Early Social Environments - I Am BCU Research Series

Early Social Environment Image 350x263 - Kids sat on a wall

Dr Emma Bridger is a member of our School of Social Sciences, and below you'll see her talk about her work into early social environments in her own words.

It is well established that the socioeconomic circumstances in which we grow up predict our health in adulthood: adults who grew up in lower income and more overcrowded households are at greater risk of experiencing psychological distress, physical ill-health and even dying earlier.

This risk is not increased for everyone though and many of us may be or know people from disadvantaged backgrounds living long, happy and healthy lives. Psychologists working in this area are interested in understanding which psychological factors moderate the relationship between early-life social environments and health many years later.

Together with Associate Professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Stirling, Michael Daly, in this paper I tested whether childhood cognitive ability (measured by IQ-style tests at ages 10/11) might be one factor which appears to ‘protect’ individuals from the long-term influence of early-life deprivation.

We used two large databases, which have followed the lives of over 30,000 babies born in 1958 and 1970 until middle-age. We found that socioeconomic background in early-life predicted depressive symptoms, how healthy people felt and whether or not they were still alive at key time points across adulthood. Crucially, however, this pattern was only found for individuals who had average or lower-than-average cognitive ability in childhood: for those with higher-than-average ability, the long-term negative consequences of early environment were absent.

The analyses also indicated that this was not necessarily because these higher-ability children had gone on to live in better socioeconomic circumstances, perhaps because they did better at school and went on to better jobs. Rather, we suggest that cognitive ability might help individuals avoid or more successfully negotiate the greater daily stressors associated with these environments and that this might be one way cognitive ability helps buffer individuals from the ways in which social environments get “under the skin”.

Answering questions about psychosocial resources of this kind is one research strand of the Inequalities Research Cluster that sits within the Centre for Applied Psychological Research. A key part of our work in the cluster is ensuring that psychosocial insights are used to better understand and redress existing physical and mental health inequalities with a view to achieving positive impact for all, regardless of background or ability.

Bridger, E. K., & Daly, M. (in press). Does cognitive ability buffer the link between childhood disadvantage and adult health? Health Psychology

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