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Physically abused kids learn to fail at social rules for success

Challenges adjusting from volatile to stable social rewards can lead to misbehavior

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12:00pm, February 13, 2017
child defending himself

SOCIAL HIT  New lab experiments indicate that physically abused youth have trouble learning to make choices that consistently lead to a reward. This impairment of a basic form of social learning contributes to behavior problems known to occur among abused individuals, researchers say.

Physical abuse at home doesn’t just leave kids black and blue. It also bruises their ability to learn how to act at school and elsewhere, contributing to abused children’s well-documented behavior problems.

Derailment of a basic form of social learning has, for the first time, been linked to these children’s misbehavior years down the line, psychologist Jamie Hanson of the University of Pittsburgh and colleagues report February 3 in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Experiments indicate that physically abused kids lag behind their nonabused peers when it comes to learning to make choices that consistently lead to a reward, even after many trials.

“Physically abused kids fail to adjust flexibly to new behavioral rules in contexts outside their families,” says coauthor Seth Pollak, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

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