significant others and other important people in our lives. We have to be able to learn what the best thing to do next might be.
The team also noticed that when interacting with others, abused children were on average less skilled at differentiating which behaviors would lead to the best results for them personally. Mistreated children were also more pessimistic about the possibility of positive outcomes when compared to the group who hadn’t been abused. Looked at holistically, these results explain the relationship between physical abuse and the disruptive or aggressive behaviors that often stay with abused children well into the later stages of adolescence.