In science, theories lend coherence to vast amounts of descriptive information. However, current diagnostic approaches in psychopathology are primarily atheoretical, emphasizing description over etiological mechanisms. We describe the importance of Polyvagal Theory toward understanding the etiology of emotion dysregulation, a hallmark of psychopathology. When combined with theories of social reinforcement and motivation, Polyvagal Theory specifies etiological mechanisms through which distinct patterns of psychopathology emerge. In this paper, we summarize three studies evaluating autonomic nervous system functioning in children with conduct problems, ages 4-18. At all age ranges, these children exhibit attenuated sympathetic nervous system responses to reward, suggesting deficiencies in approach motivation. By middle school, this reward insensitivity is met with inadequate vagal modulation of cardiac output, suggesting additional deficiencies in emotion regulation. We propose a biosocial developmental model of conduct problems in which inherited impulsivity is amplified through social reinforcement of emotional lability. Implications for early intervention are discussed.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology