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
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.