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My research examines interpersonal models of psychopathology among children and adolescents, with a specific focus on transactional, reciprocal associations between peer experiences and psychological symptoms. This is currently reflected in two programmatic areas of study.

My research on adolescent depression and suicidality systematically applies cognitive and interpersonal models of depression and suicidality from the clinical literature to the study of youths' interactions with peers. Findings support a model in which adolescents' interpretations of interpersonal experiences with peers, social behaviors, and depressive symptoms produce a mutually reinforcing cycle that contributes to the downward spiral of depression and interpersonal rejection.

My recent work has examined components of this model among children during their transition to adolescence - a critical developmental period that has been associated with dramatic increases in the prevalence of depression, as well as a notable (i.e., sixfold) increase in completed suicides. This developmental period is also uniquely associated with substantial increases in the frequency and intensity of peer relationships, as well as adolescents' reliance on peers for identity development (i.e., reflected appraisal, social comparison) and social support. Yet, studies within the developmental literature have rarely examined internalizing symptoms as a potential consequence to negative peer experiences, and investigations of models from the clinical literature have rarely been applied to youth, or considered peer experiences as potential predictors of psychopathology. Thus, my work contributes to both clinical and developmental domains with findings that help explain the developmental psychopathology of depression and suicidality.

For example, my longitudinal research examining children's and adolescents' social information processing revealed unique cue interpretations of ambiguous peer experiences that are prospectively associated with increases in adolescents' depressive symptoms, and also associated with rejection by peers. In a second longitudinal study, findings supported cognitive vulnerability-stress and cognitive dissonance models, demonstrating that peer rejection is a significant prospective predictor of adolescent depressive symptoms when combined with a global depressogenic attributional style and high levels of importance ascribed to peer status. Ongoing longitudinal work demonstrates that depression reciprocally contributes to alienating social behaviors (e.g., excessive reassurance seeking), and subsequent increases in interpersonal rejection among peers. These hypotheses are also currently under exploration using an experimental paradigm to observe adolescents' behavioral responses and reported interpretations during a period of autonomic arousal, in response to ambiguous feedback from peers.

A second area of programmatic research pertains to the study of health-risk behaviors. This work examines interpersonal factors that maintain and reinforce adolescents' engagement in risky, illegal, unhealthy, and unsafe behavior. Notably, this work also has implications for adolescent suicide given that suicidal behaviors at this age often occur in the context of other impulsive, risk-raking behaviors.

My research on health-risk behaviors also involves the study of peer processes, although surprisingly, past research has not offered a sound conceptual or empirical basis for the identification of social reinforcers in the peer domain that are relevant to adolescents. Thus, initial work in this emerging program of research has been directed towards the examination of peer constructs that may be meaningfully associated with adolescents' health-risk behavior, and a review of theories from the social psychology literature that may offer some insight on the interpersonal factors that are most likely to influence adolescents' behavior.

My work offers good preliminary support for theoretically-informed models of peer influence. Ongoing collaborations with students have included applications of these models to various domains of health risk behavior based students’ expertise and shared areas of interest. Results suggest that models may differentially apply to health risk behaviors based on the characteristics and social stereotypes associated with each behavior. For example, recent research on self-mutilative behavior has identified both social functions and automatic (i.e., internally reinforced) functions that reinforce self-injury. This work has been especially useful in the conceptualization of self-mutilation as a functional extension of related psychological symptoms. Other work has pertained to the study of social hierarchy benefits that may be associated with health risk behaviors. Findings on adolescents' aggressive behavior and sexual risk behavior have helped to disentangle two constructs of popularity that emerge within the developmental period of adolescence, demonstrating that these health risk behaviors are especially associated with reputations of popularity, dominance, and status among peers, but not necessarily with likeability and acceptance in the peer group. Related work on social norms and pluralistic ignorance has examined the accuracy and influence of adolescents' stereotypes. Findings reveal that adolescents' estimations of their peers' behavior varies considerably according to their peers' status. Adolescents' substance use and sexual risk behaviors appear to be closely associated with the presumed frequency of their highest status peers' behavior, despite the fact that these estimations are significantly inaccurate. Ongoing work also includes examination of these hypotheses using a computerized experimental paradigm that simulates peer influence among adolescents.

Together, the results from these studies offer evidence to support theoretically-informed hypotheses regarding the processes of peer influence. The literature is surprisingly devoid of research that goes beyond the simple association between adolescents' and their peers' behavior. My current work in this area includes a theory-based review regarding the mechanisms that might help explain processes of peer influence and factors that may help account for differences in adolescents' vulnerability to peer influence.

 

 

 




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