Source: Rutter, M., & O’Connor, T.G. (2004). Are there biological programming effects for psychological development? Findings from a study of Romanian adoptees. Developmental Psychology. 40.1, 81-94.
Problem: “The key question is whether, given the high quality of the later environment,
there were any persisting sequelae (among Romanian orphans who were later adopted into British homes) and, if there were, to what they might be due.” (p.81)
Procedure: The researchers began this study with an examination of a selection of children who lived in the difficult and challenging conditions presented in a number of Romanian orphanages from birth to ages four and five. The basic premise of their study was that these children, who were adopted out of these orphanages and into middle-class British homes, made an appropriate group of test subjects for research into what, if any, effect(s) the difficult conditions in which they lived for their first few years of life would have on their development and behavior in adolescence and adulthood after they were adopted. The researchers considered three possible mediators for persisting psychosocial adversity (i.e.- developmental and/or behavioral issues) among the Romanian adoptees. The first was that ongoing psychosocial adversity, if it was demonstrated, was a result of current conditions in their new environments; the second was that early-age cognitive processing either would or would not allow children to process and adapt to their early environments in positive ways; the third was that early adversity would bring about lasting physiological, psychological, and developmental changes that would make it impossible (or at least less likely) for these adoptees to avoid psychosocial adversity later in life. The researchers posited several hypotheses based on these three factors, with the aim of determining whether any of the three appeared to provide an adequate explanation for the presence or lack of post-adoption psychosocial adversity
In order to test their premises, the researchers drew from the “324 children adopted into UK families (from other countries) between February 1990 and September 1992” (p.84). Of this pool, 144 children were selected who had lived “in very depriving institutions and who were adopted into UK families at various ages up to 42 months” (p.84). The comparison sample consisted of 54 UK-born children who had been adopted at or near birth into UK families. The study considered a number of developmental measures, including physical measurements of height and weight at birth and at the time of the study, as well as information available about each child’s height and weight at various points in between. A number of psychological tests were administered as well, primarily intended to assess the existence of attachment disorders and psychological development disorders.
Findings: the study concluded that there was a strong association between early deprivation and poor physical, cognitive, and psychological development after adoption. The researchers found that most of the children demonstrated a “catch-up” (p.89) period in the first few years of life in their new homes where they tended to make notable improvements both physically and psychologically. This catch-up period seemed to last an average of 2-2.5 years, with any subsequently-remaining physical, psychological, or cognitive deficits appearing to become permanent.
The researchers concluded that early deprivation was an accurate determinant of lasting physiological and psychological adversity, and that subsequent environmental improvements were not adequate for completely reversing the damage of such early deprivation. Reaction: This study seems to demonstrate in very clear terms how important the first few years of life are in terms of physical and psychological development. When adverse conditions exist in this period of life, the damage can be severe, and regardless of whether later conditions are less adverse, much of the damage done in early childhood cannot be overcome or reversed.